Thursday, August 28, 2014

Accepting the Gift

When my father passed away from the effects of a stroke on July 25th, it meant the loss of the person most responsible for the directions I have taken in my life.

My dad wore many hats during his 86 years on Earth – student, apprentice, military man, machinist, educator, supervisor, athlete, mechanic, sports fan, breadwinner, brother, husband, father. As might be imagined, all of these roles had immense impact on me, but there was one aspect of my father that had foremost influence on my life’s passion, education and career – his tireless enthusiasm for jazz. From his early adulthood in the 1940s, breathlessly waiting for the year’s performance of Norman Granz’s
Jazz at the Philharmonic with Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet and J.J. Johnson, to his last concert in Oakland with the Count Basie Orchestra the week before his stroke, his deep love of the art form never waned. If anything, it deepened and became more profound as he aged, providing solace and a source of Zen-like calm, particularly in later years when my mother began experiencing serious health issues and he needed a release. When I still lived at home and later when I would stop by the house to visit, I’d often enter the living room to see my father seated in his favorite blue easy chair in front of the stereo, headphones clamped over his ears, with his eyes closed and a look of total focus on his face. Inevitably, he’d look up to see me standing in the doorway and say, “You gotta hear this arrangement!” while shoving the headphones into my hands. For him, jazz was not background music – something you put on and largely ignore while you’re doing something else. It demanded and deserved one’s complete attention, and is the furthest thing from genteel, apologetic aural wallpaper. This is soul and life and passion and blood and heartbreak and direct human expression made into something beautifully tangible and offered to you as a gift. Something that moves the body and the mind. Accept this gift gratefully and play it loud. Of the many life lessons my dad gave me, that one became something of a personal ethos.

To say jazz was the soundtrack of my childhood is putting it mildly. I knew the versions of classic Disney songs on Dave Brubeck’s Dave Digs Disney much better than the originals in the animated films, and not only did I know who wrote the music for the Charlie Brown TV specials, but I knew who Vince Guaraldi’s sidemen were on the recordings. Jazz concerts were a regular part of my upbringing, and as a pre-teen, the evenings spent at the Venetian Room in San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel to see the Buddy Rich Big Band and the Oscar Peterson Quartet were two particularly influential standouts. I still reference those nights as visceral demonstrations of instrumental mastery that pushed the boundaries of the possible.

I began playing my brother’s disused drums at age 12, and I knew instinctively that I had found a lifelong pursuit. I played throughout junior high and high school, and when I chose to enter college as a music major, my parents were incredibly supportive. I had expected stiff resistance to my decision, but knowing what music meant to my father, I hoped he would understand. He did. For him, being a musician was a noble calling.

Of course, it’s natural to want to assert your own identity and reject the influence of your parents when you reach a certain age, and my father and I had differences of taste and opinion on many things. My “punk rock” rebellion was fully embracing the most inaccessible fringes of the avant garde, but to his credit, my father was a trouper. He didn’t have much use for the Cecil Taylor, Wadada Leo Smith and Albert Ayler records I was consuming voraciously in my late teens and 20s, but when I described the concept behind the performance of John Zorn’s game piece “Cobra” I was going to, he was intrigued enough to want to tag along. I don’t know how much he enjoyed the show, but he appreciated the spirit and creativity of the music, and years later I still laugh to myself when I remember that my father attended a performance that featured a member of Slayer.

As I got older, I began to realize how deep my dad’s love of the music went. I discovered that in 1959, as the president of his local 20-30 Club chapter in Livermore, CA, he’d begun a dialog with Dave Brubeck and his manager that brought the jazz giant to Livermore for a benefit performance at the local high school. My high school. My dad the concert promoter – an interesting parallel to my future work. Last year, my father had one of the two remaining concert posters from that show framed, and he presented it to me. I wasn't aware they existed and his act of generosity rendered me speechless.

I will greatly miss the pleasure of sharing new music with my dad, talking about my gigs, and going to concerts with him. That was where he seemed the happiest – it was like the troubles of the world disappeared and there was only the joy of experiencing those precious, fleeting moments of spontaneous creativity on a lighted stage. One of the things that made my dad most proud in his last years was the fact that the organization I worked for built a mecca for jazz on the West Coast. Not just anywhere in the world, but here in his hometown. A place he described as "the venue this music deserves to have." He told everyone he knew about the SFJAZZ Center, and he considered his visits some of the most special occasions he had in recent memory. We had planned for more, but sadly, it wasn't meant to be.

When it came time to plan my dad's memorial service, the only gift I could think to offer as a last tribute was the one he taught me to appreciate so deeply. So when my quartet played the Horace Silver tune “Peace,” which was my wish for what he hopefully found at the end of his life, I knew he would have enjoyed it. But he would have been more excited about the classic Dave Brubeck tune “In Your Own Sweet Way” that I chose to start the ceremony, and how we played it. Not quietly. Not reverently. Not apologetically. Not in the background. With gratitude, played loud. For the living.

– Rusty Aceves


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