I Got the Music in Me

Music has been a huge and integral part of my life. My father was a professional musician and his whole family was very musical. My mother, though unable to play herself, was an avid music lover, as were her mother and sister. Both my brothers are professional musicians and my middle sister is a stage manager who often works in opera. Altogether I have four older siblings and grew up in the ‘60s. This means our basement was always filled with loud music and even louder teenagers. My dad, my mom, and my siblings all had different tastes in music, filling my childhood with every genre you can name (other than country).

My father was at heart a jazz guitarist and played jazz gigs whenever they were offered, which was only every so often. He had a large family to support and consequently spent the bulk of his time playing in dance bands at various functions and in the studio recording TV shows and jingles. Dad frequented Toronto’s jazz clubs, and as my brother and I got older he would often take us with him. We went to George’s Spaghetti House and Bourbon Street, both of which featured excellent Italian food and smoking hot jazz. Moe Koffman, a famous Canadian jazz musician I mentioned in a previous article, was the booking agent for the Spaghetti House and often gave himself the gig. There was a joke amongst jazz fans and musicians in Toronto at the time who would call in to the club and say, “I’d like to know who’s playing tonight, and I won’t take Moe for an answer.”

Dad listened to a lot of jazz at home, most often guitarists like Joe Pass and Jim Hall, but also to other instrumental soloists, singers, and big bands. Listening to jazz with Dad was interesting because sometimes he would take apart what we were hearing, talking about chords and progressions and why a particular resolution was so fitting or brilliant. He also listened to a lot of classical music, with Brahms being by far his favourite composer.

My mom listened to classical music as well, being particularly drawn to Prokofiev, but she wasn’t a fan of jazz. She preferred Broadway tunes and popular music. She had cast recordings of “Jesus Christ Superstar”, “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris”, and, most exciting of all, “Hair”. There is an incredibly explicit song in “Hair” called “Sodomy” comprised almost entirely of the names of sexual acts. It was beyond thrilling that I could listen to and sing along with such racy stuff as a girl. Mom also had recordings by contemporary singer/songwriters like Elton John, Harry Nilsson, Laura Nero, and my personal favourite, Cat Stevens. Not only did he write and sing extremely well, but he was also dreamy to look at. My mother listened to absolute drivel while she read, music my father called “pap”. It was basically elevator music and pretty much faded into the background. Mom was about the brightest person I ever met, and yet she regularly read pulp fiction while listening to insipid wallpaper music. Weird.

My two eldest siblings were respectively 9 and 7 years older than me, and because this was the ‘60s they were into what has now become classic rock and roll. I heard The Who, The Beatles, The Kinks, Cream, and Sly and the Family Stone. These acts were followed in the ‘70s by Led Zeppelin, Yes, David Bowie, and a no longer little Stevie Wonder. My sisters each had a crush on a different Beatle, and my eldest brother David almost worshipped Jimi Hendrix. He wore a headband just like Jimi’s and his friends were all huge fans as well. One of them could draw amazingly realistic pencil sketches of Hendrix in any pose and on any material. David gave me a Steppenwolf album for Christmas one year, and no sooner had I got the wrapping off then he asked “Can I borrow it?” I immediately obliged because I had no idea who they were. 

I was in high school in the mid to late ‘70s and by then only one of my brothers and I were still at home. This is when I began to forge my own taste in music, discovering new bands that my friends and I could relate to. There was a lot of really good music at the time, and I found people and groups I liked in almost every genre. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and James Taylor were my favourite troubadours. Steely Dan, Talking Heads and Roxy Music were my favourite groups, Chicago had my favourite horn section, and Average White Band and Earth, Wind and Fire were my favourite funk bands. I had for a long time loved The Jackson Five, standing out from the rest of my suburban white girlfriends who all adored The Osmond Family. Blech – their music was bland and boring compared to the groovy beats and amazing harmonies of the Jacksons. Besides, Marlon was really cute and Michael’s voice was unparalleled. 

Not all of the music I liked was good. I had a ridiculouslyhuge crush on Barry Manilow and would helplessly swoon when I heard one of his many over-the-top love ballads. I recognized at the time that it was all rather insipid and cheesy, but I just couldn’t help myself. I also realized that I would be mercilessly ribbed if my friends, or particularly my siblings, caught wind of my Manilow mania, so I kept it to myself. The late ‘70s brought in the disco era, and say what you will about disco music, it was extremely catchy and incredibly fun to dance to. Songs by KC and the Sunshine Band and The BeeGees have become iconic, and Donna Summer had an absolutely glorious voice. If the prime directive of pop music is to make you feel good, then I think disco takes the prize as the happiest iteration of the genre ever.

At the dawn of the ‘80s a second wave of music came roaring from across the pond. New Romantic and New Wave bands filled the airwaves. The Smiths, Tears for Fears, New Order, and The Cure flowed out of my radio and demanded my attention. Howard Jones was a captivating one-man-band, Echo and the Bunnymen were fresh and exciting, and Depeche Mode blew my mind. These bands and many others created the soundtrack for my 20s – a carefree time before kids when my Friday and Saturday nights consisted of smoking up then going to a club and dancing my head off in a jacket with ridiculously large shoulders. My husband was an uninhibited dancer – some might even say he was a menace, especially after a few drinks. He would careen recklessly around the dance floor, often crashing into or even knocking over those in his path. Luckily everyone was either sufficiently stoned, drunk, happy, or chill that no altercations every ensued from his exuberant gyrations.

My father’s whole family was very musical. My paternal grandfather brought his Mandola from Portugal when he emigrated to America – an instrument which now has pride of place in my brother David’s home. My dad was a professional guitarist, and my aunt Alice owned a huge Wurlitzer organ with a bunch of bass pedals and endless stops. I loved playing with its many rhythm buttons when we visited – rock beats no. 1, 2 and 3, dixieland, and cha cha. Aunt Alice would launch into a hilarious Carmen Miranda imitation when I pushed the samba button, swivelling her hips and trilling her tongue. She had wanted to go into show business as a young woman, but her father had forbidden it. It’s too bad because she was a natural and unabashed performer, and would break into song at the drop of a hat. One time when my brother and I were adults we visited Aunt Alice and her husband, Uncle Barber, with our kids. We were all going out for lunch so my niece, my daughter, and I all piled into the backseat of my uncle’s car. No sooner were we on the road than Aunt Alice launched into “Some Enchanted Evening”. She sang with gusto, turning to include the girls and I in her joyous song. I simply smiled and nodded when she looked at me, but the girls froze. Who was this crazy lady in the front seat? Did she think she was in a musical? Well, she wasn’t crazy, but yes, she did live as though everyday life were a performance. What’s wrong with that?

We would visit my father’s family in Fall River, Massachusetts every summer when I was a girl. Three of Dad’s five siblings lived in the same house, and at some point they would all collect in my Aunt Alice’s apartment and play “stump the Hank”. This game entailed everyone calling out the most obscure songs they could think of in an effort to stymie my father. I watched this scenario play out for at least 10 years, and never once did they get him. At most my dad would have to think for a bit before he began playing, but usually he would just say, “What key?” and launch into the song. He was a journeyman musician and lived by his fake book – a collection of popular songs professional musicians bring to every gig in case they are asked to play a song they don’t know. You couldn’t survive and thrive as ably as my father did in such a competitive profession without having an encyclopedic knowledge of songs. I often thought, as my father got older and his memory faded, that he had probably forgotten more music and theory than I had learned in the first place.

My cousin Sonny had two boys, Gary and Brian, both of whom were very musical as well. Unfortunately their talent was of the most annoying variety. Whereas the kids in my family just studied our instruments and performed on stage, Sonny’s boys were shameless attention hogs. One time my Aunt Mary, Gary and Brian’s grandmother and a lovely, gentle soul, asked my dad to play “Swanee” so the boys could perform it. My dad immediately agreed then shot a surreptitious “oh brother” eye-roll to my mother. He started in a-strummin’ and the boys came out a-smilin’. They were every bit as over the top and corny as Al Jolson – the only thing missing was the blackface. They even wore white gloves! The boys finished down on one knee with their jazz hands a-flutterin’, and the crowd went crazy. Well, everyone except myself, my dad, and my mom. We all politely clapped, but later agreed that the boys’ performance, while proficient, was incredibly cheesy and somewhat embarrassing.

I started playing an instrument in grade 7. Our music teacher was Mr. Mugford, a flamboyantly gay man who regularly wore lime-green briefs with a yellow happy face on the crotch which shone through his tight white pants. Looking back I’m surprised this was allowed, but perhaps our principal expected eccentricities in our art teachers. I also don’t remember anyone making fun of his campiness, but I only hung out with artsy types. I’m sure there were other groups in the school that ridiculed him. Mr. Mugford allowed us to choose our own instruments. Almost all the other girls opted for the flute or clarinet, but I wanted the French horn. I’d learned to love the sonorous, smooth brassy sound of the French horn as it was featured in both “After the Gold Rush” by Neil Young, and “Down to You” by Joni Mitchell. 

It became clear in short order that I was proficient enough to play first horn in my intermediate band, and by the time I got to high school my father had bought me my own instrument and I was taking private lessons. My school had a wind ensemble which was open to students from grade 11 up, but Mr. Fowler, our loveable if largely inept music teacher, recognized my talent and allowed me to join in grade 10. Insult was added to injury for the 19 year old first horn player when I, at the tender age of 14, was made first chair. The other horn players took umbrage on her behalf and they all snubbed me. It soon became clear to them, however, that I was actually a better player and section leader than the girl I had replaced, forcing them to show me some begrudging respect. They never welcomed me into their group, but they no longer actively ignored me. I didn’t care either way because I had plenty of friends in my own grade and was in the band to play, not to socialize.

I was sufficiently good that I played first horn in the North York Youth Orchestra. Buoyed by that success, I tried out for the National Youth Orchestra. I don’t remember where the audition was held, but I do remember the process. Each applicant was given a number and told not to speak to the panel no matter what. We were to enter when our number was called, play pieces as instructed, and then leave by the same door. I remember I was number 6. I walked into the room with my horn and music and was surprised to see a large black curtain hanging between my chair and the judges’ table. I’m sure the person who gave the audition instructions had mentioned this, but somehow in my haze of nerves I must have missed it. The visual barrier was there to ensure that the judges made their decision based on our playing alone – not our gender or ethnicity or age or any other bias which might inadvertently influence their decision. 

I did really well on my pre-approved pieces and in the sight-reading section. One of the judges thanked me for a job well done and I felt pretty pleased with myself as I began to gather up my music. Just then, out of the blue, one of the other judges said, “Just one last thing, number 6. Play us a G flat major scale.” I don’t know if it was nerves or because I’d assumed the audition was over, but my mind went absolutely blank. I couldn’t remember the order of flats and sharps, I couldn’t remember the fingering for a G flat, and I couldn’t get my mouth to produce any more saliva. I began taking deep, measured breaths to try and calm my mind and access the necessary information. This was the only sound in the room for what seemed like an eternity until one of the judges finally called it. I left the room with my head down and a lead ball in my stomach. I made 2nd alternate, but feel pretty confident I could well have gotten in had I not frozen at the last minute. Ah well, I guess I’ll never know.

As an adult I picked up the recorder and began playing classical duets with my brother Michael on guitar. We regularly played at family gatherings, with our mother just beaming as she pretended to conduct. It somehow felt as if we were playing just for her, even though the room was full of people. About a year after she died our Aunt Carolyn, Mom’s only sister, came up from Boston. She asked Michael and I to play, and even though we hadn’t done so since Mom’s death, we obliged. We were about halfway through the second piece when I started crying and Michael put his head down and stopped playing. All the joy had been sapped from the experience by the absence of our mother. She has been dead now for almost 20 years, and I have just recently started playing recorder again. I am hopeful that enough time has passed that Michael and I can resume playing for the family. I feel pretty sure Mom would want us to – she was always so proud of all our musical abilities.

For the past 6 years I have been a member of a local choir, and absolutely love the experience of making music with others again. Music is an international form of communication which pre-dates formal language. It is intrinsic to the human condition, and creates community in a unique and elemental way. It elicits emotions, bridges silences, and evokes memories. A song can take me back to a time in my life like nothing else can. Music is visceral and emblematic. Whether you create it or simply consume it, music, and the arts in general, are the seasoning in life’s stew. Our existences would be terribly bland without them.

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