Alto Workouts

It was the stuff we did in high school band class that eventually told how my life would play out. It's hard to imagine any public school music class as being influential, but this was no ordinary band class. Divide it into two halves: the good half and the bad half. The bad half was the mandatory concert band and parade unit. A Calvinist approach to music education if ever there was one, the concert band was a reason to drink. It was designed to punish the PTA moms and dads who were foolish enough to buy us music instruments in the first place -- forced, as they were, to sit through our horrific presentations.

As for marching band, there is nothing worse than wearing seedy pajama-weight uniforms as if hired to guard British Royalty on a winter's night at the local football game. This, so you can hump out onto the field at halftime -- in formation -- and bomb the stands with a bad medley of Stevie Wonder's hit songs.

But it was Crawford's jazz ensemble that was the good half of that equation. I lucked out, arriving for tenth grade with a busload of gifted musicians from points south and east on the district's map. I believe they called us a magnet school. They didn't call it bussing, like they did in other parts of the country. Those were fast and exotic times for a sheltered kid from the 'burbs like me, and band class was the equalizer. I got to play music with kids from the hood that took it to the next level. Among them were Nathan East -- he eventually went on to join Eric Clapton's band -- and Carl Evans, the piano mastermind behind Fattburger.

At the vortex of all this raw talent was a kid named Hollis Gentry. He played saxophone. So did I, but I played nothing like Hollis. Even then, Hollis was already a proficient jazz musician, a child prodigy skilled in the art. I grew up in Lawrence Welk culture, and that's how I sounded when I played. I hardly knew from jazz. I came from La Mesa. Our streets were white and Protestant-safe. Jazz music was not part of our blue-collar Republican lives. And my grandfather's sweet tooth for Delta blues was only a temporary respite from his hard-core bigotry. "There's good ns," my grandmother explained, "and there's bad ns." And I think she actually believed that.

But the changing racial fabric in my classrooms required quick adjustments on my part. And I've certainly never told anyone, but that was a coming-of-age time for me. Slippery footing it was, learning that the truths held by my family were utterly cheap and wrong. It would have been easier to come full circle and live the redneck life. Had it not been for Crawford's jazz ensemble, I might well have. Racism, when deeply ingrained from childhood, can be heavy gravity.

Hollis doesn't know this either, but his alto workouts got me through the long days of high school. He blew with candor and an elegiac suffering that was simply not developed in most teenage boys. The raw emotions that boiled out of that horn invited me to confront my own mental stuff; at 15, one didn't do that. In our jock culture, making vulnerable music that did not come loud and hard from a guitar amp was like being stripped naked in public. It was not always a safe place in the emotional pecking order of high school boys. Now I know that Hollis Gentry's music was about possibilities. I didn't then. And the experience enlarged my own head-heart connection, even though I would not come to capitalize on that for years to come. And all that time, I thought I was only learning to play jazz.

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