The Composition Process
In my last post about the Al Mendez tribute concert, I said I would write a separate post about the composition I wrote specifically for the concert. When Roger asked me what I would like to perform with the band, as a soloist, I asked if it was okay if I wrote an original piece. This was late in the year, last year (2016).
When I compose with a specific theme or subject in mind, I spend at least a couple of weeks thinking about it first. Writing a dedication piece for my high school band director, Al Mendez, took me on a journey back in time.
1980 Yamaha Flugelhorn
My first thought was that this piece should be written for me to perform on my flugelhorn. I am still playing on the same flugelhorn I had when I was in high school. The instrument has signs of heavy wear and tear. I’ve been taking it to every gig since I left high school. The wear and tear gives it a sound that I do not believe can be replicated.
I’m not much of an equipment buff. I’ve only had five different B flat trumpets in forty years. But only this one flugelhorn.
People love the sound of my flugel. To me, it is one of the last physical things that still connects me to my past as one of Al Mendez’ students with the Andress Jazz Band. This is the same flugelhorn I took when we performed in the Paris Jazz Festival in 1982.
I remember when we were at a performance in Paris and the band that was supposed to come after us was too eager to setup. Their trumpets rushed to the stage and knocked my flugelhorn over and it couldn’t be played for the rest of the trip.
We had fun in high school. The band, and more specifically the jazz band, was like a big family. We were very close and we had a good time. And that’s where my thoughts took me as I contemplated how I should approach writing this new composition. I experienced a flood of fond memories, all of them either directly or indirectly related to band.
As Al pointed out in the interview we had on the Thursday morning before the concert, when the band room doors closed, the atmosphere was very serious. We were there to get work done. We were striving for musical excellence. I firmly believe that this is precisely why our fun times were so much more enjoyable. Our ability to get serious in the rehearsals brought us together and brought us as close as a family.
But the more I thought about how “fun” high school was, the more I realized how much it contrasts with the life I live today as a professional musician. I make my living doing what we enjoyed so much in school. It is extremely serious business. If I don’t do it well, then I can’t pay my bills. If I don’t do it well…every single time…then my reputation will suffer and my family’s well-being will be compromised.
Don’t misunderstand me. My career brings me a great deal of joy, greater joy than anything I ever experienced as a student.
But it’s not the same.
I tell my students that there is a “joy spectrum” and “fun” is on the bottom end of that spectrum. I tell them that “fun” is the lowest level of musical joy you can experience. Of course, fun is fun!!! We like that when we experience it. But there is so much more joy to experience in music when we take it to the highest levels.
Just to give you an example of what I’m saying, you can’t imagine the joy it brings me to live as a full time professional musician. It is a very difficult way to live. I have lived beneath the official poverty line for most of my adult life. But I am living a dream that most musicians will never even get a glimpse of in their lifetimes.
But still, at the same time, it is also extremely serious. I’m not sure how else to explain it.
What does this have to do with Al Mendez?
Al was one of the first people to introduce me to this kind of seriousness. There were others, too. But Al was one of the first. By teaching me how to be serious in the band room, he took the first steps in teaching me how to do what I do to make a living. He was right in the interview. I remember how serious our rehearsals were. And we kicked butt!
I recently read a comment by Kenny Capshaw where he said our jazz band set the standard for high school jazz ensembles in Texas in the 80’s. That’s what seriousness does for your music. It takes you far, far beyond the musical fun of a less serious ensemble.
I’m kind of glad that I forgot to introduce my composition. It gave me this opportunity to delve into more detail here.
Thank You Again Al Mendez
It was so nice to have an opportunity for each of us alumni to express our appreciation for your influence in our own ways. Thank you for your serious attitude in music. Thank you for bringing us all together and binding us as a musical family. Thank you for giving us the memories we cherish so fondly.