Saturday, 8 December 2012

First Day of School

To say that I grew up without music is disingenuous.  But when I compare the omnipresence of music in my life now, as compared to when I was younger, it seems as though my childhood was practically deaf.

In all fairness, the radio in our house was always on and tuned to CBC or Classical FM, playing an afternoon mélange of Maritime folk ditties and Bach cantatas.  But, my parents never collected music.  The LPs they received as gifts, long before I was born, sat shelved in the den.  And our family rarely went to performances.  Although I recall attending the occasional medieval choral concert. 

This is not to say that my parents didn’t appreciate music.  My maternal grandfather was a classical aficionado, who had - no less - a seat from the original Metropolitan Opera House in his music room.  There were good musical genes in the family but amassing albums, as my grandfather did and I still do, was never a priority for my folks.

My sister, on the other hand, had over 100 cassettes.  I have her to thank for introducing me to Pink Floyd and for buying me my first tapes and CDs.  She was and remains the arbiter of all things hip, but with a twelve-year difference between us, she was beginning her adult life when I was beginning my awkward tweens.

For the most part, it was my parents and me. 

Neither of my parents regularly socialized, instead opting to stay in and read or go to the library and write.  I spent a considerable amount of time by myself.   I went to school far enough from home that getting together with classmates, either after class or on weekends, was never easy.  Consequentially, I was perpetually behind the game when the other kids talked about music.  I didn’t know my Dookies from my Wu-Tangs.  (Although I was up on my Smashing Pumpkins thanks to a camp councilor I befriended over the summer, and I had a fair collection of other "alternative rock" albums that I had bought with babysitting money).

At school itself, our twice weekly vocal music classes featured a disproportionate number of Amy Grant jams, secular carols were not welcomed at the Christmas pageant, and our string ensemble never moved beyond Pachelbel’s Canon. With your permission I would like to gloss over all discussion about my role in the school production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat.

Closer to home, the other kids on my street were very musical.  Most, if not all, of them took piano lessons from Mrs. Reynolds.   In addition to be an accomplished pianist and vocalist herself, her husband is a classically trained trumpet player and music professor at U of T, and her son, Jamie, is a successful jazz pianist in New York City. (Plug: Another neighbour to the north of us - Gary Williamson - was also an accomplished jazz pianist who frequently recorded with the Phil Nimmon’s nonet, among others.

Great music was around me but never quite found me.  And when I asked my mother if I could learn the piano, she perceptively reminded me that we didn’t own one.

But now for the dramatic turn of events.

When I began high school I had the fortune of sitting behind a young hip-hop deejay in my history homeroom.  He needed help with his homework and I need help with my street cred.  So began the exchange of answers for mixtapes.  Even at 14, Brian had a discerning ear for conscious lyrics and soulful beats.  While others were listening to Puffy & Ma$e CDs, he was digging for Common Sense twelve inches. 

I still remember the first time I went to his house and saw his Gemini turntables and American Dj Pro mixer set up next to his milk crates in the basement.  Because of the love he poured into it and the music he scratched out of it, that budget rig is still more impressive to me than a Goldmund’s Reference II (MSRP: $300,000).

Brian never got me into hip-hop per se, but he did get me into deejaying.  He gave me my musical opportunity and showed me that there was an entire world of underground music waiting to be discovered.  Real music they didn’t play on the radio.   With that came a love of obscure, sample-based, deejay-oriented music, as well as a sense of identity.  I now had something that I was passionate about.  Then I had something that I was knowledgeable about.  Then I had something I could passionately and knowledgeably share with other people. 

Throughout high school I worked my way through Drum n Bass, Techno, Breaks, House and every other electronic subgenre imaginable.  I should thank my parents for enduring very late nights of very loud music blaring from the six speakers in my bedroom.  It took me a while to scape up the cash for my own turntables because I spent all of my money going to parties.  If I wasn’t trainspotting the deejay, I was helping Numb Clothing sell rave mix tapes.  Or more often than not, getting into an absurd liquid-pop-and-lock battle with my friends.

University was spent studying and using my new internet connection to discover a world of mislabeled and poorly recorded 128-bit peer-to-peer mp3s.  I now had access to a library of free (read: stolen) music.  I remember spending nights surfing Discogs and Limewire, all the while scrawling notes on a pad of paper (Green Velvet = Cajmere.  Search for “The Percolator”).   More generic searches for “funky” lead me to discover artists such as Roy Ayers, Brass Construction and George Clinton.  For Christmas one year my folks presented me with the Ken Burn's Jazz CD boxet and a stack of other indispensable jazz albums, which prove to be formative to my current musical tastes.

About five or six years ago, I started a deliberate search for the samples and loops from my favourite house tracks, which took me back to their disco, boogie and electro roots.   And for the most part, that’s the sort of stuff that I spin now.

More recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz and soul from the same era (early 70s to early 80s).  So, it would appear that I’ve come full circle.  The music that inspires me now is the music that inspired the hip-hop that inspired Brian who inspired me then.

My hope in tending this blog is to find like-minded students and to continue my learning in the process.  Maybe I'll even have the opportunity tutor the next dorky kid fixing for music lessons of a different sort.  I can’t promise that my selections will always be esoteric (for that check: Flabbergasted Vibes) but I can promise that they will always be heartfelt.   I’ll share the music I love in the hopes that you’ll participate by leaving comments, questions, links, corrections and requests.


Here’s a track in the vague omni-thematic vein of "music, learning, painting you a picture of my life and returning full circle."  It’s by one my favourite soul/fusion/spiritual/space jazz pianists, Lonnie Liston Smith.  (Not to be confused, as he often is, with the funky organist Lonnie Smith).

Lonnie Liston Smith & The Cosmic Echoes - "Renaissance" - Renaissance, RCA Victor, 1976

Discogs: Renaissance

Liston Smith is featured on Miles Davis’ On the Corner and Big Fun (credited as Lonnie Smith), as well as Pharaoh Sanders' early work on Impulse! and Strata East, but his work leading The Cosmic Echoes on Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman Records is where he excels.  His echoes are still resonating in samples employed by Stetsasonic, Jay Z and Digable Planets.

And a huge shout out to Brian (Dj Chaput).  Check him out [at 1:13] in this video of Miles Jones live at Toronto’s New Era store:

1 comment:

  1. Your love of music inspires me. Also, I love you.