About Me - January 11, 2004

My introduction to jazz

As mentioned in the "My playing history - the beginning" article, I began taking trumpet lessons in the 7th grade.

At the time, I was really shy and felt intimidated by our middle school band director. In fact, I didn't think he liked me at all since I had switched from the French horn to the trumpet without asking him for permission. In actuality, he wasn't mad at me at all, but nevertheless it kept me from asking him to recommend a private lessons teacher. Instead, I turned to the phone book for guidance and basically picked the first place that mentioned trumpet lessons in their ad.

I'd later learn that all of the best trumpet players in the area took lessons from a well-known teacher who consistently turned out the best trumpet players in the state. No doubt, had I asked our band director for a recommendation, I too would have studied with that well-known teacher. But, as luck would have it, I ended up with a private lessons teacher that nobody at my school had ever heard of.

I'll never forget the first time I met my trumpet teacher. I was sitting with my mother, in the waiting area of a small music store. The store had a merchandise area with several electric guitars on the wall, and a hallway with 4 or 5 lesson rooms. While we waited for my teacher to appear, we were treated to a muffled concert of rock drumming, the sound of an electric guitar being tuned, and a beginning trumpeter slowly playing scales. Before long, one of the practice room doors opened and out came a trumpet student, about my age at the time, followed by my new teacher: Bruce Staelens.

The first thing I noticed about Bruce was the square patch of facial hair located below his bottom lip. It was the first time I had ever seen a real live soul patch! Next, I saw that he was wearing octagon-rimmed eyeglasses (another first!), which rested low on his nose. You can probably see where this is going, so I'll cut to the chase. Bruce was a jazz musician.

Since I hadn't been playing the trumpet for very long at the time, my first lessons were spent entirely on fundamentals and whatever music I was playing in band class. Jazz didn't come up until I joined the middle school jazz band. At that point, I'd bring in my sheet music and Bruce would help me with the rhythms, phrasing, etc. Once I learned how to play the tunes, the focus shifted to jazz improvisation. Bruce would put on a Jamey Aebersold record (yes, it was a record back then) and we'd take turns improvising.

Jazz improvisation definitely didn't come easily to me. I couldn't play anything by ear back then and I had very little experience listening to jazz. I kept with it, however, because of how good Bruce's trumpet solos sounded. With each of his solos, my appreciation for jazz grew and so did my determination to improve.

In total, I took lessons from Bruce Staelens for four or five years. The lessons were pretty short and we usually didn't spend more than ten minutes or so practicing jazz improvisation. While the bulk of my jazz education would come from other sources, Bruce's early role in my jazz education was perhaps the most important. It was Bruce who sparked my interest in jazz and it's that love of jazz which keeps me playing to this day.

The next phase of my jazz education began when I turned 16. With my drivers license in hand, I now had the freedom to drive myself to the public library. It was there that I'd discover recordings by Miles Davis, Clifford Brown & Max Roach, Ornette Coleman & Don Cherry, Freddie Hubbard, and John Coltrane. They even had that awesome video of Coltrane and Eric Dolphy playing "Impressions" with that erector-set/scaffolding backdrop. I'd say the pivotal moment of my "library years" came when I first listened to "Lonely Woman" on Ornette Coleman's "The Shape of Jazz to Come." That was (and still is) the coolest thing I've ever heard. After that, all I wanted was to be was a great jazz musician.

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