Updated: Mar 6, 2022
In this week’s blog I interview my high school band teacher, open up about my band geek years, and profess my undying love for horn-driven music, Billy Joel, and Huey Lewis and the News.
Okay, so I’m really going to open up here. In high school I wasn’t really into playing in bands. I did love music but my tastes were not the least bit edgy or subversive or cool. This had to do with the fact A. my parents still didn't have MTV and B. I had become a full-fledged trumpet playing band geek, marching band uniform and all, and was unfortunately living in a hornless era of music: the early 1990s. At this point my brother had moved on to college and while I still very much appreciated the punk, new wave, and indy rock that my he got me into (read about it here) and was still rocking The Cure, The Talking Heads, and the Dead Milkmen on my boom box from time to time, I was really starting to become obsessed with horns. I had been playing trumpet in concert band for 6 years and had gotten pretty decent at it, to the point where I was being picked for CT northern regional concert and jazz bands. My ear was becoming very attuned to the horn, specifically horn players who were skilled at their craft, and wanted to hear more. The problem is, there was a complete lack of horns in popular music in the early ‘90s. In fact starting in the 1990s, music started developing more of a droning, apathetic, wall-of-noise, mid-range sound with such bands as Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Alice and Chains, and Radiohead. Now don't get me wrong, I like these bands too, but they lacked brightness and contrast. If I may make an aside into some audio geekery here, our TSC bass player Steve Kerr once gave me a very valuable lesson about sound engineering that I think really applies to 1990s music and to life. We were practicing at SMASH Studios in midtown Manhattan and Steve was showing me how to mix the sound.
“Hey Steve, any suggestions for the EQ settings? I never know what the hell to do here”
“Jeff, you want to bring up the low and high frequencies but bring down the mid range… the 400 Hz area. The mid range is bad, it creates too many soundwaves that cancel each other and it ends up just sounding like mud. The low frequencies and high frequencies are like light and shadow. They help to define the sound and to make it pop”.
This what I love about the horns: they’re bright, they’re high frequency, they cut right through. I fucking love a good horn section and to this day I would say that most of the music I listen to is very horn driven: ska, soul, funk, jazz, swing, afrobeat, mambo, boogaloo, even some classical music on occasion. Horns serve an important purpose, too. They're the "call to action" instrument, like bugles executing the cavalry to charge. Historically horns have been prominently used by the military for such purposes, in fact horns made their way into New Orleans jazz from instruments that were leftover from Civil War marching bands. Can you imagine watching Star Wars or Indiana Jones without horns blasting in the background? It wouldn’t be the same! Horns are here to energize us and to fill us with power to do brave things, like fight Nazis and blow up Death Stars. It’s fight music to get fans pumped up for their favorite sports team. I remember buying my dad a CD of college football marching band fight songs and it still makes me smile ear-to-ear thinking about how excited he would get listening to it. He was a star quarterback in high school and you could see how the music transported him right back to that moment of getting pumped up before a game. While I'm at it, I just want to give a shout out to my Connecticut friends and drop a reference to the Hartford Whalers theme song, a.k.a. "Brass Bonanza". It has kind of a Hawaii Five-O feel to it. Give it a listen:
Years later Tri-State Conspiracy recorded a song called "Death March" which sounds slightly like a minor chord version of the Whalers theme:
So what were my options for good horn playing in the early 1990s? Here’s what I was listening to around this time and I’m going to warn you there is nothing cool or punk rock about it:
Oldies Music: I tuned in more to the oldies station than any of the modern stations during the early ‘90s because they were playing a lot of music from the ‘60s and the ‘70s which not only sounded great to my ears but also prominently featured horns: Stevie Wonder, Jr. Walker and The All Stars, Chicago, Sly and the Family Stone, Blood Sweat and Tears, James Brown. My mom owned a lot of these albums on vinyl along with other rock bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. My Dad’s taste was a bit more on the easy-listening side but also enjoyable and horn-centric since he also played trumpet when he was younger: Ray Charles, Fifth Dimension, Al Hirt, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. I remember my parents and brother introducing me to the Blues Brothers as a kid since they were all huge fans of SNL and loving the music more than anything: Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, not to mention the slick horn playing of the Blues Brothers band. I can still see my mom bopping in her seat along to the James Brown while watching that movie and the way John Belushi dances in church is exactly like me in the pit whenever I am at a ska show. My brother also had a lot of the Blues Brothers live albums which I frequently enjoyed listening to. To this day I still love the smell of old vinyl records, occasionally wear vintage clothing from the ‘60s, and like to boogie down at a good soul or Motown DJ party, whether it’s the kind thrown by an aging scenester emulating the old school British Mod, or the kind organized by a hip hop DJ with deep respect for the original soul and funk tracks. Soul music was the first example of “cool” music ever introduced to me. Whenever I hear it, it makes me imagine what my parents were like back in the ‘60s before having my brother and I. One of my top ten concerts of all time was seeing Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at the Apollo Theater with my parents in 2010 which I recently reminisced about with my parents. Even my dad, the star quarterback, said, “I’ll never forget the way that the moonlight reflected off the east river as we took metro north back from Harlem on the way back home. What a concert!’. I’m just going to say this, I think oldies music is far better than early 90s music. Fight me.
Big Band Swing: I became a big fan of the “bright sounds” of this genre (title drop!) which came from playing in the Cromwell High School jazz band and encouraged further by my Uncle Don, a bit of a Friendtor, who grew up in the post war era and made me some mix tapes from his vinyl record collection: Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, etc. I totally admit to gravitating towards the gangster / rat pack aesthetic around this time, due in no small part to Phil Hartman’s impression of Frank Sinatra on SNL which I thought was hilarious. This actually planted the seed for me to start singing because Sinatra was so easy and fun to sing along to in my car and I could pull off a funny Phil Hartman impression at the same time. Around this time Night Court was a popular sitcom on TV and crooner Mel Torme was frequently a guest. The running gag was that Judge Harry Stone was a huge fan of Mel Torme but kept missing opportunities to see his favorite musician perform due to bad luck. My parents ended up taking me to see Mel Torme at the historic Bushnell theater in Hartford which was an awesome memory. I actually experienced a similar Judge Stone streak of bad luck missing out on seeing The Specials perform live due sold out concerts, me being out of town on business trips, etc. which lasted at least 2 decades and was broken only just last year when I saw them in downtown LA.
Big band music was frequently used in movie soundtracks, especially gangster movies like Goodfellas which I saw in the theater in high school. Something about seeing a guy getting stabbed to death in the trunk of a car and then hearing Tony Bennett being played immediately afterwards may have somehow inspired some of the aesthetics of Tri-State Conspiracy. The Goodfellas soundtrack in general is just a great sampler of American music spanning many decades from the ‘50s up to the ‘80s: big band, doo wop, The Ronnettes, The Shangri Las, Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones. I love the way that music is always playing in the background of that movie which seems to be reflective of my life. Goodfellas also made me appreciate the borough of Queens which became my home for 17 years.
Little did I know that swing music would later enjoy a revival in the mid ‘90s with bands like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin Daddies, Squirrel Nut Zippers, and the Brian Setzer Orchestra and that I would actually get to open for a couple of these bands with TSC. I was so money and didn’t even know it! And I still love swing music. One of my favorite NYC memories was going to Midsummer Night Swing and dancing under the stars at Lincoln Center. Also, while we’re talking about swing and the recent passing of Eddie Van Halen, I should add that Van Halen was one of the hard rock bands that I really gravitated towards as a kid because A. I thought David Lee Roth was funny and B. many of their songs had a swingin’ sound to it: Hot For Teacher, Ice Cream Man, and Big Bad Bill is Sweet William now (with Diamond Dave’s dad on clarinet). There was a really fun “bright sound” Vegas-like swagger to Van Halen that was completely dead by the early ‘90s. Tri-State Conspiracy once covered Ice Cream Man which features my favorite solo by Eddie:
Late ‘70s / Early ‘80s Blues Revival: There’s a certain bar rock / greaser / doo wop sound from this era which featured tight, bright horn sections and was still receiving heavy rotation on some classic rock and easy listening stations and also from high school kids like me spinning their older brother's records. The Blues Brothers is probably the best example, but I would also include Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, the SNL house band, Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and the News, J Geils Band, and The HoneyDrippers, a killer rockabilly swing band started by members of Led Zepplin which kind of predated the Brian Setzer Orchestra.
Films from the late 1970s and early 1980s were also relying very heavily on nostalgia from the ‘50s and ‘60s which fed into this aesthetic: Grease, Stand By Me, Cry Baby, Little Shop of Horrors, La Bamba, and of course Back to the Future which led me, and every other adolescent child, to become a Huey Lewis and the News fan. I think these aesthetics are ultimately what drew me to The Ramones. To me they sounded exactly like oldies music, just sped up and with more distortion and attitude. Funny enough The Ramones once played on Sha Na Na.
I should add that when I was first taking singing lessons for Tri-State Conspiracy, I was practicing a lot to Billy Joel. He seemed to have the right range that matched mine, at least when I was trying to sing loud to cut through the other amplified guitars. I may have adopted some of that Long Island, “Big Shot” accent in the process. Yes I love Billy Joel and Huey Lewis and the News and I don’t care what anyone says, “Easy Money” by Billy Joel is a great song with an awesome backing horn section. Fight me.
Soundtracks: Being a huge fan of Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I owned all of the John Williams soundtracks to these films and played them incessantly until I knew them inside and out. This really made me appreciate orchestration and complexity in music: many different things coming together in a beautiful way that sounds pleasing to the ears, not just complexity for complexity’s sake. Mass coordination of this many players is no easy feat and something that would come in to play later with my engineering career. It’s funny, I actually saw a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Hollywood Bowl a couple years ago with the LA Philharmonic and cringed at a couple of mistakes during the Cairo basket chase scene, that’s how well I knew the soundtrack. I was also obsessed with a cassette tape that I owned called TV’s Greatest Hits of the ‘70s and ‘80s which had some of the most amazing horn parts ever written: Barney Miller, Scooby Do, Wonder Woman, the A Team, the Streets of San Francisco.
Let’s also round this off by remembering that Aladdin was in theaters around this time and the soundtrack heavily featured big band type numbers. I was too embarrassed to buy a soundtrack to a children’s movie in high school, so I had a friend copy it for me off his younger sister who had the cassette. Some of these songs may have inspired more than a few Tri-State Conspiracy horn licks.
So as you can see I was a full blown band geek and there was nothing cutting edge, artsy, or punk in what I was listening to at the time, even though it’s all great music and I stand by it. I loved the sound of a tight horn section but at the same time I also wanted to cool and rebel like my brother and his friends did with the punk music that they listened to. I was just begging to discover ska music a few years later. I did very much enjoy music and playing trumpet in our high school’s concert and jazz bands at this time and was learning the fundamentals in the process, but performing music was not at all a passion for me. It was more of an activity, something to break up the monotony of school. I do kind of miss playing in concert band once a day, there was something very therapeutic about that, plus it was a social thing too. I made a lot of friends through the band and we went on some fun trips together, but at the same time I was not trying to get better or to do my own thing. I had no passion for playing and was pretty much just going through the motions. There were many reasons behind this.
To begin with, any brass instrument is a real pain in the ass to play. You’re not just blowing air into the thing, it’s a whole technique where you have to buzz your lips. Tighter for the higher notes, looser for the lower ones. This requires daily practice to build up the strength in your mouth, it’s essentially like weightlifting for your lips. There’s a lot of pain involved. It creates all sorts of pressure in your brain which I’m sure makes all horn players slightly crazy. In general it’s not fun at all to practice, at least not until you start sounding good. And on that note, unlike other non-wind instruments like the piano or guitar, it takes years of practice to play a sound on the trumpet that is pleasing to the ears. Anyone can strike a piano key or pluck a guitar string and the tone will sound pretty. A newcomer to the horn will sound like shit for years to come. You also have to keep practicing just to maintain what you’ve got. For instance, if you stop practicing trumpet for a few weeks and try to play, your lips will give out after 10 minutes or so because they’re so out of shape. Guitar players and bass players can just leave their instruments in their case until the next show without practicing. I hate them. This is why horn players require lots of down time during a song, to recharge the lips for the next attack. This is also good for the listener since the human ear becomes too fatigued with excessive horn playing. It’s too much brightness, like staring at the sun. This gets me thinking about the ways that instruments shape people’s personalities. To this day I often feel like the “on” guy in social situations, there to bring the energy up, but then require lots of down time afterwards to recharge.
The main reason for lacking passion though was the emotional stigma of being a “band geek”. I fucking hated marching band and everything about it: the uniforms, the style of music, and the regiment. It made music feel more like the military which is not what I wanted. It’s not what any musician wants. Not to mention spending hours outdoors in miserable New England weather, sometimes freezing, sometimes pouring rain. It pretty much sucks all of the fun out of music. I’m still traumatized thinking about the time we marched in the “Connecticut Day” parade at the “Big E” Eastern States Exposition in Massachussets, and got harassed by drunk bikers who were weaving in and around us. This frightening biker chick taunted me by saying, “Yeah baby, why don’t you blow in my ear after you’re done with that thing!”. I still shudder thinking about it.
We also got zero respect from the rest of the high school. There was always that athletic department vs. music department rivalry, not unlike Revenge of the Nerds. If we were practicing in the parking lot of the high school, it just opened up the doors for getting made fun of. And God forbid that we take one day off for a band competition, the athletic department was sure to find some reason to make a big stink about it for some reason. My best friend Matt who was a budding hipster at the time quit the band for all these reasons. He was more preoccupied with navigating the social strata of Cromwell High School than I was and started hanging out more with members of the student council and the cool kids who went skateboarding, snowboarding, and who wore VISION street wear. Thus, he aligned his musical tastes accordingly with early ‘90s alternative rock, listening to bands like REM, The Smiths, and The Cure. I introduced him to The Cure. My love of music was more pure-hearted and didn’t care if it what I listened to earned me cool points or not. I knew what I liked and didn't care if the stigma of being a band geek would lead to social suicide. Matt did so our concert band friendship ended by junior year even though we continued to be friends throughout college and slightly after.
The other problem is that “the system” was making me play this music. I had no choice in its creation or selection and it would never make me cool. There’s also no audience participation, either. Your audience consists of parents who are there only out of obligation. No one is dancing during your set. The only time I felt true joy performing on stage was this one time our jazz band performed for a bunch of elementary school kids. We must have happened to pick the right set list because all the kids were bobbing in their seats and clapping along. From where I was standing it looked like the audience of the Muppet Show going nuts, much like our shows at CBGB many years later. I remember really letting loose and whaling away on the trumpet during one of my solos. Afterwards my teacher said, “Why don’t you play like that at our other concerts?” to which I said, “Because no one ever gets into the music!”.
I recently got in touch with my old high school band teacher Mark Vickers and had a good 3 hour conversation with him on Zoom to get his perspective from this era of my life, especially on what was going on behind-the-scenes with the faculty, parents, and athletic department. I sent him what I wrote so far (above) and he said, “Yup, you pretty much hit the nail on the head”. Mark started working at Cromwell in 1987 after transferring from a teaching position Elllington, CT. He enjoyed Cromwell at first because it had more of a budget than Ellington and also the bar had been set very low for him by the music teacher before him who was waiting for the band to get big before playing out. Mark’s strategy was, “build it and they will come” and immediately organized performances for the band including a big trip to Disney World. This stirred up a lot more interest and the band increased in size considerably. He reminded me of a trip to the Bahamas that never happened my sophomore year due to drama over money and logistics, much of it revolving around fear of terrorism because Operation Desert Storm had just begun. Oh if only people could see how much more fucked up the world would get in the next 2 decades! We ended up going to Toronto instead which was still a lot of fun and that hipster friend Matt and I picked up a couple of girls from Ohio at the dance after the competition.
Mark also validated my memory of him butting heads with the athletic department. Since some band students also played on sports teams, if there was ever a conflict between a band trip or concert and a team practice, the coaches would threaten to pull them from a game instead of resolving the issue directly with Mark. As time went on there was more and more pressure from the school and athletic department for the band to do marching band performances but wouldn’t pay him for his time nor be willing to invest in the extra staffing and expertise required to choreograph a field show. Not to mention that Mark hated marching band music just as much as the rest of us. He opened up about getting bullied a lot by the principal and superintendent in his later years, especially when he was going for his phD and had to cut back some of his hours, to the point where they started pushing him out with poor performance reviews. He’s doing well now though and is currently an adjunct professor at the University of Bridgeport acting as consultant to other music programs around the state,
I opened up to him about also getting bullied at work very recently, partly by our CEO, partly by other executives who were trying to throw me under the bus to assert their title when under fire by said CEO, and partly by a recent boss who was a very narrow minded Cromwell-esque townie who created a very toxic environment for myself and my team, in sometimes inappropriate and discriminatory ways, thus leading me and others to resign.
Mark told me a bit more about his earlier high school years and how back in his day being in concert or jazz band was the cool thing to do. “In the 1970s there were a lot more horns to be heard on the radio, like Chicago and Blood Sweat and Tears, plus a lot of the original big bands from the ‘40s and ‘50s were still going strong and touring, like Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson”. His high school was a lot bigger than Cromwell so there was a lot more competition. I asked if he had any Friendtors in high school and he mentioned a friend named Dave Barrett who was an avant garde beatnik who randomly decided to do a freeform jazz performance at their talent show. This immediately made me think of Spinal Tap, “We’re not about to do a freeform jazz exploration in front of a festival crowd!”. He really opened up Mark’s world by introducing him to the album, “Light as a Feather” by Chick Corea. Mark always had a soft spot for smooth jazz, much like I do for Billy Joel and Huey Lewis. I thanked Mark for all of his hard work and how much music has played an important part of my life ever since. I humorously said, “This Zoom call is my Mr. Holland’s Opus to you Mark”. He said he appreciated it because he never received a proper send-off at Cromwell and was just quietly ushered out the door. After he left they removed any mention of him from the music showcase. Fucking townies. Perhaps I will get my classmates together for a reunion to do some sort of punk / alternative gen X send off.