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Things That Shape Us

Updated: Apr 14, 2018

Somewhere amongst the 10,000+ jazz songs kept in a playlist on my iPod, the ‘shuffle’ feature finds a lovely memory.

“And now the purple dusk of twilight time

Steals across the meadows of my heart...”

My mom’s dad was a true lover of Jazz. From the Big Band swing music of his youth to Kansas City, to Bebop, to Smooth and Vocalese, he loved it all; and much to my grandmother’s good-natured irritation, he would spend many a day playing record after record, after cassette tape... after CD... When he wasn’t listening to his music, he was making it - literally. In his later career, Grandpa helped make woodwind and brass instruments at the famed Selmer Company in Elkhart, Indiana. He also made sure all 5 of his children had access to instruments, (several kids played beyond school,) though he himself did not play. His affinity for woodwinds makes me think he would love to have played the sax or the clarinet - or both. However, born in Detroit just one month before ‘Black Friday,’ (the start of the Great Depression,) that opportunity would never come to pass. Local manufacturers were forced to lay off thousands of employees, with production being down 75%, and his auto-worker father could barely make ends meet for the family, let alone afford such a luxury as a musical instrument. But Jazz was in his soul none the less.

“...the melody haunts my reverie

and I am once again with you...”

There’s a summer day in my memory of being at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. It was late in the season and far too hot to be out running in the yard, so we stayed in. Grandpa took out one of his records from the cabinet, placed it carefully on the turntable and let the needle down. Most people could identify the song in less than 4 bars - it was ‘Stardust,’ one of Hoagy Carmichael’s most famous compositions. But it was new to my 5 or 6 year old ears. Or old, whichever way you look at it. The music put an instant smile on his face.

He sat down in his corner recliner and began asking me questions. “What instrument is that?” he asked.

“A lot of them!” I responded.

“Yes, but which one is playing out front?”

A game!? I loved games!

With a little helpful instruction, it didn’t take long before I could identify the different brass instruments, and then started hearing the differences between tenor, alto and bari saxes. Just a game to me then, I didn’t recognize but through hindsight that it was my first actual music lesson. Ear training.

‘Stardust’ has been covered, reimagined, rearranged and recorded by dozens of bands and artists. But in every one of them, regardless of how liberal they are with their arrangement, I hear my Grandpa in the background.

I never told my Grandfather that he was my early music teacher; Or that the Jazz he exposed me to all my young life helped shape my world and in the years to come would inspire me to create music of my own. I miss his smile and his gentle nature. I miss the way he’d scat around the house, patting his legs in percussive rhythms to songs only in his head. But ‘Stardust’ brings him back to me, and reminds me how something done in love, even a simple game, resonates with us throughout our lives.

“...though I dream in vain

in my heart it always will remain

my Stardust melody,

the memory of love’s refrain.”

Composer: Hoagy Carmichael, 1927/Lyricist: Mitchell Parrish, 1929

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