When I was twelve years old, I started taking trumpet lessons with Bruce Staelens, a trumpet player and jazz musician located in Orlando, Florida. Each week I'd look forward to my lessons, but mostly I was looking forward to the last 10 or 15 minutes, because that's when we'd practice jazz improvisation.
My favorite part of the jazz improvisation sessions was getting to hear Bruce play. I'd stare at the bell of his old Benge trumpet with its faded lacquer, as I listened to some of the hippest jazz lines that my young ears had ever heard. And then it would be my turn to play. I'd always play horribly (I'm less horrible now), but my shortcomings motivated me to practice more so I'd play better next time. And really, I didn't even care how I played. I was simply thrilled to have the opportunity to play jazz with Bruce.
At the end of my freshman year of high school, our band director discontinued the high school jazz band. Nobody I knew was even remotely interested in jazz at the time, except for Bruce. So, not only did Bruce introduce me to jazz in the first place, but he also helped sustain and nurture my interest in jazz at a time when it could have easily faded. That interest in jazz has continued to grow over the years, enriching my life to this day, 20 years later.
THE MIDDLE YEARS
The above might be familiar reading if you've read the My Introduction to Jazz article, but there's a little more to the story. After five years of lessons with Bruce, he got a gig traveling with a Broadway show. His departure was sudden. I didn't get a chance to say goodbye and I completely lost touch with him. I didn't get to tell him when I made it into the all-state jazz band as a senior in high school and I didn't get to tell him that I was going to study jazz in college. And I definitely didn't get to thank him for introducing me to jazz so many years earlier.
In total, eighteen years passed without any communication with Bruce. About once a year I'd search for him online but I never found any information. That all changed in 2008, however, when I searched again and found his newly constructed website.
Once we regained contact, we traded a few emails and I finally got the chance to thank him for introducing me to jazz. I also told him about my jazz blog. Since then, he's read several of the articles and I'm pleased to say he's remained a regular reader. Honestly, that's about as good of an ending as I had hoped for this story. But it gets better...
A couple of months ago, I began planning a vacation to visit my mother in Portland, Oregon. The trip would also include two days in Seattle, a city that I've always wanted to visit. After booking hotels and airfare, I searched for jazz clubs in Seattle with the intention of seeing a good concert during my visit. My search eventually led me to Tulas.com, a Seattle jazz club's website. As I looked at the concert calendar, I noticed Bruce's name and immediately remembered that he had moved to Seattle a little over a year ago, where he continues to play jazz and teach private lessons. He wasn't going to be performing during my visit, but I contacted him to see if we could get together for dinner or something. To my delight, Bruce not only agreed to dinner but also offered to drive my mother and I to his house afterward so we could play some jazz together! How cool... oh, and by the way, you can catch Bruce and his big band at Tula's on the first Wednesday of every month. If you see him, say hi for me!
The big night of our Seattle reunion finally arrived last weekend. As planned, we went to dinner and then over to his house. I had told Bruce beforehand that I was just going to bring my mouthpiece, which I had hoped to use with one of his extra trumpets. So there I was, mouthpiece in hand when I saw a familiar trumpet on the floor of his practice room. The lacquer was almost entirely worn off, but I instantly knew it was Bruce's old Benge trumpet. When I asked him about it, he said he took it out of storage and cleaned it up just so I could play it. I know it might not seem like a big deal, but it really meant the world to me. All of those memories of staring at the horn, listening to those great jazz lines, came flooding back to me. And now, nearly twenty years later I held that very same trumpet in my hands as I prepared to play. It gives me chills even now.
In total we played 5 or 6 tunes in Bruce's living room that evening. My mother and Bruce's wife watched from the side as Bruce and I traded solos. That part also brought me back to my childhood since my mother would always wait for me outside of the practice room to take me home after my lessons when I was a kid. Although, this time she could finally hear us clearly and this time I actually sounded pretty good! Well, maybe not all that good. It was about 1am Eastern time, I was tired from traveling, and had just finished a few glasses of Bruce's home brewed jazz-inspired beers (the Miles Davis "Prince of Darkness" was my favorite). But whether I played well or not, it was a fantastic night and a memory that I'll always treasure.
Best of all, I finally got to thank Bruce in person for introducing me to jazz. Were it not for Bruce, I'm sure that I wouldn't have developed such a strong passion for jazz music. Without that passion, I wouldn't have created this website nor would I have created my free online ear training tools. And without that passion I would never have returned to the most frustrating and fulfilling part of my life: playing jazz trumpet. And I have Bruce to blame, I mean thank, for it!
Thank you, Bruce.
Thanks for the write-up Rick - it sure was a blast for me too!!
After reading your great post about your reunion with Bruce Staelens I checked out Bruce's website. I was interested to learn that Bruce was a student of Willie Thomas. In case you have not seen it, you should definitely visit Willie's amazing website: http://jazzeveryone.com
I think it would be fantastic if you sent him one of your recordings for a toot and tell! (That goes for you too Bruce!)
All the best,
I have seen that Uncle Willie site before, but I didn't recognize the name. When I saw Bruce in Seattle, however, he mentioned that his old teacher had moved up to the Seattle area. Sure enough, it's the one and only Willie Thomas.
Bruce actually introduced me to Willie Thomas when I was about 16 years old. I was at Willie's high school and I played a couple of tunes with their jazz band. And check this out... I didn't know this until my Seattle trip, but that Benge trumpet I mentioned in this blog entry was actually given to Bruce by Willie when Bruce was 13 years old!
As for a "toot and tell," I'd be afraid to hear the comments, especially now that I've listened to that 16yr old Ryan Kisor clip... 16?!
An inspiring story. You were fortunate to have such a great teacher and he was fortunate to have such a dedicated student.
Great story man.
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