If you take lessons on Sundays, you may have had the good fortune of meeting George. Although George is not part of our regular teaching staff (yet?), I was happy to feature him this month. George’s story takes us from an artsy Middle-American town to California Dreamin’…by way of music & military. It’s quite a tale, won’t you join me?
Where did you grow up?
I’m from Kansas originally, Lawrence. I went to Kansas University there, too, for Trumpet and Voice Performance.
Did you grow up in a musical household? Were any of your family members musicians?
No, not at all. My parents listened to music, there was music always on. I grew up on Michael Jackson, oldies, and random musicals that my mom would listen to. My dad liked old rock and roll. He played valve trombone when he was a kid, but never really amounted to anything. My grandfather was a musician, he was a trombone player. I actually just got his trombone lately.
Was he a professional musician?
He was! In the Army Band. He funded his way through dental school by playing trombone in dance bands in the 40s. He was in St. Joe Missour, playing for a band called The Dutch Young Orchestra. It’s cool, I have the entire book in possession – I have all of their handwritten charts!
Not only did he play in the Dance Band, but he was in the Army Band. He played parades, then they’d play in the evenings (to entertain the officers, basically). He also played on the radio, live in the mornings. They’d play till 2am and then wake up at 6 to go play at the radio station. That’s how he made his way through dental school.
I found out later that he told my parents that they should really convince me to stop playing trumpet. We did a duet on trumpet when I had been playing for about four or five months. He was so appalled by my playing and my lack of ability to focus (which is still probably a lot of my problem today). He said, “Sell your axe, man.”
Was trumpet your first instrument?
I played piano in kindergarten, or preschool. At the school they had basically a closet that you went into for piano lessons. I actually came down with chickenpox for the one and only recital and I missed it! I think that scarred me from from piano for my entire life, and that’s why it took me 7 years to get the Masters in Piano Proficiency.
Your parents must have been encouraging music, to have you start that young.
Yeah, my great grandmother was really into musical theater and art. She kind of pushed that, too. I learned how to sing as a kid in church. I would sing along with the hymnal. That’s how I figured a lot of my sight-reading and sight-singing abilities, just figuring out how those harmonies worked. That was my favorite part of it!
What was it that made you playing trumpet?
Because all my friends were playing trumpet! You know, “Hang out with all my friends? Band is cool.” I almost played the French horn, and cello too. In 6th grade we did the “try out the music instruments” thing in the summer. And it was like, “well, all my friends are playing trumpet, so I guess I’m gonna do that.” They all stopped, eventually.
It’s so common for people to play horns up until high school, or until college, and then stop. What comes to mind for you about the early years, and why you ended up staying with it?
I grew up in a really arts-centered community. Music is bigger than sports in Lawrence! We had 2 large high schools and 4 middle schools. You got a band every day! I had a great trumpet teacher from the second I started. His name was Jack Brookshire, really great guy. He was a retired band teacher, just one of the legends in town. He taught trumpet to all the young kids, and he made it fun. That’s what really encouraged me to stick with it, because he’s showing us cool music and we had a good time playing.
Does anything in particular come to mind about the early lessons? Something that made an impression?
I remember being really grossed out when he showed me how to clean the trumpet! Haha, I don’t know, he was just really nice man. A lot of stupid jokes, and just one of the most gentle people. That’s the thing, you just have to be really coddling to kids at a young age.
What kinds of music did you have in middle school?
We had a Concert Band with couple of band directors there. I was in choir, too. I was in choir all through grade school, middle school and high school as well as band. I did the marching band in high school. We had a middle school jazz band, too. We also had an all-city band. There was a lot going on!
So you were pretty much on the path of music pretty early on?
Oh yeah, it was music all the time. I was geared towards sports at a young age, and then I had a run-in with one of my friends. He pushed me down when we were playing basketball, and I’m like, “Well, this isn’t fun anymore! I’m going to play the trumpet.”
Let’s talk about high school. It’s such a formative time for becoming serious about music. Do you have any memories from the high school years that stand out?
I really enjoyed the camaraderie of the trumpet section. I had a lot of good leaders above me, older kids that were cool and semi-serious. I eventually was the trumpet section leader, when I was a senior. That year Steve Leisring started teaching at KU. He was coming around and contacting high school kids. He gave me free lessons, so I’m like, “Okay, I guess I’m going to go to KU and play trumpet!”
I would love to hear about the high school-era bands you did outside of school!
I was in a pseudo- prog rock band. It was called Fuzzy Math. I was obsessed with Dream Theater for a long time! I played a couple other funk and soul cover bands right after high school.
At that point, were you trying to be a professional gigging musician?
I was just trying to gig on the side, gain experience. There were a handful of gigs around town, but most were in Kansas City. There were a few really high-paying church gigs and private events. The downtown music scene wasn’t great. I would work for a couple churches outside of Kansas City that would hire me to play solos a couple times a month. I pursued classical as well.
Oh, you did classical outside of school, too? At school, did you have a certain focus?
At one point in college, I was I was doing every ensemble I possibly could. I was in eight different ensembles, one semester! It was: Concert Band, Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Big Band, Jazz Combo. I was in the Choir, Jazz Singers, Trumpet Ensemble and Opera – all at the same time.
Wow. Is there anything, any one teacher, class or experience from your college years that stands out?
We toured China, twice. I went with the Wind Ensemble the first time. We went for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Anti-Japanese war…yeah. A lot of my favorite things I drew from this guest artist coming in and seeing people who are working, and then having master classes with them. Peter Erskine came in, Rich Perry. Kenny Garrett came through.
Nice! Now did you end up going straight to being a working musician after college?
I went to Indiana University for my Masters. When I was there, I took an audition for Dallas Brass and I got second place. I got a call halfway through the season to come out and play. I took a semester off of school and went on the road with them.
What is Dallas Brass?
It’s a touring brass quintet that is focused on pedagogy, teaching and outreach. They go to high schools and middle schools to playing with students. It’s a professional touring brass band, like Canadian Brass or Boston Brass. We’d have master class during the day that all the kids would come out for, then usually their band would join us for a concert in the evening.
Now did you just play in Texas?
No, at all. We went all through Florida, Tennessee, Georgia. Went went to Arizona. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. We went through the midwest.
You were hired for a season, you said? How long is that?
We did 85 shows, it was like half a season. Five months.
And after that you went back to college?
I finished all the coursework, then auditioned for the Air Force Band. That’s why I came to Travis.
What motivated you to audition?
I mean, I saw the paycheck and benefits. It was a steady gig!
What was your comment?
It was a minimum of four years active. I extended and did one more year. I actually separate from the guard, the reserve, this January – less in a month! It’s an eight year contract. You finish out your inactive time, if you want, in the guard. I went directly from active to the guard side of things. It’s also band.
What can you say, in general about your experience? Do you recommend the Air Force Band?
What I always warn people about is to not lose sight of why you’re really there, why you’re passionate about music. A lot of people get in and forget about their instrument! They just pay attention to their collateral duties, since that’s the only way to rank up in the Air Force. You can’t really can’t really quantify musical talent.
Is there only one Air Force Band?
We have what’s called areas of responsibility. There are 6 bands stateside. There’s one in Germany. There was one Alaska. There’s one in Hawaii and one in Japan. The one at Travis had an opening. I saw a flyer when I was at Indiana, came out here, auditioned, and I got it.
What’s life like when you’re in active duty?
It really depends on what’s going on. As a trumpet player, I’d go play taps for active duty funerals sometimes. I mean, it’s a workday. Yet get paid travel and per diem if you’re going out of town. Rehearsals would gear up a week or two before any big performances.
What were some of the “big performances”?
We played Hollywood Bowl several times. I played with Chicago. We would play with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. We played with Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. We augmented the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, so they had the top call session guys in LA. We would sit in with them and play behind these guys on their large-ensemble orchestral arrangements. We do the rose Rose Bowl, and I sang the national anthem with Gene Simmons at the Raiders Coliseum.
While you were in active duty, did you do any music or bands outside of that? What are some of the bands that you have been involved with lately?
I really didn’t do a ton when I was in the Air Force – it doesn’t leave a lot of space for creativity and inspiration. I played in a Salsa band in Indiana. Here in California, I’ve been doing City Trees Brass Band. I played a little bit with Big Sticky Mess, played with Sol Peligro, Control Z, C Marcus Scott and the Funky Spliff, Sick Pigeon, did a couple gigs with Arden Park Roots.
Nice! Let’s close this out with some of your general thoughts or advice, maybe for someone that might be considering music in the military.
Well, basic training and all that, it’s kind of like a game. I mean, it’s horrible, but you realize they’re taking really good care of you. You’re eating three huge meals a day, albeit, maybe you’re eating them in five minutes. And then you’re gonna be running around the track for a long time, and then being barked to do things that are impossible to do in the amount of time they give you. You just kind of keep your head down, keep moving and the end of the day don’t forget who you are, and you’ll come out on top.
And just keep playing. Wynton Marsalis told me that once, actually, “Keep playin’.” When I had been playing trumpet for about 6 months, my parents took me to see him. They asked if I wanted to meet him. I mean, sure! So I went backstage, and I didn’t know, I was just talking to him, told him I played trumpet. That’s what he said, “Keep playing.”