how Dr. Don changed my life

Over the last few years, i’ve tried writing this. I usually found myself getting into more detail and nuance than a simple post demanded. But again, it’s not a small statement of fact that i make when i say that this was one of the pivotal moments of my adolescence.

I’m writing this for both people that went to my high school and those that did not. There may be excessive explanations at times.

In 11th grade, i was signed up for chemistry. My teacher was a generally mild mannered man that we called Dr. Don. I think his last name was Williams or Walters. He was geek chic more than a decade before anyone acknowledged geeks in any fashion other than to taunt, torment, vex, harass and make their lives a living hell. I can’t say i was a good chemistry student. In fact, it’s probably safe to say i was a bad chemistry student. Come to think of it, i was pretty bad at everything school related or otherwise. The only thing worse than my academics at the time was my love life. But hey, i could cultivate a nice crop of acne that was the envy of OPEC. I lost count of the number of times i woke up to disturb the petroleum engineers that were prospecting my face.

There were a series of films that Dr. Don would show to us now and then. I think they each had to do with the process of discovery and invention but it was the credit roll that caught my attention. The accompanying music was unlike anything i’d heard before. Lyrical, slightly melancholy while being uplifting. It used minor keys (hence the melancholy) and transitions that i’d never heard before. These were the days of reel to reel. There was no pause. Any attempt to stop the film would result in the bulb immediately burning the film in two- a visual delight for teenagers but not terribly effective.

The funny thing was, everyone else in the room hated… no, they HATED this piece. I distinctly remember more than one of my classmates grousing about “the stupid music” and on more than one occasion. And if i were going to find out who this piece was by, it was going to have to be by myself. See, i was already a pariah. I had no clique, few friends and all the awkwardness of a spastic goose… with acne. I was already derided and taunted for not obeying the musical flavors of the day (the new wave of the early/ mid eighties). Much worse was that i eschewed them for the sake of listening to Genesis and Peter Gabriel (esp. Security). A pariah among what another classmate of mine would call “disposable children” (her words, not mine).

I was slightly obsessed. I was itching to be exposed to music that was unfamiliar to me but those credits… they rolled by too fast. But i caught a word here, a word there. “Metheny”, “… Search”, “Garage”. I remember quietly cracking my chemistry notebook and scribbling what i’d found, deeply afraid someone was going to figure out what i was writing and, of course, wasting no time in humiliating me for it.

That weekend i made my pilgrimage to the record store in Battlefield Mall. It was the sort of thing you could have set your watch to. I looked, looked and finally found the name. Pat Metheny. I shelled out my weeks allowance and bought one of his albums. Pat Metheny Group (the core members being Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays). It was from the ECM label. In the world of vinyl, ECM was legendary for their pressings. No one pressed vinyl as thick as ECM did. You could have killed a harp seal at 20 paces with one. Leave it to the Germans to over-engineer a record. I took it back to my dorm room and played it. There wasn’t any way to understand the implications at the time; that would happen in college. But looking back, it wasn’t a simple revolution of vinyl on my turntable; it was a nudge into a direction that would eventually find me swimming and immersed in jazz.

Listening to this album (generally referred to as Pat Metheny Group or the PMG White Album because of its design) now, it would be easy to say it was ephemeral, that it was trendy, happy sounding fusion jazz. And yes, for the most part, this album evokes memories of cool air, bright sunshine, endless horizons and the sensation of cool grass under my feet and between my toes. But it was made in the 70’s, years before a myriad of half remembered and entirely forgotten bands would try to capitalize on the same sound. Oh, as an aside, the song that was played on Dr. Don’s films was called The Search. It was the 3rd track on an earlier Pat Metheny Band album called American Garage. This album also evokes memories of better days, cool air, soft grass and endless horizons. I believe it was made a few years before the PMG White Album.

And a few years later, i’m attending my university- Southwest Texas State University. One of the guys down the hall from me is a brutally intense young man named Dean. Dean plays tenor saxophone and exudes confidence in the way i exuded awkwardness (aka:pariah-juice). Dean turns me onto Spyro Gyra, Phil Woods, Kirk Whalum and others. And while there was still a few years to go while i sampled different musics, my eternal love of jazz had begun. The local vinyl store, Sundance Records, had a steady supply of Original Jazz Classic reprints for $5.99; a pretty sweet price for music when you’re a college student.

The vinyl is gone now of course but the names have flourished. Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Billie Holliday, Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderly, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Paul Desmond, Zoot Sims, Art Pepper, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis and of course, Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays.

I found in jazz what i couldn’t find anywhere else- freedom. No longer limited by words with specific meanings derived by someone else’s experiences and left to my interpretations of those words, jazz was the pure expression of that which i sought. It was painful at times, it was sometimes challenging when i didn’t want it to be but jazz lifted me above the clouds of my life. And when challenged to understand something like Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, or the tension and release of Wayne Shorter’s Juju or just appreciating the brutal, confrontational first few minutes of Wynton Marsalis’ Black Codes (From the Underground), jazz i emerged a better person.

By age 24, with my childhood behind me, i’d outgrown rock and roll. Since then, i’ve listened to many, many things. Almost none of which you’ll hear on the radio. Some fall under the moniker of electronica or IDM, a label i don’t care for but is useful to distinguish the candy ass shit of trance from house/techno/jungle/goa/downtempo/dnb, etc… Some nights it’s ambient (somafm : Drone Zone), sometimes quirky and eccentric (somafm : Secret Agent), sometime it’s just interesting (somafm : Mission Control) sometimes dark, sensuous and reeking of a science fiction soundtrack (Jungle, Drum and Bass), sometime it’s noise (such as Seattle’s Dragon’s Eye Recordings) and sometimes just a pure 4×4 beat that compels me to dance (House). And almost always void of lyrics.

And at 43 music is the one of the threads that simultaneously holds me together, sets me free and tethers me to the ground. Jazz is still a huge part of that.

I’ll write about my experiences with electronica another time. Like my exposure and eventual immersion into jazz, it has a story as well. It didn’t take place in Dr. Don’s room. In fact, it took place very, very far away from Mississippi. It would be San Francisco and while i knew of ambient at the time, it would be my ex-wife/girlfriend/whatevershewas abandoning me before i would finally listen to house music and not be afraid to dance anymore.

But it all began in 1982 in Dr. Don’s class.