My cousin Hank didn’t know he was my role model when we were growing up. Truthfully, I don’t think he paid much attention to me. We were more than a decade apart in age and I hung with his much younger brother Jeff. In fact, when I recently mentioned that he had his boyhood friends punch me in the stomach to show how well I could “take it,” Hank denied it ever happened. Of course, he wasn’t the one who took the hits; why should he remember?
Hank was older and cool, but most importantly he was a saxophonist. I was still a kid when his band moved to Las Vegas and grabbed the town by the throat. We heard great reviews of his playing, with lots of accolades to Barbara, his wife and the band’s singer.
Then word came back that the group would appear with Jerry on the Muscular Dystrophy Telethon. In those days, that was “can’t miss TV” replete with every famous headliner including the Rat Pack. Plus, this was gonna be the first time I’d get a chance to hear him play and Barbara sing. I couldn’t wait. Although scheduled for ’round midnight, they didn’t get on air until the early hours of the morning. No matter–despite threats from my mother who wanted me to go to bed–no way I was gonna miss his set.
I loved what I heard. He had the fastest fingers I’d ever seen and the horn just wailed, counterpointed by Barb’s husky crooning.
That night was the beginning of my dream to become a musician. When the band moved back to New York, I was attending a Yeshiva high school in Brooklyn. Hank’s willingness to sneak Jeff, me, and Frank (their middle brother, who along with Jeff and Hank is one of my best friends) into a dive off Broadway called The Wagon Wheel just reinforced my fantasy.
But like most people’s dreams, mine slunk into a corner when confronted by daily life. I’d quit college to go into Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) and discovered I was a talented organizer and counselor and enjoyed the work. Like most people, I continued to do what I did well. The fact that I never had a music lesson or any experience with musical instruments didn’t help all that much either.
Fast forward through decades: Twenty years of working in social services, raising children, and ten years of successfully writing detective fiction (another dream of mine).
Still, throughout those years, the thought of playing music never disappeared. In fact, at one point I asked Hank to pick out a sax for me to buy. Instead, he kindly sent me one of his, told me he never played it so I could keep it. I can only imagine him shaking his head and wondering what the fuck I wanted it for.
What the fuck, indeed. The sax sat in the closet for another decade while I delved into my next serial career as right-hand man to my blood brother Ron, a lawyer in D.C.
I took pleasure in facilitating focus groups, running mediations, preparing experts to testify, even editing briefs. I was especially proud that Ron’s practice was totally committed to fighting for the little guy against powers that be.
Still, something was missing. I needed the arts. Since I’d burned my writing bridges, it was time to pull out the other dream and Hank’s alto. I was sure to succeed–hell, I’d written a New York Notable novel without ever writing much more than a short story.
I found a teacher, Bob Brenner, and dug in. And while I could actually get a sound out of the sax fairly quickly, I slowly, unhappily, discovered over the next couple of years that muscle memory wasn’t a strong suit (memory in general, actually), and learning to read music, finger an instrument, understand ‘time” and enough theory to become competent in this new language, was a brand new bag. And not one in which I was particularly proficient.
Frankly, I was shocked. I’d been certain that with time and effort I was sure to succeed. Beginning at 50 years old was an excuse for a while, but some dreams ride with talent and some don’t. Images of playing weekend gigs at Holiday Inns weren’t going to become a reality.
Part of me thought about quitting. Just giving up. If I couldn’t snag my goals, why bother? But Bob knew better. He’d surely known my fantasies were just that–fantasies. But he also recognized and understood that the pleasure of playing music didn’t hinge on unattainable dreams. There was more to get from making music than gigs or muscle memory or nimble fingers. So he urged me to join a learning ensemble populated by much more experienced musicians than I.
At first I took to calling the ensemble, my Tuesday Night Humiliation Session. But I discovered that playing with people much better than me was a growing experience. Letting go of my pride made room for more music to enter–and I even got better.
During my writing years people continually asked what kind of book to write in order to sell to a publisher. I always replied with a question of my own; do you want to write or do you want to sell? Either is fine, but they ain’t neccessarily the same.
At that time it was an honest but facile response. My musical life has taught me how true that answer really was and then some. It’s taken close to a lifetime but I’ve finally learned that it isn’t always the “goal” that need carry the day, but the activity in and of itself.
I don’t know if what I’m about to say makes sense in today’s world, but I’m retro. I don’t think life means all that much if you don’t go after what you want. No matter how unlikely, unusual, or just plain difficult. No, I’m never going to play at a Holiday Inn, but I do love playing. Sometimes dreams don’t turn out as expected, but that doesn’t always mean worse. Sometimes it just means different.
“Inside every old person is a younger person wondering what the fuck happened.”