Thinking About Music and The Ghosts of Past, Present and Future

Charles Socci with New England Jazz EnsembleI’ve been thinking about music a lot lately—playing music. If you’ve seen my main site, then you probably know I started out my adult life as a musician. Indeed from the time I was eleven or twelve years old it became my life’s main mission.

Somewhere along the way I got lost. I lost faith. I became bitter and discouraged. I gave up. I even considered it a victory.

I’ve told the story of my musical education and history here. I won’t bore you with that.

Music became everything to me while I was still in high school. All of my friends, everything I did centered around music. As soon as I could drive I was sitting-in at a dark and funky jazz club in the south end of Hartford. The owner wore a gun on his ankle, but he was a true patron of the music. I didn’t have my first real girlfriend until I was 18; and she was a music student where I went to college.

I met Jackie McLean, the legend, in my teens. He took a musical interest in me as he did many young men. Eventually I entered into his African-American Music department and earned a Bachelor of Music degree with a major in Jazz Studies.Tony Scherr

This college period is something i continue to try and understand today. I had two options for higher education: one was to follow my friend Tony Scherr down to North Texas State where he was quickly rising to the top and getting recognized for the amazing talent he is. My other option was to continue following Jackie and attend his program at the Hartt School of Music.Jackie McLean

I chose to stay with Jackie which may not have been the best decision for me at that time—although these things are had to tell—and hind sight being what it is, who really knows. I had already around two years of private Saturday lessons with Papa Jackie. Saxophonist-ic-ly speaking I had already received about as much as I was going to receive from him in that period of time. Jackie’s style of teaching the instrument and the language were mostly about mimicry—I remember his wife Dollie’s comment one day when she heard me practicing that all Jackie’s students sound just like him. Most players start out ‘aping’ or mimicking somebody. But Jackie’s influence was just so strong… And there wasn’t anybody else around to counter it. I eventually switched from alto to tenor. The lessons were also about playing together, learning tunes, and being exposed to recordings of saxophonists I might never have been exposed to—Earl Bostic, Don Byas, early Dexter Gordon. He showed me and demonstrated the nuances of Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt. He taught me to navigate Giant Steps. But I think after those two years I had gotten most of what Jackie was going to give me.

I decided to enter the Hartt School for a variety of reasons. It would have seemed like a betrayal on some level to leave Jackie, I felt a strong responsibility to stay near my Mother and my Brother (who was extremely disabled) and I was probably just plain afraid of going away and actually standing on my own two feet so far from home.

North Texas State was a world famous school for musicians at that time. Jackie’s comment about it was, “well what are you going to do…. look at cows?”. But the truth of it was that instead of a few saxophone players, all vying for Jackie’s attention and all trying to out best the other at impressing him, there were dozens or maybe even over a hundred saxophone players. What I needed was the experience of finding myself, my own voice, and then rising to the top of that group of other players. I needed that kind of challenge. I already had all the Jackie McLean I needed to absorb, or could absorb. Where the experience at Hartt was all focused on replicating the small jazz ensemble classics like Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; North Texas had a full spectrum of music. There was an emphasis on commercial viability for a musician… Were you ready to go out and join the real world and make a living playing music; or were you going to go out into the world with limited skills, no doubles, and little exposure to the vast pallet of musical genres – or worse yet maybe an attitude that the music you had learned in school was the only ‘real’ music, or hip music, and everything else was square. There was a whole community of musicians of various styles and skill levels who played together frequently at North Texas. It isn’t always the school, or who teaches at the school. Its about your peers and the overall philosophy.

I realized the need for doubles while I was at Hartt and I began incorporating them into my bag of tricks, finding instruction when and where I could. To mention hind sight once again, I suppose if I knew then what I know now I might have been able to get a whole lot more out of the place professionally.One thing that stands out strongly from my days at Hartt are Jackie’s History of African-American music classes. These classes were filled not only with learning about the African origins and obscure pioneers of modern American music; but also became a mouthpiece for the expression of Jackie’s political and social opinions. His first hand stories of the jazz legends were also fascinating and could only truly be delivered with his inimitable charismatic style. These things—like his playing—formed an indelible impression on me.

I hung out with the A-list Hartt jazz guys for most of the time. Then I started to develop something of an attitude in the way of having my own feelings about certain things that didn’t quite fit the A-list Students of Jackie McLean club. I found myself cast somewhat out. I took a few lessons with some other famous saxophonists which probably alienated me from the clique even more. Somewhere around my junior or senior year everything stalled for me. I remember dealing with a depressive episode, which I hadn’t dealt with since high school. I became very emotional and broke down one day. Jackie’s response to that was to say that in the nursing homes they take the depressed people and move them away from everyone else so they don’t bring everyone else down. He also expressed negative opinions about me taking any kind of anti-depressant medication. When I look back on Hartt, I wonder if those last two years or year and a half were really a waste. I should have moved on.

I graduated in 1988. Jackie shook my hand on stage; and that was it. I was turned out into a world I had no idea how to deal with and was also completely unprepared for.

My first real gig out of school came through one of my friends from Hartt, a fine pianist majoring in accompanying. Norwegian Cruise Line needed a saxophonist for the ship band on the MS Southward. SouthwardA small cruise ship by today’s standards, it seemed quite large to me. I never really had a contract. There was a contractor who staffed the musicians. I sent him a photo and some cassette tapes of myself playing some lounge tunes. I was hired and flew out to Los Angeles to meet up with the ship.

The Southward turned out to be a pretty tough experience. The band I joined decided to hate me from the start. Part of it was that I was simply very young and very green. I had a huge Jackie McLean sound on alto and that concept just didn’t fly in a lounge band playing The Days of Wine and Roses. I hadn’t really developed my tenor playing yet and it just sounded rough. My doubles on flute and clarinet were a little weak. Part of it might have been some jealousy—they bet each other money on who could pick up a certain ‘babe’ in the disco one night. I won. The trumpet player was a vicious alcoholic and used to beat on my door in the middle of the night on his way back from the crew bar and tell me how badly I sucked. It was rough—really rough.

I stuck it out. I never even really thought about going home. They tried to get me fired. The contractor came on the ship and stood next to me all night as I played the gig. After the gig he said he didn’t know what the big deal was. He said I was a little green but other than that I was doing fine. I did learn a few things from the band leader/pianist who was from New York and half Cuban half Columbian. He taught me how to do a proper head butt if I ever got into a bar fight… I never have gotten into an actual bar fight (witnessed more than few…); but i continue to remember the maneuver just in case a smile, psychology and reason aren’t enough to overcome the situation.

Soon, those guys went home which was a huge relief. The band was replaced (and I stayed) by a super gentle band leader/bassist named Sam Goldenhar from Houston who was also a North Texas State guy, Manny, a pianist from the Philippines, Las Vegas Larry on trumpet , and my friend Jim from Hartt. We all got along super well and the music was good as ship lounge bands go. I was glad I stuck it out. I went home in December and was promptly dumped by my girlfriend. It turned out we’d both been unfaithful during my four month absence. She didn’t want to reconcile. I was suddenly stuck in Connecticut; in December; alone with no idea what was going to happen for me next. (note: I’ve since learned there are two kinds of people, those who wait for things to happen and those who enable them to happen – being the second is a huge advantage in the music business).

Fate is funny thing. Two weeks later, Tom Murray – another Hartt saxophone player – called me to see if I was interested in doing a ‘bus and truck’.

“What’s a bus and truck”

“That’s where they take a show on the road and you ride the bus and everything else goes in the truck”

It turned out to be a non-union tour of the Broadway show 42nd Street. I auditioned and took the gig. This gig was probably the greatest opportunity I had to really start trying to get some kind of controllable sound together. A big sound would be great for playing with Elvin Jones, but not so much in an orchestra pit. It helped me get my clarinet going pretty well also. I was out with that show for about four months. Charles Socci 1989We went to Israel which was an educational experience. Hanging out with the cast and crew was the most significant exposure to gay culture I’d ever had and also an educational experience.

Through 42nd Street I became affiliated with a summer stock theater in Long Island and spent two summers playing shows there. Again, this was great training in terms of discipline and the doubles. I was pretty sure I’d have an entree into some kind of music scene in New York now and I used the money my Grandmother left me to buy a studio apartment in Washington Heights, Manhattan, NYC.

This was followed by a national tour of Dream Girls. It was pretty low budget all the way. The bus leaked. There were petty rows among the cast; but we did over one hundred performances all over the country. I can now say I’ve been to all 50 states except Utah and Nevada.

After Dream Girls and another summer of summer stock I started really questioning what my musical career was all about. I will say this though, in terms of keeping your chops together, playing a show like this 8 times a week or more and having to play it EXACTLY the same way every night is incredible discipline. Boring. Soulless. But, great discipline.

The first thing that drew me in to music and jazz specifically was the language. The language I couldn’t speak with words. Telling the world what I was feeling in my heart. Expressing and creating. Those things always felt so good to me. I could always escape in the music and say exactly what I was feeling even if I couldn’t put it in words. Musical theater just wasn’t making that happen for me…I moved back home with my Mother and dated a local girl. I worked in an office for a while. I played with a local party band on the weekends. I scrounged up some cash and made my first CD, which I did nothing to promote or distribute. I drank wine and smoked pot and played around with a tape recorder and my instruments at night. My brother died. I taught private students at home and through various music schools during the day. I got my chauffeur’s license and drove limousine and taxi part time. I broke up with the local girl and met another local girl who soon became pregnant and gave birth to my son Alex. Three years later my daughter was born.

Charles Socci and Mike Jones with SharkpoolI found other bands to play with. Some were better than others. I was starting to get work with some of the better wedding bands around. I played in bar bands and drank a lot. I played in Puerto Rican Salsa and Merengue bands (great for building chops). I made another CD, for an actual label with actual distribution but I never promoted it. Most of the stuff I was doing was leaving me empty inside. Little of it had to do with that internal soul language. I got bitter. I resented the bubble headed brides. I resented the bubble heads period—the yahoos. I was working so much between the limo, and the teaching, and the gigs and I had nothing. I made $18,000 that year – with no benefits. NobodyCharles Socci forced me or put me down; but I felt like a real man would be taking care of business; not living with his Mother and being a dead beat Dad. Marriage plans with their Mother never worked out. I had a quick fling with a 20 year old chick I met in one of the bands. I began getting really bitter. A trumpet player friend of mine had enrolled in technical school and was loving it. I’ve always been technical. I had a computer long before most people. I began thinking I should exploit that technical interest because the music thing had become bullshit as far as I was concerned. So I did just that, graduated at the top of my class and had a job before I even finished. $37,500 and full benefits. Man, I thought I won the lottery.Charles SocciSo I became a professional computer guy. I stopped taking a lot of the gigs. They stopped calling. My horn went into it’s case in the corner and has mostly stayed there.

I think about this and it is just weird. It seems like a waste. The music was me and I was it. There could be no Charles Socci without it. That all changed.

Time has flown by. I moved into that New York studio when things with the BABY MOMMA finally died for good. I got another computer job and did really well with that but never returned to the music.

I was afraid in those years I hung out at my Mother’s in Connecticut. Those were the years I should have been in NY trying to get around and play. I did a little bit but the whole thing terrified me—like sick to my stomach, walls closing in, have to get out of here NOW terrified. So I just couldn’t do it… try and hang on the scene. Hang on the periphery of the scene. Begging the question, ‘What Scene?’ – there is so much going on in NY. There is so much talent. New talent continually comes in. The thing was I felt like the only thing I was really good at was bebop saxophone a la Hartt and a la Jackie McLean. I was really mixed up as to who I was as a musician. I didn’t know. When I say maybe Hartt was a mistake for me, that is what I mean.

Today, my horns sit in the corner but my keyboard stays on. I married and share a two bedroom apartment with the sweetest and most wonderful woman in the world.Charles Socci Kristin Socci I haven’t had a drink or used any drugs in four years (7/18/03). I’m constantly playing piano. I love to play free form improvisations that wander in and out of different keys and tonalities. There was a time when I was playing saxophone this way and making private recordings of myself. It was very freeing. At the moment I’d almost pay for the opportunity just to play with some crappy band at a wedding. Even the soulless musical prostitution that it is—I just miss having the horn in my hands and communing with the band.

My intuition tells me that opportunity will arise again. I’m just not sure exactly when. So guess i better get out those horns and start putting them in my mouth.

Please bring this piano to meOh – and by the way – I’m definitely lusting for the touch and growl of a fine piano. This 7′ Baldwin will do nicely. If you feel charitable, won’t you buy it for me? I hereby send this wish out to the Cosmos for one grand piano. (my wife only agreed to a full sized upright, and I guess I’d settle… but I’ll give up my comfy chair if i can have the grand… Pretty please?)

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