Song Of The Day 2/17/2017: The Dave Brubeck Quartet - "Blue Rondo a la Turk"
The Final 41
Casa Roble Fundamental High School is way out near the northeast corner of Sacramento County, on Oak Avenue. It’s the rural outpost of the San Juan Unified School District. I was the only Pearson to attend Casa. Both my sisters went to San Juan High about six miles west. I wasn’t a “legacy” like Flounder at Delta House.
I didn’t make the same error of omission like I did at Pasteur: This time I signed up for the music activities before the school year actually started. I was done with the saxophone (temporarily) and focused exclusively on piano. By this time I was fluent enough at chords and sight reading that I could figure a song out pretty well by ear. There was nothing else Mrs. Savage could teach me—-check that, there was nothing else she could say that was going to get through to me—so after five years I stopped taking lessons and just played in groups.
Although it was obvious I’d never be a classical pianist, I still signed up to play with the Casa Roble Orchestra. I only conned them a little bit. I could figure out the chords to songs just by looking at the sheet music, so even though I couldn’t fake the right hand, I disguised what I was doing in the left hand because it didn’t sound wrong. I just omitted some of the extraneous notes in the bass clef. It was the pop approach. We now accept that as an answer. Andrea Bocelli was all over that shit.
Margaret Fisher was perhaps the most renown instructor in Casa Roble history. (With all apologies to Mr. Bower in the driver’s ed shack. He looked and spoke like the sidekick in a Burt Reynolds movie with cars.) Before I arrived at Casa she ran all the music courses, plus the drama class. She cut back to just orchestra and drama by the time I started going there.
Anytime you see me performing anywhere, doing anything, it’s because of Margaret Fisher.
That goes for karaoke or actual music. Or those silly videos I do every once in awhile, or the mixtapes, or this. Mrs. Fisher instilled a time-released confidence in what I did when I was at Casa that I never really got from anyone before that. She offered nothing but support and enthusiasm when I tried to do different things, sometimes all at once. She’s where this whole thing started. It’s important to note that.
The only time she got mad at me was at a rehearsal on my birthday. I’d just had my first birthday party ever and was in a capital mood. She grabbed me and led me to a back room and asked, “What are you on??”
I didn’t know what she was talking about. “What are you talking about?”
“What are you on?? I can tell you’re on something! Is it pot??”
For the record I never smoked pot in high school. I explained that I’d just had my first birthday party. She knew what my religious background was, so I think she eventually believed me.
Mrs. Fisher is no longer with us as of a few years ago, so if you have a complaint you’ll have to take it up with me directly. I wish I’d reached out one more time before she died, but at least there are a thousand kids from Casa who know what I’m talking about. I bet they walk around with that same glint too. I hope they do.
I Open My Mouth
I got into theater. Everybody at Casa Roble was invited to audition and be cast in the spring musical, but only kids in drama class could have actual speaking parts. I didn’t fancy myself an actor. But since I’d established myself as a fairly competent pianist they brought me in to play piano for the auditions of The Sound of Music.
I had no intention of auditioning when I got to the theater, for a really good reason: I’d never sung in public.
I sang in groups because nobody could make my parts out. I sang at home, behind closed doors, usually waiting until nobody was home. I’d also started writing songs, so I sang those too. It never occurred to me to try it in front of others. I thought I could just be a studio-only artist, like Harry Nilsson. (We may cover my failures at songwriting in a future post.)
But at the Sound of Music auditions someone kept encouraging me to audition. I think it was Cori. It might have been Nancy, the senior who was eventually cast as Maria. I resisted because I hadn’t planned anything and wasn’t prepared.
At some point I gave in. My desire not to be the cast-off piano player who muttered amicably and kept to himself while everyone sang around him probably roused my gumption. So I went ahead and sang. I did the first song that came to mind, “She’s Got a Way” by Billy Joel. (We may cover my complicated relationship with Billy Joel in a future post.)
I thought I sounded like a dwarf was kneading my throat. But everybody in the theater applauded. You could say they were almost wild with applause. I had no idea what happened. That occurs a lot.
Mrs. Fisher said, “Well, that might have been your audition for the musical, but that was also the first audition for Band Box.”
What the hell was Band Box?
Spice of Life, Baby
Band Box was Casa Roble talent show. It was a catchall free-for-all. The Sound of Music auditions were the first time I ever heard of it. (Incidentally, I was cast as the understudy for Rolf in TSOM, the guy who sang “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.” A fairly good result for a freshman, though that’s my least favorite song in TSOM. They didn’t need me so I hung around in the chorus.) I liked the idea of a variety show, and was surprised schools didn’t do it more often.
I did Band Box every year at Casa Roble. I always did a piano song. The first year I did “Pinky” by Elton John, sort of an unheralded number from his Caribou album. The second year I did Billy Joel’s “Allentown” which I still feel is the best song he ever made. Year three I did Elvis Costello’s “Man Out of Time.” Year four I did two different songs each night: Thomas Dolby’s “Screen Kiss” and a shrieking version of the Who’s “Love Reign O’er Me.” My parents came to see me do the Dolby song and they had no idea what it was about. Frankly I’m not sure either. I was an emotional wreck when I did the Who song and I’d rather forget about it.
I showed up in other people’s stuff too. The first year my drummer friend Dennis and I did a lounge act consisting of songs that you wouldn’t normally hear at piano bars, like “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.” This was the proper antecedent to Cocktail Hell which happened years later in Olympia.
Once my friend Steve did Tom Waits’ spoken-word bit “Franks Wild Years” and I played piano for him. I pretended to be blind. In my senior year my friend Dave and I just did a couple of Monty Python sketches word for word. I think “The Argument Clinic” came out best. Plagiarism was still a far-away concept for us. Anne Marie and I did “Summer Lovers” from Grease once.
I did so much at Band Box over the years that the underground zine at Casa made fun of me once. “Cool: Band Box. Not cool: The Paul Pearson Show.” I liked that. It’s funny because it was true. There were just so many things I wanted to do and way too many enablers hanging around the laboratory at the time.
There was one act I was in at Band Box that really got everyone excited and it lasted a couple of years.
The Agreeable Band with the Clunky Name
Our name was ridiculous but we were pretty good: The Casa Roble Independent Jazz Combo. Christ, it’s like Microsoft named us or something.
It was me on piano, Hal on tenor sax, Randy on drums and Jimmy (hey Jimmy!) on bass. We were all in the early morning jazz group that was led by Mr. Goedecke (not sure I’m spelling that right), a German immigrant who took over the jazz band from Mrs. Fisher. Mr. Goedecke was a bit like the logical evolution of Adam Sandler’s character from Punch Drunk Love. He was kind of an awkward social fit, liable to blow up in incoherent craziness on the most unpredictable provocation. To restate, this guy led our jazz band.
I don’t remember how the four of us got together. They were all older than me. Hal was a junior, probably the epitome of an All-American star student. Extraordinarily serious but generous at the same time. Randy was also a junior. Jimmy, you were a sophomore, right?
We debuted at Band Box in my first year, doing our cover of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind.” (Please, Lord, find me a way out of that B.J. conversation.) It was really, really well-received. I’m not kidding, this isn’t Trumpspeak. We actually did get a standing o. I didn’t know how to react to it. I still don’t.
Most of the high school jazz bands in the Sacramento area played the Reno jazz festival every March. (And we all got our asses kicked by Cordova or Rio Americano, I think.) The four of us entered the competition as a combo. We did Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk,” which as you can hear is not the straightest, point-A-to-point-B jazz number out there. The primary part of the composition is in 9/8, which isn’t a time signature you want to run through every day. I think we got a 3 (or “III” in Reno jazz festival parlance). I think I was the weak link, personally, because I tried to play too many notes in the right hand. And “Blue Rondo” is not one of those tunes where you can fake the chords in the left hand like I’d been used to doing. I tried to play both the piano melody and the sax melody in the right hand when I should have just let Hal cover the sax harmony on his own. I was a bit greedy. Jimmy and Randy were on point.
It was a lot of fun though. I still practice “Blue Rondo” from time to time. Like Billy Joel’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” (for the love of God someone help me change the subject) it’s one of those pieces I’ve been trying to get right since age eight. There are worse obsessions to foster, I guess.
My freshman year was probably my favorite year at Casa, which I wouldn’t think is normally the case for high school students. I’m in debt to all the kids who took me in and helped me along. Especially Dennis, the drummer I mentioned above. He was one of the nicest, most genuine guys I ever met. And he liked prog rock and metal, both of which the guys in Brooklyn told me were only appreciated by people will ill intentions to undercut the world with drugs and weekly bloodletting rituals in remote corners of the city park.
Speaking of the guys in Brooklyn… well, it was pretty obvious that with all that was going on, I was going to have to do something about them.