Friday, January 21, 2011

Thoughts on Identity and Development

Blog #67: Some Thoughts on Identity and development

I've been practicing a lot of new music ideas and it's made me think a lot about the concept of a 'Musical Identity' along with growing and developing. Obviously, as we age we learn new music, we play with different people and we are exposed to different things but I think musicians can generally take three paths:

1) Musicians who keep the same style and play within the same context.

Most musicians(like most people) are uncomfortable with change. This category play generally the same style their whole career, and they do that style within the same format. They know what they do well and they stick to it. I'm not saying anything negative about this group, its quite an accomplishment to have one's own identifiable style at all.

2) Musicians who kept the same style, but played within different contexts.

These musicians always sound like 'themselves' but might put themselves within different groups(trying different instruments, or combinations). They play with different people but always sound like themselves.

3) Musicians who change styles.

This is by far the minority. Two that come to mind are Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Both changed dramatically during their careers AND both also played within different formats, different instruments, and different styles. These types play with different people and sound different doing it.

Breaking down musicians into these three categories really made think about what it is to change styles. Is changing one's style an active act?(thinking about what you want to do differently) or does changing one's style just mean getting closer to who we actually are. By this I mean, we are who we are and 'developing' is more a matter of getting closer to that honest musical version of ourselves. Does actively trying to incorporate new different ideas take us farther away from our true selves or closer?

Is our musical identity really changing or are we just moving towards 1 thing the entire time?

I guess this blog is kind of incomplete, because I don't have an answer. I don't really know. These are just things I think about.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Remembering Charles Fambrough Pt 2

Remembering Charles Fambrough Pt 2

I just wanted to share a few of my favorite Fambrough stories:

My Neighbors

My senior year at Muhlenberg I lived off campus in a split house, owned by Muhlenberg. The other side of the house was filled by football-Frat guy types who seemed to always be giving me dirty looks(I gave them mean looks right back). I did most of my practicing in the house(into the closet to muffle the sound) and they would routinely bang on the wall louder and louder. One time they even called campus police on me. I never complained about the noise from any of their parties.

One day Fambrough drove me home and they all happened to be sitting on the porch. Fambrough was a big guy, and to anyone that didn't know him, he was quite intimidating. He had a presence when he walked into a room. When these Frat guys saw me jump out of Fambrough's Ford Explorer they were silent. I said goodbye to him, thanked him for the ride and went inside. My Frat boy neighbors never bothered me again.

Musical Advice

I was in an ensemble taught by Charles for 3 years at muhlenberg. The skill level of the members of the group varied, but we were all working hard and were serious about sounding good. One semester we were working on 'Mr. Clean' by Freddie Hubbard. We could all play the notes right, but 'real dirty funk' seemed like a difficult concept for a bunch of suburban white kids.

Fambrough finally explained it to us this way:

"Picture a beatiful beach in brazil. The sky is blue and water is clear. The breeze feels nice and the temperature is perfect. You're sitting in the sand and the world is what it should be. Then out of nowhere a big fat sloppy woman comes walking by. She's crammed into this ugly polka-dot moo moo, he feet are squeezed into shoes that are way to small. When she walks, you feel it in the ground. She's even wearing two slabs of beef as earrings. And she walks right by, she has a horrible attitude and ruins your whole day. Play that image"

After that we sounded much better.

'O Ye of Little Faith'

Occasionally Fambrough would play at Chris' Jazz Cafe, and my friends and I would drive down from Allentown and see the show. One time in my lesson Fambrough mentioned he was going to be playing some some guy named 'Arty Horrig' (Ari Hoenig). I told fambrough, 'This guy is pretty serious, he's always changing the tempo and feel, he can throw a lot of people off. Make sure you're prepared for that.' Fambrough gave me this 'O ye of little faith' look.

We went to the show and it was great. Ari was superimposing all sorts of different things over the time and Fambrough was right there with him. (for those that don't know Ari, he has a very unique technique and often makes ...unique facial expressions while playing). During the set break Fambrough came over to hang with us and said this:

"That Arty is alright(a big compliment coming from Fambrough). But he keeps making faces at me, so I gotta play with my eyes closed".

Fambrough was HILARIOUS!

The Nicest thing Fambrough ever said to me:

Fambrough wasn't the kind of man that would throw around compliments, so when he did give you one, it meant something. Mostly if I had played well, Fambrough would say, 'Keep working on it'(if I played poorly, he'd say nothing). He wasn't afraid to tell you where you were weak and what you needed work on. This sort of honesty is one reason we got along so well. After one of my last concerts at Muhlenberg, Fambrough said to me, "You know what Crowley? You're starting to not suck so much". Man! I was so happy to hear that, I was smiling all night!


During my senior week Fambrough called me up and asked me if I wanted to play a gig with him and the late Sid Simmons(who I had listened to for years) at a very nice theater event. I said 'yes' before he had even finished asking. These musicians were way out of my league and I took a musical asswhoopin' that night, but it was one of my favorite memories from Muhlenberg and I loved every second. In Jazz, playing with musicians that are better than you is how you get better, and it was a thrill to be on stage with these guys that night. Fambrough could have called someone else that was better than I was for that gig, but he called me. To me, this was his way of saying 'thanks' for all the hard work I had put in while studying with him. It's him that I owe many thanks too.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Remembering Charles Fambrough Pt 1

Charles and Me at my Graduation from Muhlenberg College

Blog # 66: Remembering Charles Fambrough Pt 1

I did my undergrad at Muhlenberg College in Allentown PA. It's a small liberal arts college with a pretty small music program, and while it had some great teachers, there weren't many dedicated music students there at that time. As I went through school there, it was kind of apparent that it would make more sense for me to transfer to a music school like Berklee or New School, but I stayed at Muhlenberg and graduated. The main reason I stayed was Charles Fambrough.

I studied with Charles for 3 years while at Muhlenberg (he started teaching there my sophomore year). We became close during those three years. Fambrough(which was what most of us called him) had many students at Muhlenberg, but I was definitely one of his most enthusiastic and it was because HIS enthusiasm was contagious. He would mention musicians I should check out and then I'd go buy some CDs and come back super excited. We spent most of our lessons talking about my jazz heros(who he actually knew, played and hung with). He had endless stories and I wanted to hear all of them.

Charles was teaching most of the jazz students at Muhlenberg, regardless of instrument(I think my forms said I was studying 'Trumpet' with him). Sadly, many of them weren't very committed, and didn't practice much. But Fambrough saw that I was really into jazz, practicing, music and so if he saw me in the hallway, he'd invite me in to hang out during other people's lessons. So at least two days a week I would spend my whole afternoon (4 hours!) with Fambrough, as his other students came and went. He'd work on stuff with them, while giving me stuff too. It was like having a 4 hour lesson twice a week and afterwards he'd drive me home too! Sometimes he'd ask me to go find some sheet music of tunes he wanted to play with our ensemble and I'd come drop it off and end up staying for a few more lessons until I'd have to say "Fambrough, I gotta leave! I'm going to be late for my Education Psychology class."

While we dealt with music theory and jazz harmony, most of our lessons were about the non-musical aspects of music. The Magic in music, for lack of a better explanation. He frequently talk about putting a 'vibe' on whatever song you were playing, bringing energy, and having passion in what you were doing. A lot of his explanations of tunes were describing a visual image and then playing that thing in musical form.

The thing that I am most thankful for from Fambrough is getting me REALLY excited about jazz. Hearing his stories and hanging out listening to CDs made me really want to move to New York and try to be a real jazz musician. I moved to NYC the fall after I graduated from Muhlenberg College, received an MA from NYU in Jazz performance a few years later, recorded a CD etc...

Charles, Thank you for everything you've done for me.

I miss you already