Monday, November 05, 2012

An Ode To A Man With Huge Ears

My father died two weeks ago at the age of 90.

He had a good life—charmed, actually, in many ways—and he was lucky to slide away from us without much suffering.

He left me with many, many things, as a good man who fathers you for 58 years will do, and the best of all things was his curiosity about music.

Here's what a typical Sunday morning sounded like at my house in the 1960s: I'd be awakened by the music of Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley, or some faceless Hawaiian music. My father bought one of those massive, coffin-like stereo systems in about 1961, but he was smart enough to go with a Grundig system with really decent sound. That system, and the record club phenomenon of the time, led to him consuming an endless amount of LPs. My brothers were off to college, and they had left behind LPs by Gene Vincent, Elvis, Santo & Johnny, and all those groups that came along during the folk music explosion.

My dad didn't discriminate; he'd roll straight from GI Blues to a stereo demonstration record featuring Bob & Ray, to Goodman featuring Charlie Christian, to the soundtrack from South Pacific. Sundays streamed by, usually ending only when golf came on TV late in the afternoon.

One album my father had changed my life. It was called Two Of A Mind—a 1962 session featuring Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond. As noted, he listened to a lot of big band music, or by Goodman's small sub-groups, but the Mulligan/Desmond LP was the first thing I heard him play that captured a contemporary sound. It was also one of the few records he played that I went back and checked out myself. From there, it wasn't a big step to a Charlie Parker collection that a sax-playing friend of mine brought over one day after school. The rest, as they say, is history.

Perhaps the best thing about the way my father exposed me to music were the stories he told me about the musicians. He loved to tell stories, and the music provided a great backdrop to his tales of Frank Sinatra's early years, or Goodman's efforts to convince his parents that a jazz career was a worthy goal. He might've scoffed at Elvis' hair, but he never put down his music.

In effect, he taught me what I needed to know when I landed a job hosting a show on a campus FM station in the late 1970s.

My father with his latter-day turntable
Let's not gloss things over; he disagreed with a lot of the things I listened to when I was in my teens. He told me to turn down The Allman Brothers Band more than once, and said that Muddy Waters sounded like he had a headache, and was giving him one, too. He once asked me what I thought hours of listening to music was going to do for me, but he balanced that years later by showing real pride in the career I built for myself as a music journalist.

One of the best things about my father's long life was that I had a chance to share a lot of music with him when I was an adult. I particularly recall taking him to see his hero, Goodman, at one of the clarinetist's later concerts. I don't think I can remember my father having as good a time outside of family gatherings. Very recently, when he was really in failing health, he was still interested and alert enough to enjoy some first-hand stories about Goodman I learned from one of his sidemen.

I wish I could say that I've been as influential on my own two daughters' musical education. Sadly, that's one of the things that fathers have lost control of, thanks to the advent of cheap personal listening devices. Back in the 1960s, you could do a lot worse than waking to Ellington, and having the stereo controlled by someone with as much curiosity and wisdom as my father.


Matthew A. Thomas said...

Great story! This article is full of inspiration and the seemingly natural wisdom that those of older generations provide. Condolensces to your family. Thanks for sharing!


Grant Fleming said...

This line's given me a smile today:

"[My Dad] said that Muddy Waters sounded like he had a headache, and was giving him one, too.'


- Grant