Last week, Thursday night, I got to play with the big boys. I played trombone with the Midland College Jazz Band, and we shared the billing with - get this - Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (JLCO). It was amazing.
Since the JLCO was the feature of the evening, they set up their own gear on the giant stage, and we used it. This, for me, meant a chair, music stand, microphone, and two music clips. It felt as if the kids had snuck onto the stage when the big boys weren’t looking and made themselves at home.
My daughter Katie posted this on Facebook: “Can't wait to hear the stories and see the pictures of my dad, getting to rock out with his Silver Sonic trombone while opening for jazz royalty Wynton Marsalis tonight!!!!!”
But the meaning of the evening went even deeper. My brother Carroll posted this: “Music is strong in my family, and that is powerful. We may not be the best at it, but that's not at all the point. What is the point is that it is a bond, a glue, a presence, even a bragging right sometimes. It doesn't even have to come up that often, because when it does, we circle the wagons. Tonight is one of those nights, and I could not be more excited for my brother.”
I was 12-years-old when Carroll was born and I started college the year he started first grade. And so, we had very little in common. I grew up with 60s rock-and-roll, Richard Nixon, the Viet Nam War, and wore bell-bottomed Levi’s. Carroll grew up with 80s rock inspired by MTV, Ronald Reagan, and wore zippered parachute pants and Vans.
Through the years the thing we had between us was music. I played trombone and loved music, Carroll played drums and loved music. I’ve always been a utility player, able to handle my parts but never a soloist. Carroll has always been a percussion prodigy, earned his living playing for many years, and he is the finest drummer I’ve ever played with.
I don’t know how far back music goes in our family; what I meant is, I don’t how many generations were musicians, but I credit my dad with the fact I am a musician today. He never pushed or pulled me into music, but he certainly inspired me. Because of my dad I grew up knowing music was something grown men did regularly. It was a manly pursuit. So I pursued it.
And just like my Dad, I married a musician. Cyndi played melodic percussion (bells, chimes, xylophone, etc.), and we play together in various church ensembles as often as possible.
Playing my trombone, something I’ve done consistently since 1968, is not only fun, but it is completely physical. I use primarily my arm, lungs, and chops, but truly my entire body is part of the action. Especially my heart, which is the most important part. Music is a full-body experience. (Maybe that’s why electronic dance music leaves me cold … there aren’t enough body parts used to create it.)
Not only do I appreciate the physicality of playing music, and the deep family connection, but I love the tribal impact it has had on me. I once asked my music mentor, Rabon, “When we are together, I can play rhythms and hit high notes that I’m not good enough to play any other time. Why is that?”
He just laughed and shrugged his shoulders in his non-analytical way, as if to say it was all a mystery and it was all joy and maybe I should just let it happen.
Not willing to leave any thought unanalyzed, I said, “I think it’s because when we’re together I’m braver, and bolder; I’m a warrior standing beside my band of brothers and I can do more than I ever imagined.”
Rabon just nodded his head to agree.
Here’s the thing. I spent a weekend at a men’s retreat in the Colorado Mountains, and surprisingly, one of the things I left with was a renewed and reinvigorated appreciation for music in my life. Maybe because my roommate was a guitar player and worship leader and we talked music the entire weekend.
And then, four days after my retreat, I played an outdoor jazz concert with Wynton Marsalis and the JLCO. Although our skills were markedly different, we all, both bands, played our best, and there was music in our hearts. It lit me up, once again.
So much that I’ve been practicing my trombone at home, not a lot, but more than I have in twenty years. And I’ve been listening to J. J. Johnson and Jack Teagarden in my office. Who knows what will happen next. I’ll just have to follow the changes and try to keep up.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32