Brilliance

25 Apr

God, I love Leo Kottke.  His guitar playing is legendary for good reason, of course, but what makes him extra-special is his story-telling.  You don’t get all that much of it on recordings, but live there’s an awful lot.

Today’s song, “Husbandry,” is one of my favorites, and in it you get both.

In a shocking and unprecedented move on Margauxville, I am posting someone else’s writing here (his!), to give you an inkling of his amazingness.  First, listen to “Husbandry” so you have his voice in your head and then read the essay below.  You’ll hear him saying the words then – and that’s about the very best present I can give to anyone on a Monday afternoon.

TROMBONE             ©Leo Kottke

Studying with three teachers in three years, I was a trombone student in Oklahoma until I was about fifteen years old.  Each weekend at one of their houses I’d wait in the kitchen until the trombonist in the basement would yell up at me to come down — they all taught in their basements. I would descend, assemble my horn, sit in a folding chair, park my sheet music on the stand, weather some insult aimed at my embouchure, and play whatever I had not been studying for the last week.

My teachers — industrious, frugal, starving men — had one thing in common other than my unpreparedness:  they’d all installed do-it-yourself showers in those basements.  These units stood in some corner, usually my corner, and they’d drip… ploink, ploink.  There was nothing more ominous than basements with leaking showers in them, and there was no telling when fear began, but my trombone kept those home improvements at bay.

I was a hero.

I had fewer illusions about my playing. Bob Green was a trombone player, I was a kid with a trombone.  Still, I was convinced that I’d eventually outgrow the roll in my embouchure and grow up like Pinocchio to be a real trombone player. I loved to play and I loved the trombone; but I never considered that a trombonist might have to install his own shower; I never guessed that my trombone teachers might be trombonists; I never considered that a life in trombone might differ from the one I was imagining… a life lived in hotels, in black suits and skinny ties, Ray-Bans indoors, by someone who never played much and was depressed.

(By the time I knew depression was free, and that I didn’t have to play trombone to be depressed, I’d imitated its “mood” for so long that I couldn’t refuse the Damned Cloud when it did arrive.  If you’ve been imitating the seeming cool, the detachment, and the languor, genuine depression won’t be noticed until you tire of your pose.  Bored with oceanic despair, you reach for the ladder back into the boat and you drown:  no ladder.)

To build your own shower, as my teachers did, is to laugh at depression… ploink, ploink.  Keats called this negative capability.  So, if you were or are a trombonist, you’ve likely confronted one or more of these home improvements because it’s no picnic to master an instrument; and if you’re a student, you’re squirming in a kitchen somewhere and you’ve just begun reading Popular Mechanics. You’re waiting for that voice to call you downstairs. More disturbing than Popular Mechanics, you are already seeing the music on that stand beyond the stairs: “The Bluebells of Scotland,” “Down Home on the Farm,” “A Stalk of Corn,” “Tango for the Veterans Administration.”

A couple of those pieces I made up, but the ones I didn’t were exhumed long before I could have dug them up from the cornfield.  To be merciful, there’s a sliding scale for these musical stiffs: “Blue Bells” is much better than “Down Home on the Farm,” for example.  I know this because I’ve heard “The Blue Bells of Scotland” and I’ve actually played “Down Home on the Farm.”  I couldn’t play “The Blue Bells of Scotland;” that piece is what we musicians call “hard.”  Bob Green played “The Blue Bells of Scotland.”  I played, “Down Home on the Farm.”

I played it for three judges at an annual state competition in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.

I skulked out to center stage in an empty hall that year, announced the title of this hayseed kitsch, the judges laughed, and I played the cadenza: a collision of hope and ability.  Then I stated the melody and the judges laughed again — they knew a melody when they heard one — and somewhere in the middle of this thing they realized what was coming and they began to chortle.

If you want to torture someone but not to offend them, you will chortle.

I repeated the melody twice as fast, and the judges squeaked from chortle to snort.  They couldn’t help themselves.  They didn’t care how I felt, and they knew what was coming. Bowing to tradition, I too knew what was coming: I repeated the thing a third time and played it three times as fast. I ignored the judges’ snorts, clawed my way through another cadenza, and received my failing grade the next day.

I blame this episode not on the perpetrator of “Down Home on the Farm,” she couldn’t have helped herself, but on my trombone teacher, the bass trombonist for the Tulsa Symphony Orchestra, who had it in for me.  It’s also possible that my judges were friends of his, that he was giving them some relief on a dull day.

These recital pieces are an industry.  You won’t hear them, other than at state-sanctioned ordeals, because they’re not any good.  They leak like boats.  They leave nothing after them — a life preserver or two.  Some valve oil.  A gasp.  My trombone teachers would probably have insisted that these pieces suited my abilities, that they’d have given me good music if I could have played it; but I was sometimes first chair in the Muskogee West Junior High Band, conducted by the inspirational Lowell Lehman; and my competition was Julian Fite, a kid who went on to become District Attorney.  I was unassailable… but, of course, I remember none of my trombone teachers playing more than one note for me.  I do remember some funny looks when I played for them… a long time ago.

A few years ago I built a couple motors.  (I was depressed.)  And my skills as a mechanic reminded me of my skills as a trombonist. But I learned how to adjust valve stem clearances on an Alfa motor with parts from a Volkswagen.  Doing this was like building a zip-gun, two of which were confiscated at West Junior High in the Year of the Farm; but a self-installed shower is no zip-gun, it is no outsider thrill; it is the last cigarette before the firing squad.  It is a gesture of defiance.  It is an economy.

JJ Johnson, Kai Winding, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Watrous, Bruce Paulson, or the Terrible Tempered Trombones are or were all trombonists who could afford food.  They may never have installed a shower in their basements; but most artists, like Rakoto Fra, a sudina player pictured on Malagassi currency when he didn’t have a Malagassi dime, are honored by their culture but not rewarded by it.  So some of them teach.  And kids like me show up in their basements.

But now I know: the teachers who watched my feet coming down their stairs every week illustrate an existential fact: gifts (theirs) are often obscured by ignorance (mine) but knowledge can reveal them.  My teachers?… I was a plague on their houses, and not the hero I thought I was, but they charged only a small fee for admitting my sullen evasions to their basements; and they taught me not only music, but also ABOUT music, and about corn, and about patience– theirs, mostly.

I am looking at my trombone– which is all I can do with it.  It is the same trombone my teachers saw coming down their basement stairs.  It is a Bach #10, an instrument with a different diameter to each parallel of its slide.  This innovation was to have increased the speed of the slide by decreasing its resistance… a virtue, had the design worked, that would have been entirely lost on me.  I’m intrigued, though, by the semblance of tone I might have produced had the diameters been equal.

Just maybe….

But those showers have collapsed by now… you can’t step in the same basement twice.  You can’t go back; even Mt. Everest is a little shorter than it was when I played “Down Home on the Farm;” but because of my performance in Tahlequah, I got to hear the chortle in its natural environment and to watch my trombone career go down the drain… ploink, ploink.

Any fool would know that I was a lucky kid. I got to play, so I get to play.  I was guided by trombonists, note by note, toward home.

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