The Right Notes

A record album decaying into musical notes

I hate my kids.

Oh, I don’t mean that literally. I mean I hate them in the sense that I am jealous. Because at some point during my vain attempts to pass on my own limited skill sets and sensibilities, they started to exhibit talent and taste far exceeding my own.

Now I live my dreams vicariously through them.

For example, two of my children are musicians. One plays saxophone. One plays trombone. They love jazz. And thanks to an amazing collection of talented, well-known, and dedicated music educators that play and work in the area, they have already far exceeded any musical aspirations I ever had for myself.

As a parent I never got the opportunity to yell at them to "turn that damn music down" because, well, I like what they play. I never got the chance to show them how to play Stairway to Heaven on the guitar because they forged ahead on instruments and music of their own choosing.

Its a terrible thing to be jealous of your children. Fortunately, pride transcends my own wistful longing for their successes.

You see, I always wanted to be a musician. Even now I imagine myself pouring my soul through sensuous brass at three in the morning in a dark Manhattan night club that reeks of gin and smoky saxophone.

But there is a problem. I am a morning person. I can’t stay up past 11 pm.

And even a bigger problem. I have no talent.

I am not too proud to admit that I can blow a horn and suck at the same time.

They say that when you play jazz you are never more than a half step away from the right note. In my experience as a musician, I am always a half step away from the right note. At best I am just half an instrument away from the right note.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy trying to play. And that doesn’t mean I can’t pass on what little musical knowledge I have to my kids.

Because the truth is, I do know a thing or two about playing jazz.

Shortly after I graduated from college I took a part time job as an apprentice engineer at a 24 hour a day jazz radio station in the San Francisco Bay Area called KJAZ. This was a remarkable achievement because I knew nothing about radio and nothing about the music.

However I did know a lot about working for very little money, and that apparently was the chief qualification for employment.

During my brief tenure at KJAZ I acquired very little in the way of engineering skills. However, I did acquire a deep appreciation for the music thanks to the knowledgeable disc jockeys who lived and breathed jazz as their passion.

What to me had been haphazard honking played over never ending songs with only traces of melody, over time revealed itself to be an inspired journey of swinging tension and release over beautifully constructed chord changes and challenging rhythms that moved forward not as song, but as artful, deeply expressive music generated by extremely talented players.

But I still enjoyed banging my head to Metallica too.

One night I had to take the station down for equipment maintenance and tests. This was always done in the deepest hours of the morning when only night owls and jazz insomniacs were listening.

And at 2 am one rainy Sunday morning I turned off the music.

They call it dead air―when the tower still transmits but nothing is broadcast. For a couple of hours there was a void in the frequency spectrum. Through tuned radios came nothing but the sound of emptiness as I swapped out new equipment for old.

The station was not scheduled to return to air until 4 am when the morning DJ showed up. But by 3 am I was finished; an hour ahead of schedule. The microphone and turntable console crackled to life with the returning glow of warming vacuum tubes.

I twisted the large dial labeled MIC 1 and announced the radio call sign as I had heard it done so many times before. “This is radio station KJAZ, Northern California’s first and only full time jazz station, broadcasting at 92.7 megahertz from our studios in Alameda, California returning to air,” I announced over 1500 watts of bristling power, even though no one was probably listening at that point.

As I spoke, I blindly reached for an LP by saxophonist John Coltrane from the copious record collection behind me and held it in place on the turntable as the platter came up to speed. Then carefully placing the needle on a track I turned up the dial and let the record spin, allowing the airwaves to be replenished with jazz as they had 24 hours a day every day since the station started operation in 1959.

I probably should have paid more attention to the sleeve before I slipped out the record.

Because over the studio monitors came the unmistakeable voice of Johnny Cash.

I fell into a burning ring of fire . . .

Immediately the telephone started ringing. All four lines.

That night, in a dark studio at three in the morning that reeked years of smoky saxophone, playing to a population of more than a million listeners, I was killin it.

Like I said, I know a thing or two about playing jazz.

And that is why I have every right to be jealous of my kids.