One of the things I turned out to be pretty good at during high school was music. I could always find the right pitches in church songs, and jazz and orchestral music really spoke to me. As a small child I had wanted to learn piano, but we couldn’t afford the piano or the lessons. In high school, the marching band had some instruments to lend. The question was, “Which instruments were available for free?”
The answer turned out to be narrower than I had hoped: drums and tubas, or more accurately, sousaphones, as this was a marching band. My reluctant pick was the tuba. I had pictured myself playing Harry James licks on the trumpet but the band already had plenty of trumpets players, including several good ones who had started in grade school. Same thing on trombone, and the other fun instruments. And none of those were available to lend in any case. So, in freshman year I took up the tuba. It came easily, and I liked it a lot. By sophomore year I was the strongest player in the section. I spent my summer wages on a real, upright orchestral tuba which was a much better instrument. I often won seats in competitive bands and orchestras filled with serious musicians, many of whom became professionals. It was fun.
Had I not gotten into West Point, I’d have attended an engineering school with a strong music program, in part to see how far I could go in music. I was accepted to Lehigh, Penn State, and Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon), which all had strong engineering and music programs. Of course, West Point neither offered music, nor allowed much time for it. I joined the Cadet Band, but the repertoire was limited to simple fight songs for mess hall rallies, a pale shadow of what I had played before. In the Army, life in the cavalry filled up the days pretty well, not leaving much time for frivolous pursuits.
I did not touch the horn again until post-Army grad school at Stanford, 1979, where the music department ran a no-tuition, no-audition band for non-music majors, like me. I had forgotten how much fun it was. I had also largely forgotten HOW to play the horn. It came back slowly, like riding a bicycle or speaking another language. Shreds of it had stuck in my memory.
When I escaped the Bay Area to Seattle in 1982, I stumbled into a thriving amateur music scene. I was invited into a community orchestra that needed a tuba. The principal trumpet there asked me to join his brass quartet to make it a quintet. The quintet, which I had never played in previously, was amazing. Improbably, our principal trumpet was a professional who had played in one of the Army field bands. We were his “fun quintet”, where he could just play music and drink some beer, without needing to argue with the other pros in his real quintet about interpretations. Our trombone player was then in music grad school and later became a composer. Our second trumpet and horn were not at that level, but were much stronger musicians than was I. I was the runt of the litter, and was fortunate that they needed a tuba.
Our weekly rehearsals were the musical equivalent of sitting down to a military strategy session with Omar Bradley and John Pershing. I learned a whole lot about playing my horn and playing quintet music, and very fast. When our two stars ultimately moved away for music jobs in other cities, I was a much stronger musician from their weekly poop sessions, also known as rehearsals. Since then, I’ve upgraded to a much better orchestra (www.thaliasymphony.org) and to a much better tuba (a German B&S Compact CC).
When our principal trumpet left, I inherited the quintet music folder (~ 150 tunes), which makes me the default organizer of the successor quintet. Amateur quintets are
a little challenging to keep afloat. The music everyone wants to play, because it’s interesting for all five parts, is generally difficult to play well. Professional level, really. Any group of five who can play it well generally includes active professionals. Some of them, not unreasonably, want to get paid to play this stuff, and often have other paying opportunities. Being artists by training and profession, many of them do need the money. Unless the organizer has the time to sell the group into paying gigs, the stronger musicians often balk at gathering just to rehearse. Working a day job, I lack that bandwidth, so keeping four strong brass musicians in the group has been a challenge. Way more turnover than ideal. Seems like we’re constantly getting acquainted. Reminds me of Cavalry squadrons in Germany during Vietnam.
During the halcyon days of the original quintet, our star first trumpet suggested inviting our musical friends to an outdoor backyard gathering one Saturday evening in July, when the northern latitude summer nights go on forever, and play quintet music for them, with a keg of local microbrew to lubricate things, and potluck for snacks. Someone coined “Brass in the Grass”, and it was born.
And it was a hit. About forty friends showed up, no beer went to waste, and everyone asked, “When’s the next one?”
Someone suggested we do it again in the winter, indoors, in a nice venue, wearing tuxes, and invite other quintets to join us. We were able to rent an elegant venue on the top (36th) floor of the old Smith Tower building with a great 360 degree view.
This event became “Brass in the Tower”. It went even better than Brass in the Grass. We had four quintets in total, playing from 7 to 11 PM, and this time went through two kegs.
Our dates seized the rare-in-Seattle chance to dress up, and people brought amazing food to share. It went so well that the next year we invited the Navy’s professional quintet from Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and to our surprise, they came. A good time was had by all, including the Navy pros, and we repeated this event for five or six years. Its death knell was the Smith Tower being purchased by a savvier owner who quadrupled the rent for the penthouse, putting it well out of our price range. But by then, our star first trumpet had joined the Spokane Symphony and our trombone had enrolled in a composition program in LA. Their replacements were not as strong, nor as good friends, so the motivation to continue the event somewhere else waned a bit. Friends
often say we should revive the concept, even if in a lesser venue. It may become a retirement project for me.
Memorable for me in all this was my close friend and roommate Bill Rice, his wife Suzanne, and their daughters attending a couple iterations of each event. They were at nearby Fort Lewis where Bill commanded an artillery battalion. It was great to have them there.
Unlike the sports I love but never could play well, I seem to have talent for this. Sometimes I wonder what might have come, had I chosen music instead of West Point. But the wondering never gets to regretting West Point and my classmates. I’m grateful for them, and for the gift of music.