My Father’s Horn: The Final Note

(Continued from part 4.) Over thirty years have passed from the days of God's Family Band until today. Dad's horn has been a constant companion in that journey, though I have not always been constant with it. There were times when I set it aside for a season, and other times when I thought how much simpler life could be if I put it behind me forever. Yet every time I have set down the saxophone, I have returned to it. I have kept at it--because I must. It is more than a passion; it is a calling, integral to the way God has designed me. There are many other stories besides the ones I have told in this brief series, more than I wish to share here. The long and short of it all is, Dad's horn has shaped me both as a player and as a person. Thus far, I have talked about the journey my father's horn has taken me on. Now I would like to tell you a little about the horn itself. I own two other saxophones beside it: a Conn tenor that is even older than my alto and has long been in drastic disrepair, and a Yamaha soprano that I sometimes play. But the alto remains my voice, and I have always owned only the one, Dad's. I've had no need for any other. Not that I haven't tried other horns. I've sampled a fair cross-section of altos over the years. But the one I learned to play on is the one I play today and the one on which I will someday play my last note, and then, I hope--though I have no children of my own--pass it on to someone else as a legacy, just as Dad passed it on to me. Of all the saxophones I have played, my father's horn sounds the most resonant, offers the greatest flexibility of sound, and blows the freest. It is an amazingly open horn. It will take as much air as I can supply and convert it into a sound that fills a room. Not that the Conn 6M is a miracle horn; it has its drawbacks. While I can get around reasonably well above high F, the altissimo is not as responsive as on other saxophones. Manufactured before the introduction of the high F# key, Dad's sax does not feature uber-high notes as one of its strengths. Also, my repairman tells me that the rolled tone holes--a hallmark of the 6M--are beastly when it comes to getting pads to seat properly. When I have pads replaced, I usually need to visit the shop more than once to get the sax sealing tightly. But once that job is accomplished, oh, man! Dad's alto is a dream to play, and I fall in love with it all over again. It has a sound and a response like no other, and it has served me well for over four decades. Dad was always the greatest fan of my playing. During the last three years of his life, he, like me, had an encounter with Jesus that changed him--not a little, but drastically. The anger that seemed to lurk below the surface disappeared, and while his feistiness remained, it was tempered with humility, even a sweetness, and above all, a peace I had never seen in him before. The ghosts that I think had haunted him from World War II seemed to lose their grip. There is a verse in the Bible that reads, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (II Cor. 5:17) Whenever I read that verse, I think of Dad. I was 28 years old when Dad passed away. That was nearly thirty years ago. Several years ago, I wrote a letter to my father. I thanked him for all he had done for me and for our family. I told him how, now that I was older and wise enough not to know as much as I did back in my twenties, I wished I could sit down with him and listen to him tell me about his life--how it was in the Great Depression, and in the War, killing and watching his friends be killed. I told him that he was my hero, and how glad I was, how very glad, for the peace he had found. The transformation that had begun in him when he first encountered the Lord was now complete. When next he and I would meet, Dad would no longer be a white-haired man crippled by a back injury, short-winded from a chronic heart condition and breathing from an oxgyen tank. I envisioned him striding toward me, grinning, his arms outstretched, his face that of a vibrant young man, his eyes filled with a spark that can only be found in one who has looked into the very face of Love and Life, and in its Presence found his home. On Memorial Day, I took my letter to the small cemetery out in the countryside where Dad is buried. A tiny American flag fluttered by his marker beneath a tall fir tree. It is a beautiful little place, and Dad, who loved trees, would have been pleased with the location. I cleared away a few sprigs of grass that were encroaching on his modest gravestone, and I dusted off its surface. With a piece of Scotch tape, I attached my letter to Dad's marker. Then, standing up, I fulfilled one last, important part of the letter. "Thanks for the saxophone, Dad," I had written. "It was your legacy to me, and I've brought it with me. Perhaps, just for a minute, the Lord will roll back eternity and let you get an earful of me playing it just for you." Taking the horn, setting its mouthpiece in my mouth, and wrapping my fingers around the golden, pearl-covered keys that I had first seen and admired when I was a little boy, I began to play. With his old Conn alto sax, I played for Dad the song I had performed on the day when I was baptized at Bethel--the song that over the years had become my theme song and was a fitting description of Dad's own life. Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I'm found; was blind, but now I see. A saxophone cannot verbalize those words, but it most certainly can communicate them. That day, I played them with all my heart. Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. 'Twas grace that brought me safe this far, and grace shall lead me home. The legacy of my father's horn lives on. I love to play it, and while I am no Kenny Garrett, I continue to practice regularly, and thus to grow as a jazz musician. Today, I realize that Dad's gift to me of his saxophone was ordained by my heavenly Father--by my father's Father and mine. I am his son, his man, and his musician. And with gratitude, until a day known only to him when my last song shall end, by his grace, for his pleasure, and in honor of the Master Musician, I will continue to play my Father's horn.

My Father’s Horn, Part 2

(Continued from part 1.) During my eighth-grade year, my father's horn opened the doors to a formative experience in my life. It began when a fellow junior high school classmate, Steve Afendoulis, asked me if I would like to play in a band he was forming. Steve being a drummer, I thought he was talking about a rock band. Now, I have to be honest: Much as I enjoyed playing the saxophone, rock music was in its psychedelic heyday, and what I really aspired to be was the next Jimi Hendrix. The only hitch was that I didn't play guitar. Still, while I'd never heard of Dave Sanborn, I thought that maybe I could carve my niche as a rock saxophonist. I'd be cool, and "cool" was a quality I lacked and desperately wished to cultivate. So I told Steve to count me in. Thus it was that I wound up playing lead alto in a 17-piece dance band called the Formal Aires. It was not exactly Woodstock material. Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong ... good heavens! I was playing my parents' music! Whatever image it might project for me, "cool" didn't figure in. I hadn't a clue what an amazing experience I had walked into. What I did know was that, cool or not, I really enjoyed the weekly rehearsals with my 16 other junior high and high school bandmates. They came from several schools around the Grand Rapids area, and even as our athletic teams clashed, we harmonized. Steve's dad, Gus Afendoulis, served as the band's manager. He owned a tuxedo rental and dry cleaning shop on Michigan Street in Grand Rapids and also wrote a weekly column on bridge for the Grand Rapids Press. Being well-connected, Gus managed to secure frequent weekend and holiday gigs for the band at top country clubs, wedding receptions, and social and community events throughout West Michigan. I'm quite sure it was Gus who purchased our music library for us. Owning his own tux shop, he saw to it that we were properly outfitted in formal attire. He secured a couple of music directors who worked with us during weekly rehearsals, helping us to properly interpret the music and develop our sound. Above all, Gus loved us kids. He was a sweetheart of a guy who made it all happen for us and did so in such a low-key way that his immense significance never dawned on me till years later. I mentioned that the band had two music directors. These men, Sid Stellema and Ted Carino, were the guiding forces for the band. Ted, an alto saxophonist with prior big band experience, was there every week, walking us through the charts, rehearsing us, encouraging us, shaping our sound. Ted was the person who first made me aware that not all mouthpieces are created equal. I had been playing the stock mouthpiece that came with dad's horn. With its small tip opening, it was not designed to move a lot of air, and it gave me a feeble, overly dark sound with little volume or projection. It was by no means a lead alto mouthpiece. One night, Ted pulled me aside and handed me a box containing a brand-new Brillhart mouthpiece. I put it on my horn and experienced an epiphany. This piece was so much louder! And its brighter tone gave me the edge I needed for the first alto chair. Sid Stellema also helped rehearse the band. His involvement wasn't as extensive as Ted's, but his experience as an arranger provided us with invaluable input. Sid also guided me in writing my first--and only--successful big band chart: an arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne." In those days I knew nothing of music theory, and my inner ear was informed by rock harmonies rather than jazz. Thanks to Sid's coaching, though, I came up with an acceptable arrangement of the Guy Lombardo classic, which the band played every New Year's Eve henceforth and eventually passed down, along with the rest of its book, to its successor, the Stardusters. The Formal Aires was a profoundly important part of my musical learning curve. Through it all, my father and mother faithfully drove me to the weekly rehearsals. The saxophone that Dad was unable to play now rested in the hands of his oldest son, and Dad could hear both it and me coming to life, doing what we were created to do. I played in the Formal Aires, and afterward the Stardusters, all the way through high school and even into my early college days. I think the Formal Aires must have played at every country club in West Michigan, and not just once, but frequently. We had the New Year's Eve gig locked in every year at the Cascade Country Club. The band was a great way for us kids to make a bit of money playing music--and above all, we had fun! To Steve, to Gus, to Ted, to Sid, and to all my old bandmates: Thanks. I've never forgotten. The Formal Aires and the Stardusters steeped me in the classic swing band literature and gave me the confidence I needed as a lead alto player. Too much confidence, really. I was naive as to how much I had yet to learn ... (To be continued.)

Between Idolatry and Joy: Some Thoughts on Life from a Jazz Saxophonist and Storm Chaser

There is an art to pursuing the things we're most passionate about without letting them consume us. I certainly find this to be true of my own two interests, jazz saxophone and storm chasing, but the principle applies to all of us in whatever our preoccupations may be. Without fascination, energy, focus, and joy to drive us wholeheartedly in our pursuits, there's no point to them; yet without restraint, self-awareness, and awareness of the broader world around us, it is easy to become a mile deep in our passions and an inch deep in life at large. Between these two realities, for me and I think for many of us, there lies a dynamic tension. As a disciple of Jesus, I have to reckon with the issue of idolatry. In Old Testament times, an idol was easy to identify. It's hard for us today to fathom people fashioning gold calves and graven images, both human and bestial, and then worshiping the things that they themselves had crafted. Yet that's exactly what people did back then, both in pagan nations and in apostate Israel. The funny thing is, we're no different. We still bow down to the works of our hands, to things that are capable of becoming our gods if we let them. Things that blind us to truths bigger than ourselves and hinder our capacity to love God and others. The problem with our modern idols, however, is that they're not readily identifiable as such in the same manner as, say, a brazen bull or a figurine of Marduk. Anything in our lives can become an idol--our careers, our pursuits, significant relationships, the desire for love, our injuries and disappointments, our causes, our appetites, our emotions, our cars and other possessions, even our ministries and charitable occupations. Idolatry today is not usually something that is innate to the things in our lives, but is a matter of our attitude toward them and God. In ways subtle and not so subtle, it's easy for us to invest ourselves in what we have and what we do in such a way that we allow it to define life and purpose for us. That's a problem, because any of it can be taken away from us at any time, and sooner or later all of it is going to go. Then where do we find meaning; then where do we find life? Moreover, we can become irresponsible and selfish in reaching for what we've defined as life, setting our pursuits above people we love and who love us. When we're frustrated in those pursuits, we can become downright nasty, even destructive, toward persons who seem to inconvenience us, challenge us, or obstruct us. We'll sacrifice others to our idols and justify ourselves in doing so rather than deal with our own hearts. All this in the quest for life on our own terms. Well do the words of Isaiah the prophet speak to us today: "[The idolater] feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him. He cannot save himself or say, 'Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?'"

Is there a flip side to this coin?

Of course there is. If God never intended for us to enshrine the things that we enjoy and love to do, neither does he want us to smother those things in sackcloth. In the Bible's book of Genesis, in the Creation story, God from the beginning gave Adam and Eve something meaningful to do. They were gardeners, caring for the trees and flowers in Eden. Ironically, after they sinned, the man and woman's immediate response was to hide from God behind the very things he had assigned them to cultivate and protect. The problem lay not in the shrubs and trees and vines, but in Adam and Eve. The greenery in the garden was the same as the day when God first looked on it and called it good; it was the human heart that had changed. Ever since, in various ways, we've had a tendency to conceal ourselves from God and from each other behind the things we do. Yet those same pursuits also have the potential to express the robust life of Jesus living in us untamed and unfettered. There's nothing at all winsome about Christians who are so paranoid about idolatry that everything they do is constrained by a gray, lackluster religiosity. Many well-meaning believers confuse holiness with a boxed-in, sanctimonious, hermetically sealed existence that is about as invigorating as paper pulp. It hardly mirrors God's exuberance in the act of creation, when with a decisive word he spun the visions of his heart into being--planets, suns, galaxies, luminous gas clouds, multiplied quintillions of celestial objects, all whirling across the velvet-black vastness; ocean tides pulsing and surf crashing against craggy shorelines; wildflowers waving in vivid, multi-hued pointillism in meadows and forests, knit together, unseen, by untold millions of miles of subterranean roots and rootlets. Talk about a hobby! It was no dour, stuff-shirted God who created this fabulous world around us, this universe that awes and fascinates and humbles us; no, it was an eternal being who throughout the ages remains forever young--smarter than the most brilliant scientist, wiser than the wisest sage, yet passionately, perpetually, and unapologetically a child at heart. God created us to live our lives as wholeheartedly, creatively, lovingly, generously, fearlessly, and beautifully as he lives his, in ways unique to each of us. Failure to do so is in itself a form of idolatry, a lack of trust that the One who hardwired us with our personal interests also supplies the grace and wisdom to express his life and fulfill his intentions through those interests. The overarching principle is love--love of God and love of others. Love is ultimately what separates between idolatry--which is about pursuing our own independent way on our own terms--and the abundant, God-dependent life that Jesus offers. Christianity is not about good morals and rock-hard dogma; it is about nothing less than the life of Jesus himself living inside us, energizing us, guiding us in the pathway of his character. That is no weak, wan way of living. To be sure, it is a way that is often marked by self-sacrifice, pain, loneliness, misunderstanding, prayer, struggle, and self-control. But it is also a way infused with immense purpose, remarkable potential, endless fascination, and a joy that can be found in nothing else this life can offer.

In conclusion

Bringing all of the above to bear in a practical way for those of us who chase storms and/or play music: Whatever you do, do it with all your heart. God is not glorified by a timorous approach to the things you enjoy, nor does he want you to walk on eggshells for fear of offending him. Just keep in mind that there is more to life than your pursuits. Enjoy those pursuits, treasure them, but don't grasp them so tightly that you can't let go, and don't let them give you tunnel vision so that you fail to see and participate in the broadness of life around you. Other people's worlds are as rich and important as yours; to the best of your ability, enter into them, celebrate them, and let them expand you. Harness your interests in a way that makes your life bigger, not smaller--an expression of generosity, not selfishness, and of a Christlike perspective that values God and others most of all. Behind the sound of a saxophone playing now tenderly, now exuberantly, always striving for creativity and beauty...behind the sublimity, the fascination, and the awe of a tornado churning across the open can, if you choose, hear the song and see the face of God. If you submit your heart to him, he will in turn release his own magnificent heart in and through the things you love to do. This, in part, is what life, true life, is about: allowing the things that are central to us to become the servants and the expressions of Someone far bigger than ourselves, and of a kingdom greater than our own.

Sax ‘n Wedge: A Life Goal

This last week I was so preoccupied with chasing storms that I hardly blogged at all. When I did, naturally it was about weather. Jazz, music, and the saxophone have languished in the background, at least blogically speaking. Not, however, in practice. When I headed out west for some dryline action, my horn went with me. It always does. My chase partners know that when I head for any chase over a day in duration, the sax is as much a part of my travel gear as my suitcase, laptop, and camera. Some folks toss a baseball or football while waiting for storm initiation; I practice my saxophone. Any time is a good time to get in a few licks. I have several reasons for bringing my horn along on chases, all of them having to do with eventualities. The most likely scenario is, as I've just said, that I'll get a chance to woodshed my instrument. Far less likely--but still, ya never know--is the possibility of winding up in some restaurant where a band is playing, and it's the kind of band that makes me wish I could sit in for a tune or two. Like I said, unlikely; most Great Plains towns aren't exactly jazz hotbeds. Still, as I learned back in the Boy Scouts, it pays to be prepared. My main reason for taking my saxophone with me on storm chases, though, is because of a particular life goal of mine: I want to get a good photo, or maybe some video, or even both, of me jamming on my sax while a monster wedge churns away in the distance. For that matter, I'll settle for just a nice, photogenic tornado of any shape or size. I just want some kind of visual record that captures the raison d'etre of Stormhorn and the essence of who I am as a storm chaser and jazz saxophonist. Assuming that a storm is moving slowly enough to make a photo shoot practical, my preparations once towers start muscling up are: * Rain-X windows * Remove camera from case and make sure it's ready for action * Get tripod out of trunk * Assemble saxophone Just a handy checklist. Reasonable enough, wouldn't you say? So cross your fingers for me, or better still, pray. This season could be the one where I fulfill an ambition and get some very cool photos to show for it. I'm a maniac, you say? Of course I am. A maniac is just someone with a different kind of dream.

The Return of the Trains: Sax Reflections from the Railroad Tracks

It's good to see the trains again. As a jazz saxophonist who loves to practice his horn in his car parked by a set of railroad tracks out in the countryside, I noticed last year that something was missing. Used to be, I could count on seeing the distant semaphore light turn green and watching as the white pinpoint of a headlamp miles down the tracks brightened, drawing closer until I could hear the rumble and then the roar of the locomotive and the clatter of freight cars rushing past. I enjoyed that experience at least once, and normally two or three times, during most practice sessions. But as the bottom dropped out of the economy and Detroit's auto industry languished, the giant spigots that sent the trains hurtling along the pipeline between Lansing and Grand Rapids closed to a trickle. Those hundred-car, three-locomotive strings I was so used to became, just like that, a thing of yesterday. Until lately. It gives me much pleasure to say that the trains are returning. I still don't see them with the frequency I used to, but I am noticing that there are more of them, and they are growing longer. Two days ago, parked by the tracks in Alto, I paused in my practice to watch as a train boomed by in front of me...and kept on booming. It was one of those hundred-car affairs, just like in the good old days, which really aren't old at all but certainly were enjoyable. Now those days seem to be on the way back. It may be a modest return, but the spigots are reopening. It's heartwarming to think, as I sit by my beloved tracks working out my saxophone chops, that I'm once again likely to hear the sound of another horn, far off in the distance and growing closer, and to feel the powerful, exhilarating, reassuring rhythm of a train rushing by.

An Easy Way to Use the Augmented Scale in Major Keys

As I've continued to spend time incorporating the augmented scale into my working vocabulary as a jazz saxophonist, I've made one recent discovery which simplifies its application, at least in part. It is this: the same augmented scale used with the tonic chord in a major key also works beautifully for the altered dominant. For example, in the key of C, use the C augmented scale for both the tonic C Maj 7 and the G+7(b9, #9). Just keep in mind how you handle the root of the scale when the G dominant is sounding, same as you would do if you were playing a G Mixolydian mode. The reason this same-scale approach works is because every augmented scale, being symmetrical by design, is actually three different scales spaced a major third apart, all sharing the same notes and interval relationships. The C augmented scale also functions as an E and an Ab augmented scale, and each version works nicely with an altered dominant seventh chord built on its leading tone. Thus the Ab augmented scale is the scale of choice for imposing the augmented sound on the altered G7 chord. Try the above tip with a blues as well. It works fine, adding color and enough "wrong notes" to sound right, providing you bring the free-floating augmented sound back to earth by resolving it properly to a chord tone and maybe adding a nice, earthy dash of the blues scale. If you have other ways in which you like to use the augmented scale, please drop a comment and share them. And check out my jazz page for more articles and transcriptions geared for the practicing jazz musician.

Practicing Intervals for Jazz Improvisation

If you're a budding jazz saxophonist, this post can make a huge difference in your playing. If you're a seasoned player, you can probably skip it. Then again, you just might find it valuable, in the manner that hearing your mother's voice in the back of your head asking you whether you're eating your vegetables can be valuable. Are you practicing your intervals? They're so good for you. Oh, I know, you'd rather shove them aside and concentrate on the steak and potatoes of memorizing jazz licks and solo transcriptions. But if you want your instrumental technique to grow up big and strong, then don't forget to sit down with your Larry Teal workbook, or whatever technique book you're using, and invest some serious time memorizing and maintaining interval exercises along the chromatic scale. Seconds, thirds, fourths, all the way up to sevenths and even beyond...unless you plan to play nothing but scales in all your solos, all of the aforementioned are building blocks that you really need to get your arms around. So don't ignore interval practice. Do it because you'll acquire a greater command of your instrument, speed up your thinking, and enhance your creativity. Do it because your mother would want you to. Increasing your dexterity is of course an important objective of interval exercises. But don't make that your sole focus. As you practice, also think of application. Let's say, for instance, that you're spending some time taking diads of a minor sixth up and down the chromatic scale. What are some practical uses of that interval that you're likely to encounter? For starters, you can use it to ascend from the third of a major triad to its root. Also, in an augmented triad, a minor sixth (or, enharmonically, an augmented fifth) is the distance both from the root to the raised fifth of the chord, and from the third to the root. With a V9, you can ascend from the root to the flatted thirteenth (aka flatted sixth) and resolve down a half-step to the fifth; or you can leap from the second to the flatted seventh. And of course, the order of these upward leaps can be reversed. For instance, you can leap downward from the flat seventh to the second of the V9 chord, or from the root downward to the third. The point is, while you're practicing your intervals, exercise your mind along with your fingers by thinking of ways you're actually going to apply all that fabulous technique you're building. Engage your brain and ears as you're doing the grunt work. And with all that being said, sit down and git 'er done. Practice, practice, practice. Make your mother proud.

The Bob Hartig Quartet Plays the Thornapple Jazz Festival

This past weekend I had the pleasure of fronting my own jazz quartet for two consecutive days as a part of the Thornapple Jazz Festival. Now in its sixth year, the festival has begun to expand its reach beyond Hastings to other, outlying communities in Barry County. This year included Delton and Middleville. Thus, on Friday the lads and I took the stage at the MidVilla Inn on M-37 just north of Middleville. The turnout was modest, but not at all bad for a small town that isn't known as a hotbed of jazz. As for a rhythm section, I couldn't have asked for better players. Ric Troll is one of the tastiest drummers and all-around musicians I know, with tremendous musical sensitivity. Dave DeVos is a seasoned and solid bassist who, like me, has a relentless thirst to grow in the mastery of his instrument. And keyboard man Paul Lesinski is nothing short of fabulous, a player of great inventiveness and the technical excellence to pull off anything his fertile mind conceives. Together, these guys are my musical dream team. They made it easy for me to pull off my allotted two sets with the kind of energy and spontaneity that are the soul of jazz. If all it takes is one bad player to make a good band sound lame, it's also true that a great band can boot a decent soloist up to the next level. It takes a certain baseline of aptitude and experience for that to happen, but once you achieve that level, then players the caliber of Ric, Dave, and Paul can lift you out of the ordinary and inspire you to stretch, to push beyond your normal, self-imposed limits and explore new musical territory. That, at least, has been my experience as a jazz saxophonist. I was very pleased with our performance at the Mid Villa, and again Saturday night at the Waldorf in downtown Hastings. The Waldorf is one of my favorite restaurants, with out-of-this world cooking and absolutely stellar, award-winning microbrews, and I've wanted to bring a straight-ahead jazz combo there for a long time. Mike, the owner, finally booked my quartet for the dinner crowd from 6:30-8:30, and we got our chance. Our song list ran the spectrum from bebop to ballads to Latin to jazz/rock, and included such tunes as "Anthropology," "Footprints," "Triste," "Stolen Moments," "Have You Met Miss Jones?" and "Song for My Father." We even played one of my own originals, a Latin-flavored ballad that I wrote several years ago called "Tracy" in honor of a love lost but fondly remembered. It was a joy to participate in the Sixth Annual Thornapple Jazz Festival, and an honor to be invited by the event's driving force and musical manager, my friend Joe LaJoye. Joe, if you happen to read this post, thank you! The guys and I had a blast. Maybe next time around you'll be able to take a breather from all the responsibilities of "makin' it happen" long enough to sit in with your trumpet for a tune or two, eh?