Life in the Land of the Rising Sun

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Whistlin' Dixie (Well...Tootling it, at least!)

A number of years ago I was asked to sit in with a Dixieland combo. The leader, who played sousaphone (a type of tuba that is round so as to sit on the shoulders) was an American who was with the JET Program, the government project that was responsible for bringing me to the Land of the Rising Sun in the first place. The lead trumpet player, Mr. K, is a music teacher in my area and a musician I've worked with off and on for years. The clarinetist was the father of one of my students at Ye Olde Academy at the time. (There were a couple of other members, but they were people I hadn't met before.) I was asked to play tenor saxophone. After that first gig together, which was at an International Fellowship event in Kashima, I was invited to perform with them more regularly. My schedule made it hard for me to participate very often, but I did manage to appear with them in a number of gigs, usually at festival events. With a constantly-changing lineup, we played at a number of places including a few festival halls, the Ibaraki Prefecture government building, and a culture center down in Yokohama.

It was a lot of fun, and I really enjoyed it, but I have to admit there was a small degree of frustration on my part. The sousaphone player and Mr. K knew what they were doing, obviously, but among the various other members that came and went (usually based on who was available at the time) there was an awful lot of WAWD (What Are We Doing) syndrome, i.e. they were more or less lost. If we played a tune that had a full arrangement things went okay, but if we only had the melody and chord changes, which is what jazz is supposed to be about anyway, the performance had a bad habit of devolving into a chaotic mass of noise, no one paying any attention to what the others were doing (or what the chord changes were, for that matter). That's fine for a while, but I admit it often got a bit irritating, especially since the tenor sax plays more of a supporting role in a Dixieland combo. I continued to play with the combo as much as I could for a while, but eventually a combination of an increasingly complicated schedule and declining motivation on my part led to my participating less and less. Eventually the invitations to play stopped coming altogether.

Cut to a week ago. I suddenly got a phone call out of the blue inviting me to play with the combo again. It was to be at a beer garden event at Kashima Central Hotel, where I had stayed to help out with the Garfield High School orchestra only a couple of weeks before. It had been at least a couple of years since I'd played with the combo. Come to think of it, it had been quite a while since I'd done ANY kind of real jazz performance in front of an audience. There were some nagging doubts. I was happy with my performance with the Kashima Philharmonic at the Kashima Music Festival in June, but there's a big difference between "Bolero" and Dixieland Jazz. I was seriously worried about mold and rust, so I wasn't sure about it, but I went ahead and said yes anyway. Considering all the pressure in my life at the time, I figured it would be a welcome distraction.

The day of the performance came, and yet another surprising phone call came. I admit that, for a number of reasons (including fear of rust), I was starting to feel inclined to bow out of the gig, but it turned out they had a problem. The clarinetist who had been a regular member before had long since dropped out, and the "in training" replacement had suddenly phoned in to announce his absence. They asked me if I could play clarinet instead of sax. Considering the importance of clarinet in a Dixieland band, I didn't want to let them down, but I felt even more pressured even though clarinet is (theoretically at least) my #1 instrument. I went for it.

I'm glad I did, too, because that was probably the most fun I'd had on stage in YEARS! Yes, there was some rust in my fingers, but I managed to work the worst of it out. One of the characteristics of Dixieland is that the tunes are simple but fun, i.e. none of the really obtuse, rapid chord changes you find in modern jazz. I was able to relax and get into it. My horn was responding really well, and once I was fully in the groove I was able to cut loose and wail like there was no tomorrow. Unlike the tenor sax, the clarinet in a Dixieland band has more authority and therefore more right to do what he wants when he wants. I milked that for as much as it was worth while still trying not to step on too many toes. What was really fun was when Mr. K and I started trading twos and fours and finally jamming together (i.e. me improvising a countermelody to his improvised melody), something I was never allowed to do on tenor saxophone. The second trumpet player and I also had fun improvising backing rhythms behind other solos, something else I'd never been able to do with that group before. I also had some fun singing vocals on a few tunes. The leader of the group on his sousaphone eagerly drew the tunes out so we could keep the energy going, giving us the signal to go back to the melody when it was time to quit. All in all, it was a total blast, and I'm very glad I did it.

The audience in the beer garden, most of whom were there by reservation, gave us a warm (if comfortably inebriated) response. It also turned out that Mr. K and I knew some of them...and were known by several more...because they were people involved with Kashima's music and/or festival scene. We were also photographed for the local newspaper.

I guess there's nothing wrong with a little image-dropping, eh? Especially when it's SO MUCH FUN?

After the gig I was told that I'd be hearing from them soon. I hope so. I'd really like to do something like this again!

An (unpleasant) update

After coming home from the Dixieland gig with my feelings (and my ego) all nicely pumped up, I was given some very bad news. The doctors had had a look at my mother-in-law earlier that day. The prognosis was about as bad as it could possibly get. The doctor recommended that we have anyone wanting to see her one last time come within the next week. After that there are no guarantees. Ironically, she seemed more chipper when we went to visit her today, but the doctor says it won't last long. It appears that her fight is pretty much over.

Now I'm on the verge of learning about an area of Japanese culture that is both very important and full of very old traditions. It's also an area that I know almost nothing about. Frankly speaking, I'm not looking forward to the opportunity.

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  • Sending positive thoughts your way for the next few weeks.

    By Blogger Olivia, at 2:17 PM  

  • I am sorry to hear about MIL. Our thoughts are with her.

    PS - I am glad you got to play your clarinet for that show. That is an underrated instrument.

    By Blogger Don Snabulus, at 2:49 PM  

  • Ditto what Snabby said goes for me...

    The highs, the lows, sounds like you had'em both this week.

    By Blogger ladybug, at 9:39 PM  

  • Take care. I'm very sorry to hear about your MIL. Sometimes focusing on the spouse can help get people through rough times like this.

    By Blogger Kami, at 10:19 PM  

  • MM, I'm sorry to hear about the bad news. Hang in there. I'm so very glad, however, to read about the joy you had in playing in that Dixieland group - freedom to be your best has got to be fantastic.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:38 AM  

  • MM, so sorry to hear about your MIL. My best wishes.

    By Blogger Happysurfer, at 12:47 PM  

  • Wow...I'm really glad to see you're all still visiting here despite the recent dearth of posts! You guys are the best!

    By Blogger The Moody Minstrel, at 4:57 PM  

  • Dixieland is uplifting music. I was never terribly good at improvisation and really admire those who are.

    Best wishes in difficult times. Perhaps the music - a celebration of life - is the perfect juxtaposition for the sad news of your MIL.

    Take care.

    By Blogger Pandabonium, at 9:45 PM  

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