I’m sure I’m not alone in saying Michael Jordan and the mid-90s Chicago Bulls were among my childhood heroes. I grew up day-dreaming that I was playing alongside Michael, Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, BJ Armstrong and the whole gang. When I’d watch games I would always have a basketball and hoop nearby to fantasize about being right there – catching the pass and putting up the shot. Attending games was always a religious experience: the feeling of walking into the stadium, the smell of the popcorn, the history hanging from the rafters…nothing but magic.
So what would happen if, 10 years later, I was sitting in my apartment and got a call asking if I could come down to the United Center and play a game with the team? Though thrilled beyond belief I have lead butterflies in the pit of my stomach. I arrive at the stadium and walk down the same entrance I used to, smelled the remnants of games past and acknowledged all of the numerous bygone demigods. But this time it’s different: now I’m on the court and everyone’s eyes are fixed on a game in which I’m playing. Next to me are all of the paragons of my youth: Michael, Scottie, Steve, BJ…
What if I told you that this DID happen to me on Monday night?!?
As a child I was a fan of sports and held those players in high regard, however, I was just as enthusiastic about musicians of both the present day and years past. When I started to become interested in jazz (most definitely a side-effect of my brother’s growing interest in the genre), among the first groups I ever heard was the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Their jerseys were suit coats and their trading-card stats lay in the memories of jazz enthusiasts (“Oh, do you remember on the recording ________ where John played “_____” in his solo!?”). Even though, they were celebrities to me: Dick Oatts, John Mosca, John Riley, Jim McNeely, Gary Smulyan, the list goes on and on. When I first attended the club as a middle/high school student from Wisconsin, my pulse was racing! Waiting in line outside the iconic red doors, shuffling down a narrow, steep staircase that could only be otherwise found in small towns across Europe, and finally getting my first glimpse of the club that is the namesake of this renowned group. Hanging along the walls, like the championship pennants hung from the rafters, are pictures displaying the monumental jazz figures that have graced the stage: John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Thad Jones and Mel Lewis (of course), Miles Davis…with all of the greatness in the room I’m surprised that I even fit! And on Monday night, August 25, I would be able to add my name to the luminaries who have performed at this historic jazz club.
My experience with the band dates back to June, when I received a call from my brother, Ryan (if you don’t know what he’s doing now, check it out – it’s pretty great – www.ryantruesdell.com), who non-commitingly asked me if I happened to be free, just in case I might be able to play some percussion on a recording. After many minutes of questions and answers I found out – it’s Bob Brookmeyer’s music, and the band is none other than the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra themselves. I prayed to every holy monument to PLEASE make this work out, and sure enough, it was on.
I was asked to play composed parts for three of the songs on the album, Big Time, XYZ, and Sad Song. Simple parts that were seemingly expendable. They had rehearsed and recorded as a band without me. I arrived at the studio just as they were finishing up, had a chance to meet John Riley (my Michael Jordan), and then, after John packed up his drums and moved out, I moved in with my suitcase, cymbal bag, bongo bag and snare drum case. It turned out to be a quick session, and only after I heard the final mix did I fully understand how crucial these percussion parts are to the ensemble as a whole. The tuned gongs, bells, bass drum, tam tam, cymbal rolls and quirky moments of free improvisation (one direction in the score was “Move table/chair/bang”) all gave the traditional big band a third dimension of timbre that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise.
The performance on Monday night was the release party of this album and the air was electric. Not only was I excited to be playing with my idols, but everyone in the band was filled with excitement because they were proud of the recording. In this band, everyone contributes their ideas to the band – it’s not a dictatorship the way most symphony orchestras are – if someone has an idea or a complaint, they simply say it at the next break in rehearsal. Sometimes ideas collide and have to be sorted out in some order, but in the end their is a sense of communal pride – and this pride was apparent before the first set started. I was seated on the right side of the band (see picture below from my brother in the crowd), and could only begin to imagine the names of people who have sat in that very spot, needing rest after a burning solo on the bandstand. In this spot I was right in front of Scott Wendholt (whose lyrical solos took the band to a new level), had perfect eye contact with John Mosca, the light-hearted but hard-playing band leader (and to him I owe my participation with the band), and could look right down the star-studded saxophone section at Jim McNeely. Truly the best seat in the house.
Playing alongside these amazing people and musicians was a dream come true. I sure hope that I can do it again someday soon.