In hindsight, the greatest thing I got out of going to Oberlin College and Conservatory was connections. If I were to map out a tree of how I got to have the NYC career I have had today, I would say my Oberlin trombone teachers, Pat Halloran and Robin Eubanks, are responsible for nearly 2/3 of my career. Among other gigs, Pat Halloran sent me to sub for him in the Toshiko Akiyoshi big band at Birdland in 2000 where I met Dan Levine, a successful trombone player in both Broadway and pop music. Levine’s recommendation led me to get that Swing! tour. Another Levine connection led me to meet and sub for Kevin Osbourne in the Billy Joel musical Movin’ Out. Meeting Osbourne led me to sub for him as an extra on the movie Mona Lisa Smile, which allowed me to join Screen Actor’s Guild, and supplement my income as a movie and television extra for years to come. All of this would not have happened without studying with Halloran at Oberlin.
I would not be a Grammy winner without having studied with Eubanks at Oberlin. He suggested to Dave Holland that I fill in the second trombone seat when there was an opening. Playing in the Holland Big Band has been the most inspiring, thrilling musical playing experiences of my life. Just by association, it automatically gave me credibility within the music world. Eubanks also referred to me to the Chops Horns section led by saxophonists Dave Watson and Darryl Dixon. Playing in Chops has led me to play with great artists like Alicia Keys, and the many great (and great paying) R&B/pop gigs I continue to get. None of that would have been possible without studying with Eubanks.
Studying with Eubanks and Halloran would not have been possible of course if I did have the financial support of both college loans and my parents. I would not have had the stuff to apply for Oberlin if I did not have the education or lessons my parents paid for. And aside from the material resourcefulness my parents, I must give credit to the richness of the environments I have been around. I would not have had the exposure to any of these opportunities if I did not grow up in and around the regions of Teaneck, NJ, New York City, and surrounding areas where so many great musicians, artists, and teachers have lived. And I am most fortunate to have been born to grown up in the United States where we are afforded many more freedoms of expression than in other countries and cultures across the world. In these ways I have had an extremely wealthy material endowment.
The one part of my career that I will take most credit for, insofar as not relying on my past connections and opportunities, is taking the initiative to audition for the television show Showtime as a dancing trombonist. Nobody every outright told me that I should work on combining trombone playing and dancing. Most people throughout (the material realms of) my high school and college days thought my dancing was just a funny novelty. They would have never imagined it possible, including myself, that I could financially materially support myself as a dancing trombone player. I was fortunate enough to live in NYC with the gifts I had been given and worked for, and fortunate enough to pickup a Backstage paper that mentioned the audition. However, actually going to the audition had nothing to do with my trombone teachers or my parent’s wealth. And perhaps even more because it had nothing to do with my material heritage, trombone dancing became the backbone of the material ways I have supported myself. As much recording session and straight playing work I do where I do not do any dancing, most of the gigs that have supported me financially have stemmed from my dancing trombonist skills and the status of having appeared on various television shows because of those skills.
Performing as a dancing trombonist as a sensual experience will be discussed more in the next chapter. However, certainly as a material experience I have financially benefited from this talent, appearing on different television shows, being flown out all over the world getting paid as a solo act opening up for comedy festivals, and performing solo and in party bands for corporate events and the like. In 2011, I even got to go on tour as an opening act for Jeff Dunham, the famous ventriloquist/comedian, all because of my dancing and trombone playing talents. While thus far I have not made enough money to support a family or a regular girlfriend, I have made enough to live comfortably enough in a small studio apartment as a “car-less” single guy in Washington Heights, NYC who most recently can afford basic health insurance. In addressing the car-less issue, I am certainly materially privileged enough to be able to borrow at most times one of my parents’ two cars to get to most of my out of the city jobs. One of the cars in Teaneck is usually just a half hour walk and bus ride away from my Washington Heights apartment.
Aside from my parents’ financial resources, my genes undoubtedly have had great influence on the material opportunities that have come my way. My genes of course were made possible by parents creating me (umm by having sex). Most people who know my parents say that I am a 50/50 combination of them both. Since my mom excelled in writing, language and law, while my father excelled in math, engineering, and data management I was lucky to have inherited mental genes made for excelling in academia. Without my parent’s mental genes, I probably would not have had the ability to develop various analytical and logistical skills while balancing music and science pursuits at Oberlin. No doubt, all of that mental training eventually enabled me to write this book once I decided it needed to be written.
Physically growing up, I was a very “Waspy” looking kid (taking after my mom’s side). I had a skinny build and wavy blonde hair to go along with my blue eyes. When I was a baby, my mom used to call me “muskrat” because I was very small and frail, and yet had these very angry intense eyes. Back then she thought I had better be smart because I sure was ugly. By six years old, I had gotten better looking. People used to say I looked like the child actor Ricky Schroeder from the Jon Voight movie “The Champ” and the television show Silver Spoons. By adolescence, my hair started to turn a little darker and curly. Some people described me as having a “jew-fro”. As I got older, more of my father’s more Eastern European Jewish looking traits became more visible especially in the shape of face, the Arons nose, and facial expressions. (And now that I’m in my mid thirties, I definitely see the same male pattern balding pattern as my dad.) I also had a very awkward looking beginning of adolescence between the curly hair, bulky glasses for my increasingly poor eyesight and braces. Among the glasses in 6th grade, the braces in 7th grade, and the generally out of style hand-me-down/budget clothes, I remember feeling like my fate of being perceived as a nerd was almost all but inevitable. My braces came off by the end of 8th grade. I did not start wearing contacts more regularly until I was in my 20’s and even then continued to wear glasses most of the time.
I was always a very physically active kid. I was not overly athletic but what I lacked in exceptional athletic ability I made up for in endurance and drive. When I took karate, I was not very good at sparring, but I excelled at “kata”. This made sense because kata was like dance, merely a set of different karate moves in a sequence. By high school, because I was all about endurance, I ran track and Cross Country. Similarly when it came to dancing, especially at parties, I never did super athletic moves like standing on my head or flipping, but have always been able to dance with a lot of energy doing simpler ones for long stretches at a time.
As far as accents go, throughout most of my life I suppose I have spoken mostly with a North Eastern American accent. I’ve never spoken with a stereotypical Jersey or New York accent for that matter. Although I have caught myself say “coffee” like a “New Yawkuh” here and there. At different times in my life, I have adopted certain accents and hints of cultural sounding lilts. After years of being in New York and freelancing playing mostly R&B/hiphop/funk styles, I know at times I employ urban New York sounds and phrases here and there like when I say “hell yeah”, or “come on now”. In 8th grade I found comfort saying “Ay!” like Malorie’s motorcycle tough guy loner boyfriend, Nick, did on the show Family Ties. Towards the end of high school and beginning of college, when I was very much into jazz, and consciously decided to call people “miss or mam”, I suppose I adopted hints of a bastardized Southern twang and many people would ask me if I was from New Orleans like Harry Connick or something. But overall because I have never had the best diction, and also I believe from hearing a lot of accents working on cruise ships, I have found myself at times speaking English as if it is not my first language. Because of my blonde hair and blue eyes, and hearing the sometimes mumbling way I speak people often think I am German or some other kind of European. I then often say something like, “nope just a Jersey boy.”
The only major/unusual health issue I had growing up was having childhood epilepsy from about 4 years old up until I was about 8 or 9. I did not get diagnosed until I had an obvious episode around my parents when I was around 6 years old. I remember watching news with my parents in the basement and just zoning out, feeling a little strange and numb. Apparently to my parents, I was staring extremely blankly as my lips turned blue. My parents took me to a neurologist at Presbyterian, Dr. Lo, who put me on Tegretol, which kept me from having any more seizures. My mother says that as soon as I was on the drug, my temperament mellowed out. Before tegretol, I had always been extremely sensitive, and was prone to throwing tantrums and not getting along with other kids. Apparently, a common symptom of childhood epilepsy is to feel like an outsider because of the lapses in time lost while the absence seizures occurred. Overall, I remember being very paranoid as a kid, thinking that my peers and various people were plotting against me. This makes sense in the context of my epilepsy. Naturally I would be disoriented and suspicious after coming out of an absence seizure where I lost time and things changed around me and I could not account for why. It was said that most likely I had been experiencing small absence seizures for years before I was diagnosed at six years old. As will discussed further in the next chapter, I believe these feelings of being outsider early in my life very much influenced the ways I preferred to express myself and relate to others later in my life.
I had never extensively thought about the issue of my race, the material amount of melanin in my skin and shape of my bodily features, until I entered Teaneck’s public school system in the middle of 8th grade. A few months later in April of 1990 there was a race riot at the Teaneck police station, triggered by a white policeman, Spath, who shot a black youth, Pannell. Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson came to march to protest against racial discrimination when the police officer was acquitted. I remember my father telling me about going to some community meetings set up where people were talking out racial differences and tensions. Before going to Teaneck, the private schools I went to were mostly white kids. So with the Teaneck race riot, the Crown Heights riot in 1991, the Los Angeles riot in 1992, and many early 90’s Spike Lee and John Singleton movies the issue of race was very much in the air throughout my multicultural, multiracial high school experience.
As a result of the racial climate of this time, the same dancing I had done in shows and parties, while attending the mostly white private elementary schools, seemed to get a different type of attention from when I went to Teaneck’s public middle school and high schools. For example, my sophomore year when I took a great modern dance class taught by Ms. Walker, we were rehearsing an African dance she taught us for Kwanza celebration at the high school. During one rehearsal, I remember a former student of hers, a black girl, visiting and commenting that she had never seen a white boy dance like me. However in hindsight, the racial relationships among the students were pretty progressive. The amazing amount of interracial relationships that existed at Teaneck high school were definitely taken for granted compared to the much more (or at least different type of) clickier racial and class groups that exist as adults in college and the real world.
Overall, it is safe to say that throughout my life, I became more conscious of the material aspect of the amount of melanin in my skin, my race, while participating in the sensual activities of popular music, sports and art steeped in the African American (black) tradition. While I certainly became more aware of being white at Teaneck, my race consciousness increased when I went to college at Oberlin, and even more so by the time I started my professional music career in NYC. I realize that this is different from the way most people of color say they become conscious of race, usually during the material rituals of pursuing financial and intellectual opportunities, like shopping, applying for loans, and jobs, etc. Nevertheless, since these popular sensual cultural aspects are much more part of my daily living and jobs than the average white person, perhaps became more aware of a different side of the race issue because I have had to confront it more.
However, without any real intention behind it, my whiteness, the lesser amount of melanin in my skin compared to POC’s, has certainly paid off in terms of drawing attention to my dancing and trombone playing talent. It took me a while to understand exactly how and why. It probably hit me the hardest after I realized exactly why I was getting so much attention after my Steve Harvey appearance. Many people would come up to me saying it was the funniest thing they had ever seen and asking how I came up with such a funny idea. I realized how misleading it was to assume that the only reason why I would try to go on these shows was to make people laugh. I never had any intention of trying to make people laugh. I wanted to perform to show people how good of a dancer and trombone player I was. I wanted to impress them. Humor was not my motive. My motivation was to seriously express who I was. However, being a white dancing trombone player automatically seemed to translate into comedy. Consequently throughout my New York career, I found myself getting more gigs as a comic novelty, than gigs performing with more current hiphop, R&B and funk stars and peers I have always admired. It took some time to figure out the balance between balancing the humor people automatically expect from my whiteness with my own sincere integrity as a musician and dancer, all the while trying to pay my rent and supporting myself. I still struggle with finding that balance today. Hopefully writing this book will help me find different material opportunities from the comic musical novelty ones I’ve felt limited to and frankly grown tired of.
Table of Contents
Part I – My Material (Physically Having) History
- Chapter 1 – Race, Money, Fashion
- Chapter 2 – Plants, Pets, and Education
- Chapter 3 – Jobs
- Chapter 4 – Connections, Opportunities, Genetics
Part II – My Sensual (Feeling) History
- Chapter 5 – The Satin Edge
- Chapter 6 – Gifted, Hyper Competitive, and Overly Sensitive
- Chapter 7 – Puppy Love and Status
- Chapter 8 – Busy-ness as Salvation
- Chapter 9 – Karate and Self Image
- Chapter 10 – Homophobia and Musical Expression
- Chapter 11 – Digging a Pond, High School, and Music Camp
- Chapter 12 – Heterosexuality, Self Esteem, Avon Fashion
- Chapter 13 – The Opposite Game, College, and Sex
- Chapter 14 – Cruise Ships, Internet, and Control
- Chapter 15 – Saturn’s Return, Delayed Gratification, and Aging Dreams