Music Post: Ghosts of music past

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Me, in the seventh grade or thereabouts.

Many people who  play classical music on the radio have formal training. They went to conservatory, or a parent did, and they had early exposure to the mainstream classical repertory.

My own musical journey has been different, and because a middle-aged man tends to reminisce at Christmas time I find myself reflecting on what a long, strange trip it has been.

My mother, who taught second grade until her six children came along, taught us how to sing in harmony. We learned hymns and Christmas carols, mostly, until we learned enough to hear anything on the radio a couple times and sing it back to you. There is no better way to learn harmony than to try out different notes and hear what works and what doesn’t.

It was an epiphany for me, at an age so young I didn’t know the word “epiphany,” to discover the flatted note I could sing in the bass line of “The Ash Grove” that totally fit with the melody my sisters were signing. I didn’t know what an accidental was, but the note still suggested a new world to me.

I felt the same way the first time I heard Milt Bernhart’s “The Horns,” whose theme was based on rising fourths. I didn’t know what fourths were; I just knew I liked them. I felt the same way the first time I heard the rising horn call in fourths in Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony.

My father, who in his youth had been a drummer in a Baltimore jazz band called the Monarchs of Melody, had amassed quite a collection of jazz records, and the single most important factor in my musical education was that he let me play his records while he was at work.

This meant I developed my own favorites, not necessarily the same as his own, though he taught me what to listen for in jazz, the “attack” in a solo, the quotes from other works, the ride cymbal, the rhythm break. He taught me to know, by ear, the difference between solos by different musicians. A soprano sax is a very different instrument depending on whether played by Lee Konitz or Paul Desmond. He pointed out the way a Bill Harris trombone solo began quietly, sometimes self-mockingly, then gradually grew into a wall of sound. He pointed out how Flip Philipps could rouse the crowd with wailing riffs, and explained that “riff” was short for “repeat figure.”

I liked boogie-woogie, and uptempo pieces by the Benny Goodman Sextet with Slam Stewart bowing his solos and singing along with the notes (actually an octave higher). I liked Fats Waller and honky-tonk piano (Zez Confrey’s “The Entertainer,” not to be confused with the similarly-titled Scott Joplin rag.) I liked Les Paul and Jazz at the Philharmonic, which turned out also to be among Dad’s favorites. I liked Sydney Bechet, who turned out also to be one of Mother’s favorites.

While I was being exposed to hymns and jazz and pre-rock pop, what classical music was in my life? Not a lot, but certain exceptional exposures were important to me.

We had a 78 rpm recording of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, and another of the Rosenkavalier Dances of Richard Strauss, with all those octave leaps from base notes which themselves jumped around a lot. In our 45 rpm records were “Gaite Parisienne” and “The Nutcracker” and “Coppelia,” and we had a 33 rpm recording of “Peter and the Wolf.” Later, perhaps when I was in the third grade, Dad found a collection of records for children that included two LPs of classical shorts, a record on the instruments of the orchestra, and albums of train music, folk tunes, and Gilbert & Sullivan. I dearly wish I could find this set, especially the instruments of the orchestra, which had a cool piece for the full orchestra which I still have playing in my brain. The two classical albums included Mendelssohn’s “Dance of the Clowns,” a brief movement from the Bach First Orchestral Suite, a telescoped version of the middle movement of Franck’s Symphony in D, and a foreshortened instrumental version of Wagner’s Pilgrim’s Chorus, both of which I would hum to my own daughter as lullabies before ever hearing the original versions of either because I remembered them from my own childhood.

For reasons neither of my parents ever satisfactorily explained to me, we spent far more time visiting my father’s parents than my mother’s. My mother’s father, whom we called Pop-Pop, played piano some, and I distinctly remember him playing two pieces, Liszt’s Liebestraum, and the slow movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.

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The library I walked to. Still there.

As a teenager, not yet driving but living a mile’s walking distance from a public library, I checked out jazz records, then discovered jazzed-up classics, the Swingle Singers and the Jacques Loussier Trio, and Switched-On Bach, which led me to original Bach. Sometimes a really good album cover would lead me to check something out, which is how I found Copland’s Third – the New York Philharmonic recording of it had a stark photo of a farm on the cover. And when someone said I would like Gershwin if I liked jazz, I got Concerto in F, and instantly recognized it as the music my dentist Dr. Cletis Reed played in his office during an otherwise unremarkable childhood dental visit.

We babyboomers all imbibed the music of cartoons, then movies and TV shows. I liked the theme to “McHale’s Navy,” and the second theme to “Naked City.” I never saw “Naked City,” mind you. It was on too late, perhaps, or maybe my parents didn’t care for it. I heard Nelson Riddle’s theme because a disc jockey in Baltimore named Johnny Contino always signed off with it. I never knew the title and stumbled on it by accident when I bought a CD of Nelson Riddle music for television in order to have the theme to “Route 66.” Hearing it – I remembered every note from decades before – was like meeting a long-lost friend.

After several years of playing Christmas music on the nearest HDO show to Christmas, this year I indulge myself in sampling the musical memories.

“Howard’s Day Off” now airs live 5am-7am HST Saturdays, and 5pm-7pm HST Sundays, on KIPO Honolulu, KIPM Waikapu, KIPH Hana and KAHU Pahala and streams on www.hawaiipublicradio.org .

You’re invited to join the Howard’s Day Off Listener Appreciation Society on Facebook.

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