Current gig:

As of April, 2011, I'm playing piano in the Montcrest Big Band, which consists of four trumpets, four trombones and five saxes, one of whom also plays clarinet; and the rhythm section, a bass player, a drummer, and me.  There's a top-notch conductor, a retired professional jazz musician who also teaches music.
Their repertoire is jazz and swing from the first half of the twentieth century.  In addition to being a social and musical outlet for me, I chose this group to round out my volunteerism, since the band performs at hospitals and retirement homes several times a year.

Music in my life:

    Music was important to my parents: my mother was an accomplished singer, and music was an integral part of church life so it was literally part of my father's job.  He'd grown up singing hymns in the village churches of Angola, in an age when families also sang popular music together around the campfire and the parlour piano. 
    They began training me early - not with a musical career in mind, but as a way to round out the development of a child. I had piano lessons from Mom, and then had other piano teachers at an early age.  When we went to Africa they bought me an accordion to stand in for a piano - a good choice, because I continued to develop my understanding of scale and melodic structure through the keyboard, but I also began to hear full-blown chords and progressions by employing the chord buttons.
    I was exposed to African rhythms and vocal harmonies during those formative years, and realized early that those harmonies didn't come off a page, and weren't invented by a composer or arranger, but were improvised extemporaneously by the singers.  I wish more western singers could and would do that - that's the kind of music I enjoy participating in the most.  There's something ridiculously hesitant and cult-worshipful about how we approach and appreciate music in Europe and N. America, in comparison.  Not that we don't have brilliant historical composers, but even in our folk music we defer to recording artists and "charts" instead of learning to simply understand, play and sing music by ear.

    Back in Toronto for a year in grade nine, I was assigned the trombone in the high school band, and later I picked up the trumpet - it was more portable.  I continued my piano studies intermittently, including theory rudiments and composition, and taking exams.  I practiced to a grade eight conservatory level and then spent a year at a jazz college in Edmonton, learning to improvise and analyze jazz styles and chord structures.  In my late teens and early twenties I was able to parlay that effort into income, playing five nights a week on the bar circuit with a country rock band, and a jazz trio in a local lounge, for about three years - until I got sick of being on the road and going "home" at night to ugly hotel rooms, often joined by drunken bar patrons who somehow got invited back to party after we closed down the bar. 
    When I was at home, I taught music to beginners.  In my early thirties, when I got home from teaching English in Austria and in Japan, I opened my own music teaching studio.  I'd worked as a hired gun in music schools belonging to other people, and realized that I'd rather pocket the whole lesson fee than just a cut of it. 
I did the nightly audit at a nearby hotel to make ends meet until I had enough students to make a full-time income. After my night shift I'd sleep, then walk around local neighbourhoods putting flyers in mailboxes myself in the early afternoons, and taught in the late afternoons and early evenings. My teaching studio quickly became a successful, growing business with minimal capital investment; students enjoyed my cheerful teaching style, and parents were happy to pay month by month in advance. I had fun with it, and had visions of continuing to grow until my little teaching studio became a full-fledged music store of my own, but during the second year of operation, I applied and got accepted into teacher's college, so I sold off my instruments, invested the money in a single stock, and lost my investment that very fall, in the '87 crash.  That was the start of my education as a stock market investor.

    While I was working as a public school teacher, I ran a few elementary school bands and could teach the kids to play all the notes on their various instruments, but I didn't play much at all myself, for a whole decade; then I got involved with the Scarborough Concert Band because they rehearsed one evening a week at my school - how convenient was that?! - and I stayed with them for seven pleasant years. 

   I moved on to spend three years with a neighbourhood garage band
of "mature" musicians.  What an interesting saga this was.  They weren't very good, frankly - always too loud to even hear themselves and each other.  I had to wear earplugs at rehearsals!  They didn't, but one of them already had serious hearing loss and wore hearing aids.  They would play wrong chords, forget words and music, none of them could read and most of them imagined that drinking beer and smoking a doobie didn't affect their ability (they might have been right, ironically), so they did that at every rehearsal.  Although they couldn't read, they kept dreaming out loud about playing a gig at a resort or on a cruise ship, which was pretty laughable; I kept my mouth shut about 98% of the time because they wouldn't have believed that I could make any useful suggestions anyway, and they even found it hard to get their heads around the fact that I wrote out my keyboard parts and played them consistently - the incumbent keyboard player didn't do that, but I was using his equipment when he switched to guitar, and I didn't want to invest in my own set of duplicate gear for a group like that; nor did I want to step on his toes.  They were fun socially when you could get past the "band nazi" that often seems to infect such groups, and I had a loyalty to my friend John who'd asked me to help him play his sax with them, so I stuck it out for three years.
   We broke up very strangely. I'd given them plenty of clues that I was capable of doing more for them, and as retirement approached I began to consider investing in a decent keyboard and really helping to carry the band.  I knew I'd have more time to rehearse and to write out arrangements for them, and help John with his sax parts, and I began to suggest that I could play some parts other than trumpet in some songs they were considering - I volunteered to sing a particular hard-driving rock tune and do a harmonica part (they mentioned wanting to do the song but didn't think they could reproduce the harmonica part), and they seemed shocked that I'd consider myself capable of that.  I arrived as a mere trumpet player, and they seemed to have a mental block about how well I could play keyboards (granted, I underplayed my ability myself) even though I played keyboard on several songs for them - they seemed to consider that some sort of weird fluke. 
I was the only one besides the bass player who'd actually played professionally for a number of years, yet the fact that I now sight-read complex jazz piano charts with a big band only a year later would surely boggle their minds.  They knew that I'd played concert band first trumpet, and could improvize jazz, and sing (although I always held back from doing any lead with them because they were jealous about letting someone else sing any of the songs we all liked), but they never seemed to wrap their heads around what I was actually capable of doing for them and how they might use me most effectively.  I could hear the bass player screwing up, but he couldn't accurately hear the trumpet parts he was asking me to reproduce; they often asked me to reproduce high passages that professional trumpet players laid down on recordings, often with C trumpets or higher; or the sound of whole brass sections with multiple trumpets.  Standing beside the keyboard player, I could hear him playing minor chords where everyone else was playing majors, but when I tried to mention this quietly to the band nazi he looked at me like I had two heads.  He had a decent ear, but I think the band played so loudly that he couldn't hear it himself.  He'd screw up himself, and curse and laugh about it, but if anyone else screwed up he was merciless with withering criticism.  He was, frankly, a bully.
   I never felt thoroughly comfortable with these guys, and eventually their true colours were displayed.  We played gigs for three years and they voted to pay out part of the money but keep the rest to invest in building up their equipment; the concept was that we'd be co-owners of the equipment.  Suddenly out of the blue, after three years, they held a secret meeting - the very week I was seriously shopping for a decent keyboard - and decided that they could do better by downsizing, so we went our separate ways.  John was out of town when it happened, and disagreed with the decision but never got a chance to speak to it; and they got the lead singer to phone and tell me that I'd been cut.  Did they offer to pay out my share of the equipment?  Hell, no.  Did I care?  Well, it isn't like I needed the money, and if they'd done it all honestly, openly and up front I probably would have been pleased to forget about it, but it is the principle of the thing - basically, they had no principles.
   Anyway, I was getting ready to retire and travel through the winter months, so that all worked out just fine.  We had practiced weekly and we did a couple of school fundraisers, 50th birthday parties, and casino gigs once in a blue moon - three gigs a year, we averaged. Not much performing for all that rehearsing. Mind you, the concert band had never booked more than seven concerts a year, and some of those would get cancelled for weather or other reasons, so either way I didn't really get to play out all that often over that decade.
     While my teaching career was underway I neglected my piano and trumpet for a decade, and practiced only the bare minimum required to help out at occasional school concerts or to play in the concert band or the rock band.  When I play now I'm riding on the ghost of skills acquired and then left behind as a younger man, but the joy of making music never disappears in spite of the frustration of not being able to play as well as I think I should.  I occasionally sight-read piano and trumpet arrangements (pop and jazz standards) at home, or play arrangements by ear, sometimes by listening to Youtube recordings, or playing along to Jamie Aebersold, or Band-in-a-Box backing tracks.  BIAB gives you a consistent beat and control over the tempo, volume and progressions, with real sampled instrument sounds.  It sounds and feels like playing along with my own band, right in my living room.  I bought my first guitar and began learning to play it, mostly so that I can accompany campfire songs with my family in Alberta once a year.  Last summer and fall I got out to a weekly living room jam, described below, and sang once a week in a "jazz choir" - sadly, they were not improvizational, they read everything, but some of the arrangements were very nice; Java Jive became my earworm for a while.

    I'll play with anyone, at least once.  There are enough music snobs around, in all genres - I'm not one of them.  I'm a
knowledgeable all-round musician with a good ear for pitch, progressions and harmonies, and a mediocre performer; but I always did enjoy singing or playing music with other people. Maybe that urge has roots in the campfire singing we did as a family when I was a child. I have a clear voice with good range - hear the sound sample below - but not a powerful one. 

    I avoided joining new musical groups in retirement - at least any where my attendance was critical - in order to have no commitments when I want to travel, or go cruising in our sailboat.  Because of my concert band experience, I was invited to attend rehearsals with a big band, part of the Sheraton Cadwell Orchestra Group, but I had to give that up - in addition to my commitment to be free to travel, my week is just too full with other interests to accommodate the daily practice I would need to get on top of their repertoire. The band leader claimed to have a library of 5000 songs (although I know that they actually rotated the same few hundred over a number of years), and my folder had at least 500 in it. They were very serious readers and highly skilled amateur players, but they rehearsed half-way across the city, and I hate to commute.  I'd love to connect with a small group of brass players close to home, or a small vocal group doing what an acquaintance calls "cocktail sets".

    Nature vs. Nurture?

    I described my early musical training, and ascribed my "talent" to that, but I often wonder if there isn't also something more innate involved.  My immediate family can all sing on key, every last one of them - not a tin ear in the bunch.  Furthermore, they can meet up once a year for a family camp-out and improvise multiple blended and balanced harmonies around the campfire, completely a capella, without any rehearsal in between those rare occasions.  Growing up with that, I never realized how singular the phenomenon was, and expected to find those skills with every group of musicians I tried to work with, but after decades of working with other musicians, I now recognise how unusual it is. 
To find individuals who can not only sing, but harmonize songs like the samples below with no score to read, is rare.  To find a whole family in which every individual from ages 8 to 85 can do it is rarer still.  The following samples were recorded on a little handheld cassette player with a tiny condenser mic in the family room of my parents' home one day:

                Quartermaster's Store                    Wimoweh                   Ilkley Moor Bar T'at                   Amazing Grace  

    Here's a sample of my own voice, recorded one day while I was home from work medicating a cold with a few glasses of red wine, and entertaining myself with a microphone and a borrowed analog 4-track recorder.  This short stuffed-up-nose-sounding bit demonstrates the same harmonic abilities, on an old Golden Gate Quartet song that I've loved since childhood:  Swing Low, Sweet Chariot 

    I can "fake" the melody, chord progression and bass line of any song I've heard, on the piano - a skill that is technically referred to as "vamping" - well enough to play along with other dance band musicians, even without rehearsal (although my fluency with any piece improves with repetition, of course).  I know that there is a sub-group of autistic individuals who have this happy gift, some to an astonishing performance level; and perfect pitch is not unusual among people with Aspergers.  On the other hand, I can't easily remember lyrics, and sometimes can't even remember the titles of songs I can play; Deborah can often supply these for me.  I remember faces forever, even in dreams, but often forget names.  Daniel Tammet, an author and famous savant with Aspergers, can learn languages easily and do high level mental mathematics, but can't remember faces - he has to study still photos of friends and family before he gets together with them.  I find it fascinating that we each appear to have different gifts and fall somewhere along several different continuums of talent and ability, and that those on the extreme edges can often be diagnosed as falling within some part of the autism spectrum.

    "Parlour Music":  In the summer and fall leading up to retirement, I played "pick-up" with various musical groups, and sang in a teachers' choir with Deborah.  After retirement I found a few informal groups to get out and play with, including a once-a-week living-room band - the modern 21st century version of the 19th century practice of "parlour music".  The weekly gathering attracted seven to nine participants in any given week, out of a pool of twice as many musicians on the contact list.  I improvised keyboard bass for them, in the absence of a guitar bass player; that's simple and stress-free for me because I have a good ear for progressions and I know my chords and scales - but I could also come and go as I please, since the membership was fluid.  I could sing harmonies and sing lead once in a while, play trumpet, and contribute keyboard sounds like organ, piano, strings, etc.  I enjoy this approach to music making more than anything else, at this stage in my life.  Maybe I always did.
    The parlour music tradition is alive and well across the continent, and some groups, such as the Harlem Parlour Music Club (interesting that they spell "parlour" the Canadian way...), are accomplished enough to have made recordings.  Related concepts are the down-east ceilidh kitchen party, the singalong, and the "song circle".  The musicians aren't there to get paid to play for an audience - they are the audience, as well as the participants.
It's fun and laid-back; the creativity and improvizational freedom of a group like this is a joy, and because it isn't limited like a gigging group that stays small on purpose so that they don't have to divide their pay too many ways, you often have interesting new combinations of instruments and players.  Sometimes the song falls apart and you laugh it off; but it often comes together really well and you soar, musically and emotionally.  Four hours flew by for me, every time I was able to join in. 
        Here's something I wrote to the friend who organized the weekly Thursday parlour music group.  I wanted to call it the "Beaches Parlour Music Club", but his wife's name is Luanne and she was the main singer, so he refered to it instead as "Lu and the Living Room Louts":

    "Did you know that that you are part of a two hundred year old tradition called "parlour music"?  As soon as North Americans could afford to buy pianos for their homes and pay for piano lessons, the sheet music industry exploded - back in the days of Scott Joplin and earlier.  "Parlour Music" clubs sprang up in peoples' homes.  There was harmony singing, and other instruments were brought in - banjos, ukes, guitars, etc.  In New Orlean's, where U.S. Army units used to disband, brass instruments became part of the tradition, especially snare drums and cymbals, muted trumpets and saxes. Fifty years later, rock'n'roll developed out of the loud stompin' and shakin' gospel music tradition, radios were widespread and mobile, there was a booming market for vinyl records, music groups that were any good became limited-personnel bands and moved out of the parlours, into studios and onto stages.  In smaller venues, jukeboxes replaced live musicians.  Somehow by the 60's, intimidated by all the top talent that they could hear on the airwaves, and not as keen to invest in electric guitars and amps as furniture for their living rooms, people just weren't as interested in making their own music anymore.
    "One of the cool things about parlour music is that you can do ballads and interesting "listening" tunes, because there's no pressure to keep a dance floor filled.  You can take breaks when you feel like it, even while the other musicians are playing; enjoy a beverage while playing, stray from the charts and try some interesting improvizational changes without freaking out the band leader...I prefer jam sessions and parlour music to treating music like a job, playing in a band."

    Sadly, the project didn't last into 2011, so by the time I came back from Australia I had to look for a new group - this time I found the Montcrest Big Band, mentioned above.
    Concert-going:  For years, our friends Pat and Clare Taplin have invited us several times a year to Tafelmusik concerts, where they have the four best seats in the house, and we go to a variety of other random concerts that strike our fancy, including the monthly Acoustic Harvest series, which takes place in a local church basement.  The last group we heard was terrific, and representative of the talent and type of music to expect - folk and bluegrass, as often as not. There are sound samples on their website: Moo'd Swing.  Another example is the duo-led group My Sweet Patootie, who also have sound samples on their site.  We also heard James Taylor and Carol King last summer, live at the Air Canada Centre. 

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