The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)

Last week, my dear friend and fellow jazz-lover, Eric, told me about the movie, I Called Him Morgan. It’s a fascinating film about the short, brilliant life and tragic end of jazz trumpeter, Lee Morgan. It’s an amazing movie full of fantastic music, and interviews along with lovely black & white photographs. Many of the photos clearly showed the trumpets Morgan played at various stages in his career. I recognized a Conn 8B, a French Besson Brevete and what I’m almost positive was a lowly Olds Ambassador. My guess is that the Olds was the lone survivor during Morgan’s hard times when his more valuable instruments likely found their way into the local pawnshop.

It’s always a sad day, especially for such a great musician, to give up a special instrument.

Me? When I was in junior high school I got really lucky when it came to trumpets. When I was in 7th grade our junior high school got a new music director. The outgoing teacher was a local legend and the 8th and 9th graders had come to love and respect him. The 24-year-old newcomer inspired great skepticism from the older kids but I liked him right from the start. It was easy for me to like him because he liked me so much. We had a kind of simpatico especially about music. He taught me a lot about jazz, different recording techniques and the acoustical qualities of concert halls. He had been a successful musician before he decided to become a teacher and he taught as if his students all felt the same as he did, and all had the same ambition to play professionally. But, though his attitude was contagious to me, not everyone caught the passion.

He thought I had talent and told me as much. I can recall his note on my first report card. Talented! Should have private lessons now! Kind of heady stuff for a 13 year old just learning to play the trumpet. I’d been struggling with a school loaner trumpet up until then. Even though I was a beginner I had a sense that the humble Buescher was making things harder than they needed to be. The new music director was horrified by the dismal condition of the school’s instruments. There was no money (has there ever been?) for new instruments so he encouraged students who he thought had talent to coax their parents into buying them a quality instrument. He knew that money was going to be an issue with the average parent so he cultivated a relationship with a local music store called, Zep’s.

Zep was a somewhat grizzled old reed player who owned a tiny store in Burbank that was stuffed, floor to ceiling, with some of the finest woodwinds and brass instruments available anywhere. One day, the new director drove me to Zep’s after school he had me try a number of different trumpets. Every trumpet I tried was freer-blowing than the old Buescher and every one sounded and felt different. It was quite a revelation. They also cost a lot of money. I didn’t know much, but I knew that a $750 dollar instrument was totally unrealistic for me.

So, I struggled along with the Buescher. Still, I loved to go to Zep’s. I was there when Amy, who would go on to play with the Portland Symphony Orchestra, got her Armstrong flute and when Patricia picked up her beautiful Buffet Crampon clarinet. Both girls were genuinely talented and driven musicians. I loved hearing them try different instruments and hearing the way they described the differences between different brands and models. Sometimes the differences were subtle and other times they were obvious. Our new music director was endlessly patient. We’d often be at Zep’s for hours and he never, ever seemed to be in a hurry.

I was hanging around the music room one Friday when the director asked me what I was doing on Saturday. I told him I had a baseball game at 3 in the afternoon but I wasn’t doing anything until then. He told me he wanted me to go with him to Zep’s; there was a trumpet there he wanted me to try. By then I had played a bunch of professional instruments. There was the ubiquitous Bach Strad which I always found to be a tad stodgy sounding and feeling. Then there was the flashy King Flair with its clever (or so I thought at the time) first-valve trigger. My early favorite was the Benge. It was sleek and smooth both in sound and action. But, it cost even more than the other totally out of reach trumpets. Still, I was very intrigued by what he wanted me to play.

Zep had been expecting us and as we walked toward the counter he went into the back room and emerged with an unmarked, black case. He opened it, exposing the luxurious dark blue drape of the velvet lining. The trumpet beneath was unlike any I had ever seen. It was a silver Schilke B5. I could see that it was used, but it was in perfect condition. At the time, I had never heard of Schilke, but Zep knew all about it. “Schilke’s back in Chicago. He makes pretty much all of Herseth’s trumpets,” Zep said as he took the trumpet out of the case. I took my mouthpiece out of my pocket and vanished into the practice room with the Schilke. It felt light in my hands and the trumpet looked beautiful. The main tuning slide was staggered and the only engraved markings were the words, “Schilke, Chicago USA” on the second valve and the “B5” mark on the lead pipe. Years later I adopted the look of the Schilke’s classic engravings for a putter design I was involved with, but that’s a story for another day. A lot of trumpets had garish engravings on their bells. I never liked the way that looked. The Schilke was sleek and clean from every perspective and it played amazingly well and sounded even better. Still, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was there. Even used, an instrument like that would be far more expensive than anything my family could afford.

The funny thing was that the music director didn’t seem concerned and he never spoke to me about how much it cost. He just watched and listened to me play, finally asking me if I liked it. Who wouldn’t? He then asked me if I wanted to borrow it for a couple weeks. I was so enthralled with the instrument that I said yes without really thinking about it. While we were driving back to North Hollywood in the director’s cool Audi 100LS he told me the story: The Schilke had been owned by a local session player who had just landed a gig that included a Holton contract for the entire trumpet section. So, one day while the player was at Zep’s trying out mouthpieces he asked Zep if he knew of a promising student who might enjoy the Schilke. Zep called our director and there I was riding home with the Schilke. The truth was that my family still had to come up with $150 to buy the case. Believe it or not, even with the amazing value of the trumpet explained, it still wasn’t easy to get my mom and dad to pony up the $150, but they finally did.

Even when I was a kid I had a tendency to write letters to people I didn’t know so a few weeks later I wrote a letter to Schilke at their old address on South Wabash Avenue in Chicago. Little more than a week later I got a handwritten letter back from Renold Schilke, the founder of the company. He confirmed the year my trumpet had been made and its exact specifications. He also wrote some advice about the preferred valve oil needed for an instrument that was built to such tight tolerances. In fact, I had already learned this having tried some standard valve oil only to find the action of the Schilke slowed badly. Having that letter from Schilke bonded me to that trumpet for a long, long time.

Schilke
Renold Schilke

I wasn’t the only kid who got lucky when it came to trumpets. One of my close friends was a nice little guy with a sharp crew cut named, Harris. We started out together in kindergarten and we soon learned that we lived right next door to each other. He and his family had come to the US from Israel a couple years after he was born. His father was an electrician who loved exploring California’s great deserts and searching for what Harris liked to call Thunder-Eggs. All through elementary school Harris would bring in beautiful geodes for Show & Tell. He and his father would search out the rough looking stones in the desert and bring them home before cutting them in half to reveal the hard, colorful crystals within. All these years later I’ve come to enjoy the desert in many of the same ways Harris and his father did nearly 50 years ago.

Like me, Harris had been saddled with a nearly unplayable school trumpet. His father had a different solution; pawn shops. He and Harris scoured the many pawn shops on Van Nuys Boulevard until one day he showed up at school with a beautiful instrument made by Calicchio in Hollywood. It was a beautiful trumpet, heavier than my Schilke, and with a slightly darker sound and a smaller bell. The Calicchio was older than my Schilke and the valves were a touch slow and the third slide was sticky. Harris wanted to take the bus down to have his trumpet looked at by the folks at Calicchio in Hollywood.

One Saturday we planned out our trip and headed south. I think it took three RTD buses to get from North Hollywood down to Calicchio’s near Hollywood & Highland. Calicchio’s shop looked like an old house. The only evidence we had actually found the right place was one of those old black signs you might see in a deli that showed the hours. The sign on the door said simply, Calicchio. We walked into a dimly lit room with a wooden counter on one side. In the corner was a simple glass case with a trumpet inside. A few minutes later an old man walked up to the counter. Harris put his case on the counter and started to explain about the valves and the third slide. The old man put his hands out, indicating that Harris should hand him his trumpet, which he did. The old man held the trumpet up, checking a couple of the braces. Then, he took a cigarette out from under the counter. He looked at both of us gravely and said, “Not for smoke…” We didn’t get what he meant right away but then we did. He didn’t want us to think that he was going to smoke. Instead, he took a quick drag and blew the smoke into the trumpet and then he depressed the troublesome third valve. He vanished for a few minutes and came back out with a brazing rod, a small torch, a tiny leather mallet and a small hammer. For the next 15 minutes we watched as he repaired a brace and tapped a tiny indentation out of the third slide. He showed Harris the evidence of the braze. It was almost unnoticeable. Anyway, Harris had intended to have the trumpet re-plated so the repair would be invisible once it was done. Harris tried the third valve slide that then happily held any position yet moved freely and he smiled at the old man. Then Harris pulled out his wallet and unfolded a check signed by his father made out to Calicchio. The old man bowed his head slightly and turned it slowly from side to side. Then, he shook hands with each of us as he smiled for the first time. As he shook our hands he said, “I am Calicchio.”

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Domenick Calicchio

“I thought he was only the repair guy, ” Harris said once we got outside. “So did I!” All the way home we wondered out loud how old Calicchio was and whether there was anyone back there to help him build the trumpets (there wasn’t) and whether he lived in that little house (he didn’t). No matter our petty questions, I believe we both had a sense of how special our brief encounter had been. We were only 13 going on 14 but we knew without really knowing why that we had been around someone who possessed an enduring connection to the instruments he created and that somehow that had connected him to my friend in a precious and unique way.

I lost track off Harris after high school. I think about him from time to time and I miss his smile and good nature. Neither of us ever got any good at playing trumpet, but we kept trying right on through high school and, in my case, college. Of course, Renold Schilke and Domenick Calicchio are now long dead. Trumpets emblazoned with the names Calicchio & Schilke are still made today, and I’m certain they are fine instruments. But, none of those trumpets have ever been held in the hands of anyone who shares their name. I find it sad that the Calicchio website doesn’t even have a biography of the great and humble man behind the name. The website has a section called tradition but virtually nothing about the man who made the Calicchio name relevant to musicians while he lived and the continuance of his name, as a brand, viable now that he’s gone.

Still, I’m grateful that in 1974 my friend Harris and I owned and played instruments that were true extensions of the men who had designed and built them. That kind of connection seems all too rare these days. I don’t know where Harris is, or whether he still plays his Calicchio. But, I’m certain he would recall that day as clearly as I do and likely still revels in the bond created by a simple handshake and his own connection to a master trumpet builder.

 

 

The trumpets of Lee Morgan (and mine, too)

Choosing to Live the Dream

I have a friend who likes to ask me what I would have liked to have done with my life. The unspoken assumption is pretty obvious; there’s no way I could be happy the way things turned out.

But the fact is I am with the way my life turned out.

My friend likes to wonder if I would have enjoyed being a full-time writer. I don’t believe I would have. I can’t imagine enjoying the grinding existence of the working writers I know. Life is more than writing for me. In fact, it’s hard for me to understand how many writers manage to squeeze in enough living to justify the amount of time and energy they devote to writing. Writing, for me anyway, is my response to some aspect of the life I’m living. Put another way, you can have a full life without writing but I don’t believe you can write anything worthwhile without living a full life.

There are other fundamental limiters to my writing and those are the honest and undeniable limits of my talent and inspiration. My inspirations simmer, they seldom boil. Also, I have many other pulls in my life and some of them also involve a kind of creativity and a smattering of inspiration. I love to golf and to hike and to take photographs. More than anything I enjoy being around the people whom I like and love. Writing much more than I already do would vacuum up precious time that could be spent actually doing other things and enjoying other people.

Today I bought new tires for my beloved Mini Cooper instead of buying a new car. I would like to be able to buy a house but the housing market rises faster than I can earn more money. I’ve been working to develop a business association with a high-end manufacturer in Sweden for the last five years. Would it have been easier to do if I had more cash on hand? Most certainly. Still, as has been better said by a million other writers before me the only thing I would truly like more of is time. In the end, it seems to me that we have a choice; we can either embrace life’s limitations or thrash against them.

By accepting those limitations, we allow ourselves to get started on some of the things we say matter to us. But, if we spend too much time thrashing about we’re likely to find our energy sapped before we even have a chance to bring our better selves to bear on projects that could be worthwhile.

Now that’s what I call wasted energy.

And so, I am truly living the dream. My health is good. My loved ones are many and nearby and the world is full of things that fascinate me. From time to times those fascinations inspire me to write. Living the dream is a choice I’m happy I made.

Choosing to Live the Dream