I literally started my professional career in 1974, “going pro” directly upon graduating high school. I passed musical auditions for both, the Air Force and the Army music programs. I now realize I had benefitted greatly from the efforts of extraordinary music teachers in high school.
I traveled the world with various military bands performing and touring as a professional artist over the subsequent next two decades. And my benefitting from daily interactions with many great musicians like Mr. Hampton was normal. This was the Vietnam War Era and I also met some great musicians who had been drafted into compulsory military service. One of those musicians was a tenor saxophonist named, Willie Driffin.
I never served in Vietnam. When I voluntarily enlisted, the draft had long been curtailed.
I initially chose the Army because its program had more bands to choose from around the world at that time – and its musicians were enlisted under a Civilian Acquired Skills Program. When I served in the Army, this civilian acquired skills program started musicians at an advanced rank because we already knew how to play an instrument – it saved money because we only required specific training for the actual job. Many military skills are taught to enlistees and officers from scratch.
I also attended all of the advanced music courses at the Armed Forces School of Music (Naval School of Music). It was like going to a college conservatory of music, except the classes were primarily music-related.
I enjoyed it and decided to stay in the military band program after my first term ended.
I chose to go to the Army band that was once based at Ansbach, Germany.
Hamp’ and Driff’
I met both Hamp’ and Driff’ when I arrived at the Army band at Ansbach during summer of 1977. Summer was the busiest season for the band. We played lots of military band gigs – often two or three concerts a day. We would also go several weeks straight, then have a few days to take uniforms to the cleaners and pay bills, before going out every day to perform concerts or military ceremonies for several weeks straight again. I didn’t mind. I was playing music and traveling around seeing some of the places in Europe I had learned about in history classes.
We didn’t have a jazz program in high school. I had only started seriously playing jazz music during the lab bands while a student at the Armed Forces School of Music in 1974. And the great bassist, Reggie Johnson* gave me the very first Aebersold play-along record when I served with him at my first band in Kansas. I would practice with the records without having to bother the rhythm section players while learning some of the basic song forms and tunes.
*VIDEO: Reggie Johnson on bass with Phil Woods Quartet and Strings
I was a fan of the music but had very little real experience performing it. I also had no real understanding of the music theory behind chord progressions and would simply use my ear to improvise until I met Hamp’ and Driff’.
Each of these great musicians (and others) took the time to show me how to apply the theory to performance.
By 1978, I was transcribing some Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Desmond, Phil Woods and Sonny Fortune solos from LP records. Hamp’ and I were also roommates in the barracks by that time. We always were listening, writing or practicing.
Driff’ and the other serious musicians in the band would stop in often. We were always working on something. Hamp’ had a connection in Munich and began playing gigs and jam sessions there. Driff would go with him. After working with me and helping me learn some tunes, they invited me to go along to the jam sessions.
Both would encourage me to only play on the tunes I had worked on and nothing I didn’t know – there is no shame in saying you don’t know a tune because there are hundreds of jazz songs.
And it is apparent to everyone in the room if you don’t know the song being played but try to play it anyway. I gradually got more comfortable and my improvisations naturally became more coherent. But, I learned many lessons over the next two years – often the hard way musically. I’m happy to have continued growing as an artist and improviser. I’m also happy to still be in contact with two of my most significant mentors at this point in my career.
The goal is not to play like anybody but yourself. That’s what the “cats” I admire did and do.
The mentoring I received in the beginning from Hamp’ and Driff’ was the musical foundation and basis of everything I do as an improviser and composer today. I also eventually became one of the best true jazz improvisers in the military and was chosen for several elite assignments because of that additional skill set. I still study and practice every day. I try to make time to mentor younger musicians too.