Over this past weekend, I had the immeasurable pleasure of taking a road trip with the Garfield High School Jazz Band. (Well, to be more accurate, bands, as in I & II.) Our destination was the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho in Moscow. I signed on as a chaperone for the trip. By some anomaly in nature, Emmett, who plays guitar in Band I, had no issue with his goober mom coming along for the ride, even if it meant she would be on the same bus as he. Wow. It was a long, fun and magical trip. I kept a journal of our travels and documented a few things with my i-Phone, which was the perfect gadget for road tripping. The following are a few observations and musings from the big adventure.
The day started with Emmett informing me, via text message, that I am a retard. It’s his perverse term of endearment for me. I kind of like it and, truth be told, he’s called me a lot worse in the past. “Retard” is tame. And anyway, I probably deserved it. On the morning of our departure, there was a little confusion around logistics of getting up to the school to catch the bus. Like an idiot, I asked for clarification. What kind of stupid shit does that?
The buses were scheduled to leave at 9:30am and the kids had to be at the school by 9 o’clock for a quick rehearsal before the trip. The scene in the band room was a crazy zoo. Parents chatted in huddles. Sleepy teenagers lumbered around- zombies with i-Pods and ear buds. Backpacks, luggage and instrument cases cluttered the space. Real Books were scattered everywhere. The place was buzzing. There was a cacophony of random scales as kids warmed up their instruments. But almost instantaneously, the chaos was replaced as the dark beauty of “Lush Life” swept through the room. I was impressed at how quickly the kids were able to get down to the business and how fantastic they sounded, even at an hour when teenage brains are not at their optimal.
Loading onto the buses was uneventful. There were two buses: one for each band. On the Band I bus, the kids made a beeline for the back seats. I sat in the front with the other chaperones, the band director Clarence Acox and an acoustic bass, which took up a couple of the seats across the aisle from me. The ride to Moscow was long but not unpleasant. Much of the time was spent in conversation with other parents intermingled with reading and a bit of sleeping. There was still snow on the ground when we left Seattle and throughout the whole trip to Idaho, there were nothing but snow-covered vistas. It was a beautiful. It was also pretty flippin’ cold and only got colder the farther east we traveled. We stopped in Ellensburg for lunch, then re-boarded and moved on. When we hit Moscow, we made a brief stop at the festival and then went on to our hotel to check in.
We stayed at the Hillcrest Hotel. As far as lodgings go, this was a classic dive. Another parent had read an online review, which said something about the hotel maid Inca getting arrested for selling drugs in the parking lot. Although it was perhaps a little grimy around the edges, it wasn’t really too bad. The reactions of the other parents to the hotel were varied, extreme and amusing. I’ve stayed at more dumps than 4-star hotels and did not experience the shock that some of the others did. That said, I was slightly taken aback to find a washcloth in a Ziplock bag in the bathroom with a note that said: “This washcloth is stained but clean. Please consider using to remove your make-up.” I declined. Still, my room was toasty warm (a plus given the single digit temperatures outside) and the bed had a fantastic mattress. I was good. The kids seemed fine as well.
After checking in, we headed out to grab a bite of dinner before the evening concert. We hit a strip mall that offered up a variety of culinary options. We followed Acox to a Chinese buffet. This was dubious from the start; as we walked across the parking lot, the air was permeated with a rancid odor, which seemed to be coming from the restaurant we were headed towards. Adding to my growing concerns, Emmett and several of his friends emphatically implored us not to eat at the Chinese buffet. They claimed it was vile and disgusting. But my fellow chaperones and I went anyway because it was Acox’s pick. You have to understand that Clarence Acox is the man. He’s hip, slick and cool and everyone wants to hang out with him, even if it means going against our gastronomical instincts or the earnest warnings of our children. The Chinese buffet was truly awful. Much of the offerings were unidentifiable meat stuffs. Even if I weren’t a vegetarian, I would have been skeptical eating most of the things I saw there. I ended up with some rice and a bowl of soup. These seemed safe enough. The talk among the parents at the dinner table and even throughout the trip was about touring colleges and where their children, most of whom are seniors, would be going to school in the fall. It seemed that most of the kids would be headed out of state to four-year universities. Some had big names like Juilliard, Columbia and USC. These discussions were slightly awkward. Emmett has decided to continue at Seattle Central Community College, where he has been in the Running Start program. I have no problem with that; the kid isn’t sure what he wants to do just yet, and I think it’s a smart move on his part to stay close to home while he figures it out. I think many of the old formulas for education and career are outdated anyway. There are lots of ways to be in the world and following the trajectory of a university education is only one path. Still, at times I sensed a little bit of something when I shared his plans with the other parents. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it. At any rate, I didn’t give a shit. For the record, Emmett has informed me that he will be a millionaire someday. I believe him.
We survived dinner at the Chinese buffet, regrouped with the kids and moved on to the Kibbie Dome at the UI campus for the evening concert. The show was a double bill with the Manhattan Transfer and Victor Wooten. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must confess that the Manhattan Transfer just isn’t my bag. I think a lot of the kids felt the same. Everyone was much more interested in catching Victor Wooten. Unfortunately, we had to head back to the hotel before he came on. Because of the demands of the day ahead, Acox had set a curfew. So, we piled back on the bus and back to the Hillcrest Hotel. No Victor Wooten for us.
A quick word on chaperoning: The job description was never very clearly laid out for me. I was assigned a couple of different rooms of charges and the only directions were to make sure they were up in the morning. Beyond that, the duties of a chaperone seemed to be left up to the individual parents involved. I signed on as a chaperone with some measure of trepidation only because I remember what I was doing on school trips at that age. Anyway, as far as chaperoning goes, I was pretty loose. I made sure the kids got up in the morning and that was about it. I will say that well past the “lights out” hour on Friday, I found a group of boys up to some late-night shenanigans. They were stupid enough to congregate right outside the window of my room. I just chased them off and told them to go back to their rooms and go to bed. If sterner actions were in order, I failed to step up to the plate. I’d say those kids owe me one.
This was a psycho day all around. It started bright and early with Emmett’s solo performance with his combo. This involved getting him to the venue by 7:45am. I felt bad for him; Emmett is not usually even awake at that hour, much less performance ready. In most cases, all of the kids from Band I attend the solo performances of their bandmates. But given the early hour, it was enough just to get Emmett and his combo up and off. The rest of the Band I members slept in a wee bit later. Thanks to the generosity of fellow band parents Si Doi and Phil and Cathie Davis, Emmett, his combo mates and an acoustic bass were transported across town to the designated spot. (Performances and clinics cook place all over the campus as well as in churches, schools and other places throughout Moscow.) Acox also made Emmett’s performance. In spite of the God- awful hour, Emmett and his crew did a great job. Emmett played very well and did a particularly nice job with “On Green Dolphin Street.” Emmett has a lovely sound and his fingering is impressive, especially on Latin grooves. He brought his best chops to this performance. I was proud. Uber proud.
The rest of the day was a mad scramble that involved getting kids back and forth for not only their combo presentations but also for performances with Bands I & II. At each and every turn, the Garfield Jazz kids played their asses off, both individually and collectively. I always marvel at the high caliber of their musicianship. This weekend was no exception. Some highlights:
-Evan Zavada, baritone sax, did one of the hippest interpretations of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” that I think I’ve ever heard. For one, it was on baritone sax, not a big solo instrument in the Garfield Jazz band. For two, he was able to effectively infuse humor and playfulness into a tune that typically doesn’t lend itself to these. Finally, the synergy between Evan and his combo was palpable, especially with his pianist Julien Garvue.
-Three Garfield pianists had back- to- back solo performances: Ian Zapolsky, Adam Stansell and Rachelle Tanner. All of them are monster players and each has his/her own individual thing going on. They were a verifiable tsunami of Garfield Jazz badass. It was especially cool to hear Rachelle Tanner on piano. Within her role in Band I, she usually plays flute.
-Of course, Bands I & II displayed their usual excellence. Band II played first and ripped it up on “The Days of Wine and Roses,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and “Anthropology.” Pianist Jack Swiggett had a particularly dandy outing on the latter. Later in the afternoon, Band I played under a giant cross in the Church of the Nazarene sanctuary. It was probably the most swing that joint has seen in a long time, maybe ever. The band played “Blues Machine,” “Lush Life,” and “Straight Ahead.” There were numerous stellar solos -everyone blew like mad-and the band as a whole was outstanding as always.
-Immediately after the Band I performance, drummer Gus Comstock and his combo, which included Emmett, jetted across town for Gus’s solo performance. (Once again, it was the generosity of band parents-Phil & Cathie Davis as well as Brian Smith-that made sure the kids got to their venue. The festival was running abysmally behind in some locales, which made it tricky for some kids to get to their solo performances on time.) Gus and combo did make it and even though it was the end of a long, insane day, they played like champs. It was a thrill to hear and see.
-Although he didn’t have his own combo, Andrew Imanaka was the workhorse of the day. He was the go-to bassist for multiple combos (as well as with Band I) and pretty much played nonstop all day. He made it happen for many of his friends, and for that, he should be commended. I flipped him a lot of shit throughout the afternoon. After each combo performance, Andrew asked me how they sounded. I jokingly said that everyone sounded great except for him. I’ve known Andrew since he was a little kid. He knew I was just messing with him. But in all seriousness, I was really impressed by Andrew’s endurance and generosity towards his peers.
After all the performances, everyone shuttled back to the Kibbie Dome for a game of hurry up and wait. This was perhaps the only downside of the weekend. The festival director John Clayton and other powers that be have decided to steer the festival in an increasingly non-competitive direction. This lent itself to a lot of confusion. With the Big Bands, no “winners” were declared. Instead, certain bands were honored by being asked to play on the main stage. In years past, this invitation equated “winning” the festival. Although that wasn’t the case this year, that still seemed to be the subtext. At any rate, there was a lot of waiting around to find out which bands would be playing. The results trickled in very, very slowly. Ultimately, Band II was invited to play but not Band I. With soloists, there was also a measure of confusion. Several musicians were named as “outstanding soloists” and were awarded trophies and the prestige of playing with their fellow honorees on the “Hamp’s Club” stage. Again, it wasn’t a contest per se, but it still felt like the kids had won something. I applaud Mr. Clayton on his decision to transform the competitive nature of the festival; I personally struggle with the notion of arts as competition. Still, the messaging around the change was fuzzy. It seemed as if the festival still hadn’t quite figured out what it wanted to be.
All that said, I am thrilled to report that Emmett was selected as an outstanding soloist. Whether it was a competition or not, it was still pretty incredible to see my son recognized at such a wonderful festival. I don’t think there’s a bigger high than seeing your child do something big like that. It’s an intoxicating joy. Five other Garfield Jazz musicians were honored as well: Ian Zapolsky, Willem de Koch, Gus Comstock, Adam Stansell and Ian Frost. They all got to play on the Hamp’s Club stage along with selected soloists from other schools. I loved seeing them all up there together. And Emmett played beautifully that night. He soloed like a pro. I couldn’t have been happier or prouder: pure mom bliss.
The goal was to get back to Seattle by 2:30pm, so we had the kids up and loaded onto the bus by around 8:00am. Given the exhausting weekend they’d had, I was impressed at how quickly and easily the kids pulled themselves together for the departure. It was snowing as we pulled away from the Hillcrest Hotel. There was some discussion among Acox, the bus driver and the parents about inclement weather ahead and about conditions at Snoqualmie Pass. We made a stop at a grocery store so that everyone could load up on food. There would be no stopping for lunch in Ellensburg. The mission was to get to the pass and hopefully through it before bad weather made it impossible.
The drive was uneventful. The bus was quiet. Pretty much everyone was sleeping or at least in the zone with i-Pods and earplugs. For a good part of the drive, the skies were even blue. At one point, we pulled into a rest stop so that everyone could go to the bathroom. (There was a bathroom on the bus but the kids didn’t want to use it. It was like a Honeybucket on wheels.) There was a short but fierce snowball fight at the rest stop and then we were off again.
Around Cle Elum, the weather started getting funky on us. It was snowing heavily and the road conditions were becoming increasingly challenging. Charlie Phillips, who plays tenor sax in Band I, also has a passion for weather. He’s way into forecasting and even writes a weather blog. As soon as the weather shifted, he was at the front of the bus with the chaperones and Acox. He was a frisky pup fixated on the “weather event” that was playing out before us. He stayed at the front with us for a long time. He ate potato chips as he eagerly watched out the big front windows on the bus. The jazz moms were quite taken with Charlie and continued feeding him potato chips and asking questions about the weather. It was silly fun. Eventually the bus driver pulled over and put chains on the bus. We made it through the pass just before they closed it for avalanche control. We were only an hour late getting home.
Emmett is a senior this year. Sadly, my trips with Garfield Jazz will soon come to an end. I had planned to travel to New York City in May to see the band perform at the Essentially Ellington competition, but unfortunately, this is not to be. Garfield Jazz was not selected to participate this year. We’re all still in a state of shock over that one. It’s amazing how quickly the past four years have gone. For that matter, it’s amazing how quickly the past 17 years have gone. Emmett’s time with Garfield Jazz has been extraordinary. How many kids his age can say that they’ve played at the Lincoln Center? Or that they’ve shared the stage with the likes of Houston Person or Miguel Zenon? And of course, the mentorship of Clarence Acox in and of itself as been an enormous gift. The thought of Emmett graduating and moving on is bittersweet. I am profoundly happy that my son has been afforded so many wonderful opportunities and experiences with this great program. And finally, I am deeply grateful that he was willing to share a few legs of the journey with me.
Love may be the answer. But jazz is the enduring connection.