Archive for the ‘Musicianship’ Category

Hanging with real hunters, egg fu young, playing saxophone, and Northern Lights

February 4, 2011

Long are the dark arctic nights,

If you’ve come out just to see sights.

     Be cautious, I swear,

     Of the great polar bear,

And look up to see Northern Lights.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  Avoiding burnout, I’m taking a sabbatical while my one-year non-compete clause winds down, having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Currently I’m on assignment at the hospital in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States.

When I tell people in the lower 48 about Barrow, they frequently ask, “Why would anyone want to live there?  In this day and age?  Are you kidding me?”

I read the Unabomber Manifesto when it appeared in the Washington Post in 1995 .  The distillation of his treatise comes down to this:  modern society’s problems result from people having their basic needs of food and shelter met without working for them; most people are bored and without psychological fulfillment because they haven’t had to overcome obstacles to avoid death from starvation or exposure.

To my dismay, I agreed with his sentiments till Ted Kaczynski tried to justify killing and bombing other people.

Twenty-first century American ennui doesn’t happen in Barrow because most Natives are subsistence hunters.  

One of the reasons that I love Barrow is that the folks here really are happier than most places.  If I go to the store, I see smiles on most of the faces; I don’t see that many grins anyplace outside the North Slope except at a comedy club.

I also get to hang out with real hunters all day.  Their lives and the lives of their families depend on the success of their hunt.  The people here exist because of a combination of modern firearms and the ancient accumulated wisdom of centuries of hunting and fishing in the planet’s most hostile environment.

I talked with a man who shot more than five hundred geese during the whaling season; he told me about getting three with one shot.  Another person, who has harpooned seven whales over the course of his life, recounted killing two of those whales in one day.  A fisherman I spoke with caught eight hundred smelt on a day when his friend caught three thousand and expounded on how great they are to eat frozen.

Even though I hunt, next to the subsistence hunters here I feel like a tourist with a muzzleloader.

Tonight, the mercury sits at 11 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.  Bethany and I walked a kilometer to Brower’s café and ordered egg fu young with hot and sour soup.  The prices of restaurant food run high here but the portion size stacks up with the largest; we brought home leftovers, though polar bears have been sighted in that part of Barrow during the last two weeks.

After I dropped Bethany off at the apartment, I took my saxophone to the house of the guitar player who anchored the band when I worked here last summer (see my posts from June and July).  We miss our trumpet player and leader, but we still like making the music.  Halfway through, Bethany called to tell me to go outside.

We came here with the intention of seeing the Northern Lights.  This evening’s Aurora Borealis streaked green across the sky from horizon to horizon.

Thirty-eight CT scans later, life’s lessons from a musician and a teacher

January 6, 2011

We count good moments, not years

When we don’t give in to our fears

     I once went with a hunch,

     It helped my patient, a bunch.

And she looks good in front of her peers.

My patient, Diane, has given me permission to use this information in my blog. 

She taught my three children instrumental music; she came to me as a patient more than a decade ago.

Six years ago a cough brought her in.  As with all health professionals doing their job with a woman between ten and sixty, I asked if there were any chance she was pregnant. 

“No,” she said.

Sometimes I get a hunch and a long time ago I learned to trust that tingling at the back of my brain; in this case it told me not to believe her. 

“Well,” I said, “Just lay back on the exam table while I check your tummy.” 

I plainly felt the top of her uterus higher than her belly button, but I couldn’t find a heartbeat with the Doppler.

I pled urgency with an OB-Gyn and got her an appointment within the hour.   The ultrasound showed her womb had turned into a malignancy the size of a soccer ball.

A few weeks later, she came, in her words, to a “critical decision that I make a ‘leap of faith’ in action right before surgery, because I knew in order to live I had to not be afraid to die.”

The pathology report said leiomyosarcoma, a cancer of the uterine muscle.  In later years she said, “I was always a survivor from the beginning.  I was born C-section at 7 mo.[ 3.5 lbs] in 1960.  I had no idea how having ‘faith’, ‘letting go’ of past hurts, and learning to trust others would change my life all for the better.”

It helped that she had never been a bitter person.

I coordinated her care as she went from specialist to specialist.  So rare a tumor had no chemotherapeutic experience.  With a paucity of clinical evidence, I gave advice from my heart. 

“The worst day of my life wasn’t when you called and told me it was in my lungs,” she said.  “Not even close.  I’ve had more good days since my diagnosis than I had in my entire life combined.”

The next summer Bethany and I met Diane and her husband on their way out of the movie theater.  She’d been carded trying to get into an R rated movie.  Her skin had the clear glow of a teenager and her hair shone in the sun.  She walked with a bounce befitting a sophomore.   

The spring after that she sat in the waiting room of the Cancer Center before a radiation treatment.  The other cancer patients turned to her. “You’re not here for radiation,” they said, “you’re just another representative. What do you represent?”

“I represent hope,” she said.

My middle daughter fell rock climbing three years ago; in the aftermath of ICU’s and neurosurgeons and months of not knowing I learned a great deal.  Diane and I have discussed these truths: Time comes to us in moments, some good, some bad, most neutral; if you let the bad moments contaminate the neutral you give them too much power and if you let the bad soil the good you’re missing the point; embracing the uncertainty of not knowing bad news makes your day better.

When I made my decision to slow down back in February I also decided to bring music back into my life and buff up my saxophone skills by doing lessons with Diane.  On my last clinic day, she and her husband and my office nurse gave me a soprano sax.

(see my post https://walkaboutdoc.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/can-a-soprano-beat-a-naked-lady/)

Over the course of ten surgeries, seventy-nine radiation treatments, fifteen hospitalizations, and thirty-eight CTs, Diane continues to look younger and younger.  She serves as a beacon of light and hope to all who know her.

The return of proprioception and recontact with friends from the 60’s

October 15, 2010

Consider the means and the ends,

The time that goes by, and the trends

    To the folk we belong

    If you’re right or you’re wrong,

 Always make time for your friends

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  While my one-year, 30-mile non-compete clause ticks out, I’m taking a sabbatical and having adventures.  My close college friend, Bob, is recovering from surgery in San Diego, following the explosion of a disc in the mid back.  He still faces some possibility of paraplegia.  I took a week to visit.

 

Last night I called Al.  Bob, Al, and I lived together off-campus with five others in 1970-71 and three others in 1971-72. 

By dint of hard work and innate talent, Al holds a position of prominence at the National Institutes of Health.  He took the news about Bob’s medical condition with shock, as did I.  Currently in the Washington, D.C. area, he has a business trip planned to San Diego in about a month.

This morning I checked out of my hotel early, drove through harrowing San Diego traffic, and stayed with Bob till 1:30. 

Before I left for the airport I saw the toes of his right foot move; as of yesterday his left leg is moving well.  I grasped his right second toe, moved it a couple of times and had him tell me whether the position was up or down.  He now has position sense (proprioception), at least in the right foot.  In a few more days he might be a candidate for rehab.

While we talked, our close friend from the 70’s, whom we knew as Toni but now goes by Talia, called. She plays and teaches violin professionally now. 

She had a career on television in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, playing violin with Jack Benny (I realize that most people who recognize the name Jack Benny don’t read blogs; suffice it to say that Talia has been a very good musician for many years). 

Talia and I played music together during my New Haven days.  She benefited from the lessons and practice I didn’t get and would do.  Over the last forty years I’ve often quoted her observation, “There’s no substitute for doing your homework.”  Because she knew me as a saxophonist back then she could appreciate my observations about my current level of musicianship.

She can also remember that I couldn’t sing back then; most people who have known me for that long have suppressed the memory of my voice searching for the right note.

She plans to come to see Bob during his convalescence.

I filled her in on Bob’s recent medical problems and my recent career move.  We talked about what freedom means.  It doesn’t mean nothing left to lose, it means everything to live for.

Of long awaited punch lines, Rolling Stones, and fresh-faced volunteers

October 13, 2010

After thirty-five years in the priming

And planning and laughing and rhyming

    Our scene much rehearsed

    From the better to worst

The punch line comes down to the timing.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  While my one-year, 30-mile non-compete clause ticks out, I’m taking a sabbatical and having adventures.  My close college friend, Bob, is recovering from surgery in San Diego, following the explosion of the disc in the mid back.  He faces the possibility of paraplegia.  I’m taking a week to visit and advocate for him (Bob insists I add  ..and be his consiglieri).

Bob and I have talked writing with each other for more than thirty-five years; he’s been my sounding board while I’ve crafted novels and stories.  When we were in our mid 20’s we dreamed up what we thought would be a great scene for a movie.  What will it be like, we thought, when our generation of rock ‘n’ rollers gets old?

Imagine the day room in a nursing home.  We, the aged (in our youth, we imagined our senescence) rock in chairs.  In one corner, opposite the door, stands an upright piano, painted an amateur gray.

A youthful female volunteer, her blond hair in a ponytail, her cheeks with a healthy peaches-and-cream complexion glow, wearing a candy-stripe uniform, steps in.  She carries sheet music and book music.  She takes three confident strides into the room, and feels the leering gaze from the dirty old men we imagined ourselves to become.  She takes three more hesitant steps, looks around, stops, panics, and runs out of the room.  The tough, mature (but younger by twenty years than us in our film) charge nurse stops her in the hall.  There follows an indistinct but passionate conversation for several seconds.  She comes back into the room hesitantly; when she turns to panic, the nurse stands in her way, arms akimbo. The volunteer, fighting tears, faces the piano, and summoning all her courage, seats herself.  She takes out a music book titled “Songs of Love and Inspiration,” with a cover featuring rays of light coming through dark clouds, over a placid sea.  She strikes a major chord for a church hymn and starts to sing.

Bob and I, in our imaginations aged to dirty old men, rock in synchrony, for three or four bars, till one pounds on the ground with his cane and demands, “Play Sympathy For the Devil.” 

We’ve described this movie scene to each other and most anyone who will listen, almost every time we’ve gotten together, for the last thirty-five years.  In the anthropology of humor, this story as inside humor helps define and distinguish us.

Fast forward from 1975 to 2010.  Bob lies, for real this time, in a sunny new hospital room in a high-tech hospital bed.  I sit beside him in a steel tube-and-nylon mesh chair, designed for comfort and washability.  A smiling, fresh-faced young Asian woman in a blue volunteer smock, enters the room carrying a guitar.  “Hi,” she says, “My name is Romy, and I’m a volunteer.  Would you like to hear a song?  Something mellow?  Something light?”

With a straight face, I say, “Play Sympathy For the Devil.” 

Romy hasn’t heard the song, has barely heard of the Rolling Stones, and doesn’t know who Mick Jagger is.  Timing is everything in humor; it’s rare that I get to put the punch line on a gag three and a half decades in the making.

Romy does a Leonard Cohen number.  She has a beautiful voice.

Jamming with my nephew, much easier after I practiced scales

October 5, 2010

In the meld of the horn and the strings,

Ah, the joy that harmony brings!

     In past times I failed,

     Then I started scales.

Not only do I play but I sing.

I grew up in Denver, and going back for the American Academy of Family Practice Scientific Assembly brought back a lot of memories.

When the conference finished I prowled my way through the traffic to the house of my sister, Ilise, for a family gathering. 

I got to catch up with another sister, Hava,  and her family and meet my twin niece and nephew.

After supper, the two toddlers melted down (normal for age) and went home.  I got out my saxophone and jammed with my teenage nephew, Ilise’s son.

Unlike mine, his musical talent hasn’t been hampered by a lack of lessons nor a deficiency of desire to practice basic exercises.  He plays well, he’s gotten a good sense of rhythm and he learns quickly. 

I’m not sure if he composed the two numbers we played, I am positive I hadn’t heard them before.  Keeping up with contemporary music requires a lot of listening and cannot be rushed.  I have had little time to just sit and listen to music for the last forty years, it has always formed an accompaniment to doing something else, like bicycle repair or driving or cooking or sweating over a hot elliptical machine.

I put my horn together, tuned up, and said, “OK, what key are we in?”  I received a blank look and asked, “How many flats?” 

Let me explain that my soprano saxophone is in the key of B flat; a piano is in the key of C.  In order to get onto the same musical page I have to transpose everything in my head.  In the beginning, my brain rebelled against such cognitive dissonance, but since my experience in Barrow, Alaska (see my posts on musicianship from June and July) the exercise has become more like dance and less like calisthenics. 

When I had my head wrapped around what musical neighborhood I should play in, I said, “You start, I’ll follow.”

A youth in his mid-teens doesn’t expect such a statement from an uncle with a markedly grey beard, particularly if he’d never heard me play. 

Now in contemporary American Cinema the protagonist walks into musical group, picks up an unfamiliar instrument, says, “OK, C minor,” and immediately the group turns out a highly polished number, leading the audience to believe that you don’t really need to practice scales to sound wonderful.  Such was the illusion I labored under for a very long time.

But I have been playing scales, and I have improved my musicianship.

He started with a very compelling rhythmic structure under a (thankfully) simple harmonic.  With my new-found ability to play scales, I enveloped his melody with good, solid counterpoint.  Our right hemispheres melded.  We sounded great.

And we had a great time.

Shotguns, saxophones, and Tae Kwon Do: being a teacher and being a student

September 2, 2010

I went out with Aaron and Max

With shotguns, just to relax

     I didn’t joke

     Those targets I’d smoke

Though missing the ones with the quacks.

I drove down to the firearms range this morning to shoot clay pigeons with a friend, Aaron, and his cousin, Max.  I’ve been teaching young men (and a few young women) to hunt and shoot since 1983.  Aaron is my most recent apprentice.  He’s old enough now that he can drive himself and buy his own shotgun shells. 

At the trap thrower we ran into a man who had just purchased a “coach gun,” a double-barreled, side-by-side 12 gauge shotgun with a short but legal barrel.  He plans to start into Cowboy Action Shooting, the latest shooting game on the American firearms scene. 

Clay pigeons are neither clay nor pigeons; they come in boxes of 90 or 135, they fly like Frisbees, most are colored blaze orange, and they shatter easily. 

While setting up, I learned that the man with the coach gun is a twenty-seven year vet, and now retiree from the army.  I said that I was taking a sabbatical. It turned out he’d not shot clay birds before. 

I told him I could help him learn.  We set clay targets against a dirt bank, and starting five paces away; I had him destroy stationary targets at increasing distances.  Then I had him stand by the thrower and track the movement of the flying clay bird with his shotgun.  When he was tracking well I had him load his scattergun and shoot.  He broke the first two pigeons, and we applauded. 

When it came my turn, I shot my 20 gauge over-under well, turning target after target into small clouds of black smoke. 

We left when the rain started.

I lunched sushi with Aliya, our youngest daughter.  I came home and napped and went to my saxophone lesson.

My playing brought a smile to the face of my teacher, Diane.  She explained some very simple, very basic things about jazz pentatonic scales.  Then she put on a Miles Davis disc, showed me the sheet music, and we traded solos at the breaks.  I don’t know who was more pleased. 

Had I had the kind of musical encouragement, nurturing, and education forty years ago that I got this summer, my career might have gone differently.  All in all, I think things have gone for the best, and my teacher would agree. 

I’m sure my music has acquired a depth that it would haven’t had if I had stayed in the music world.

At five I drove with my friend, John, to Onawa for Tae Kwon Do.  John hopes to test for his fifth degree black belt in October.

I can’t stop being a doctor, and in Onawa I’m outside the thirty-mile limit of my non-compete clause.  Nor can I break confidentiality about what advice I gave in the parking lot (no, I didn’t send a bill).

I will say that real hypoglycemia occurs less often than people think.  Growing adolescents make a lot of a growth hormone called Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF), and hypoglycemia in that case tends to come in the morning.  Good treatment demands good diet, with low glycemic index foods, and especially a good breakfast.  But that’s good advice for everyone.

Though four years have passed since my last Tae Kwon Do lesson, I remembered my form well.  John gave good instruction.

Being a student is part of the human condition, and there are those of us who have the urge to teach.  I had a day of being both teacher and student.

Bipolar improvement, and Synergy’s swan song at Pepe’s North of the Border

July 17, 2010

At the end of the day there’s no droop

Though I’ve been jumping through clinical hoops

    I don’t think I lose it

     After making great music,

And saying goodbye to the group.

A lot of bipolar disease masquerades as depression, though depression runs rampant in twenty-first century America (elsewhere, too).  I start to suspect bipolar if the patient has been on more than three antidepressants, if there’s a family history of severe mental illness (institutionalization, or suicide), or if a particular antidepressant works for a while, then stops working.

What doctors and the popular press used to call manic-depression now carries the label of bipolar.  Seventy-five percent hereditary, it runs in families.  Everyone has good days and bad days, but bipolar patients cycle between extremely great moods and profound depression.  Every day spent feeling good brings an average of four days feeling down.  While manic they may feel invulnerable and engage in risky behavior, ruining their family relationships, finances, and health; while depressed they may commit suicide.

If I suspect the patient of being bipolar, I ask, “Have you ever had an episode lasting at least four days when you felt great, got a lot done, slept less than four hours a night, and didn’t miss the sleep?”  A yes answer confirms the diagnosis though a no doesn’t exclude it.

The textbooks break bipolar disease into the more severe bipolar I and the less severe bipolar II, but I think the disease runs a spectrum.  Diagnosing the extreme cases comes easily, less severe disease is more subtle.

A few days after my arrival in Barrow I diagnosed a patient as bipolar; at the time she was compulsively picking at herself.  I recommended she change her current antidepressant (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor or SSRI) and start topiramate or Topamax.  Of course the drug is not on the formulary and I had to get special approval to prescribe it.

You can’t just start taking Topamax; the dosage starts low and gets increased slowly.  The medication has a lot of side effects, one of which is appetite suppression.  Its tolerability ranges widely.  Currently under investigation by the FDA for approval for the indication of weight loss, people lose an average of thirty pounds when they take it.

The FDA approved it for use in bipolar disease, migraines and seizures; my impression has been that it’s good at damping binge eating.

They say the young doctor knows twenty drugs that will treat one disease, and the old doctor knows one drug that will treat twenty diseases.  The choice for Topamax was a clear slam-dunk for the patient, who gave her permission to give this information.

She was in today.  She stopped picking at her breasts, face and nails, those sores have healed.  She lost about fifteen pounds so far, and she’s a lot happier.  We agreed making an appropriate diagnosis of bipolar disease is a worthwhile goal because it leads to a different, more effective treatment.

My background is littered with bipolar people.  In high school my jazz trio turned out to consist of a bipolar drummer, a bipolar pianist, and me.

I had a good time in music back then.  I didn’t see music as an end in itself, I thought it could be a means to a living, and if you have great business sense, great musical talent, and great luck, it can be.  I lacked the talent and I lacked the desire to practice enough to maximize the talent I had.

Here in Barrow, closer to the North Pole than to the state capital, I have found very good musicians to hang out with.  Shortly after I got here I was recruited into the band Synergy, and I’ve been practicing hours a day and loving it. 

Eight weeks ago, half an hour of practice exhausted my lips.

Today I played half an hour in the morning, another half hour in the afternoon, and we just finished a three hour gig at Pepe’s North of the Border.  It was our swan song.

Our trumpeter will be going south for the summer; long before he comes back I will have left.

We played seven gigs together.  In the time I’ve been here my lip strength has improved; I have my chops back.  In the last number of our last gig I played well; I had control of my reed, the notes were under my fingers.

We were the last customers at the restaurant.  I had a steak afterwards; the French fries were excellent but the beef wasn’t up to Iowa standards (won’t I ever learn?).  Our trumpeter and his wife, my wife and I, the guitarist and the vocalist sat over pie and ice cream and chatted with Fran, the owner of Pepe’s, who deserves her own post or five.  

In the fog that follows an all-day and all-night rain, we piled the equipment into the taxi, but most of us walked from the restaurant to the guitarist’s house and then back to the hospital.

It was a good gig.

A gig at Pepe’s and a visit to a whaling captian

July 11, 2010

I didn’t know it would happen

While I sang with maracas a-snappin’.

    But I dealt with the stress

    Of financial success

And went to the home of a whaling captain.

Saturday the weather turned windy again, the air temp went down to 38 degrees and the sky clouded over.  I called family and friends in the afternoon.  I looked out the dining room window while I talked and watched sea ice floes form and disappear.

It is difficult for people not on the North Slope to imagine what it’s like to live in a place accessible only by plane or by water.  It’s a lot like living on an island and affects the sociology of the town.  Theft is uncommon and mostly petty.  Interpersonal violence is unusual; when the young and the drunk lose their tempers, a wall is the more likely victim of their fist than is another person.  Few households are without a small arsenal of firearms, but shootings (accidental or not) are rare.

At four-thirty in the afternoon I carried my saxophone case in a light, spitting rain to the house of the guitarist, meeting there with the trumpeter.  A Tagalog-speaking cab driver drove us and the equipment to Pepe’s where our other vocalist waited.

Taxis, long a symbol of urbanism, have integrated into North Slope villagescape.  Waits are short, rides are cheap, and tips are not expected.  Most of the taxi drivers come from Pacific islands or southeast Asia.

We played to a crowd that occasionally numbered into the double digits and we had a great time.  I qualified as the percussionist because a waiter handed me a pair of maracas.  I excelled in songs of post-Victorian vintage through the old standards, from Summertime and Five Foot Two through Georgia On My Mind and Sentimental Journey. When I didn’t have the notes under my fingers, I sat out and played maracas and sang.

We played two and a half hours without a break till the trumpeter/ leader had to go back to the hospital to take call (he’s also a family practitioner).

I don’t know who put out the tip jar, nor did I notice people putting money in it, but at the end we had $22 to split four ways.  We also got to order off the menu and Fran, the owner (who deserves her own post), let us eat for free.  We elected the guitarist to be the treasurer (I had to stuff the bills into his pocket) and he paid for the taxi to carry the equipment back to his house.

I’m ambivalent about the money.   I play for the sheer joy of playing, making music I like to hear and seeing peoples’ heads bob while they’re eating their enchiladas. 

Forty years ago when I was a musician we ended jobs at two in the morning and rarely got into bed before four.  I don’t want those kind of hours any more.  Playing dinner music appeals to me much more than playing a dance.

As it is I had time after the gig to go to the house of a whaling captain, taking a taxi all the way across town (about three miles, six dollars).

I got to heft a harpoon and a shoulder gun.  We talked about grades of black powder, number 11 percussion caps, and powder measures.

I watched footage that including him harpooning a whale.  He talked about whaling as a religious experience.

Having a blast in lousy weather in Barrow

July 5, 2010

On this gig we won’t make a dime.

We might end up covered with rime.

    From the end to the start

    I play from the heart,

Having the greatest of times.

The skies are leaden and the air a few degrees above freezing.  I’m riding on the tailgate of a pickup truck in a light drizzle.  I’m having a blast.

My saxophone wails Summertime as the pickup runs along a fifty-yard wide neck between the Arctic Ocean and a lagoon.

I’m playing direct from the heart.  I’m playing for all the months of vacation I never took, for the years of pain that have evaporated, for the decades when I didn’t have time to play, and for the liberation of not being the boss anymore. 

I’m playing because I want to, not because I have to.  With no obligation or compulsion, no interior or exterior force, no ought to fill the interstices in the notes; with nothing else to compete for space, joy overflows with my breath.

By bits and turns a parade hospital project casually mentioned on Tuesday grew here and tweaked there, eventually obtaining a vehicle and a band (us).  We debated seating arrangements more than anything else, finally deciding that we could make it a tailgating expedition for the vocalist and guitarist-turned-banjoist, and a walking trip for the trumpet and sax. 

At quarter to one, by prior agreement, I gave call over to one of my colleagues, and suited up in layers for the cold.  I went down to the parking lot and helped put the finishing touches on the truck/float.

What is safe and acceptable at parade speeds is not necessarily a good idea even four miles an hour faster, and the trumpeter and I climbed into the back of the pickup touting the Friends of the Library.

The parade staging area bordered on the airport, near the ice rink, City Hall, and the high school. 

Small town Fourth of July parades have really interesting floats, and Barrow is no exception.  Most every business and institution sends a representative. 

While we waited around in the intimate atmosphere, we hacked around musically, as much to get the creative juices flowing as to keep warm.  The banjo player remarked that banjo is a Bantu word meaning cannot be tuned.  The cold compounded the tuning problem. 

At last the parade starts, the trumpeter and I begin walking and playing and in short order the parade speeds up.  Soon, we have to run, which neither of us, at our ages, should do.  We accept a ride on the running boards of the Friends of the Library truck, catch up to our vehicle, and sit on the tailgate.

We play while the people in the truck, including Barrow’s resident fashionista (transplanted from sub-Saharan Africa to South Dakota to Barrow), throw candy, Frisbees, and bouncy balls to the crowd.

With no single group of people being able to hear more than a few minutes of a song, we start with St. James Infirmary.  We try new riffs and licks and watch the audience react.  We polish that number till it shines in the gloom of a cloudy Arctic afternoon, then our leader, the trumpeter, calls for Summertime.  As the people lining the road bend to pick up the candy and the treats, we see the heads bobbing in rhythm to the music. 

The parade stalls while we’re between the ocean and the lagoon.  Fireworks go off to our right.  When we start again, up the hill to Browerville, we play and sing When The Saints Go Marching In.

Under leaden, overcast skies, in a light drizzle just above freezing, with my fingers starting to numb, I am playing from the heart and having an absolute blast.

A sax solo forty years in the making

June 27, 2010

It’s finally my summer vacation

My saxophone sings with elation

     Forty years’ decompression

     Has found an expression

I don’t need any more inspiration

It is an early summer day in Barrow, Alaska and I am performing with a small band for an audience of forty-five. 

Behind us, three hundred yards on the other side of the double-pane windows, the ice that had covered the Arctic Sea has broken up, leaving ice floes drifting south in front of a north wind.  Above the ocean with white ice floes, white clouds scud across the deep blue sky.

We are playing for the annual hospital staff barbecue, an audience of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, x-ray techs, lab techs, maintenance and clerical workers, administrators and their assistants.  The housing adjoins the hospital.  We call the exercise area at the right angle juncture of two hallways the Knuckle.  A rowing machine, a treadmill, an elliptical trainer and a stationary bicycle stand under a vaulting ceiling while the crowd mingles and eats. 

We let three of the apartment complex kids, age 7 to 9, sing with us.  We run through Itsy-Bitsy Spider, When the Saints Go Marching In, and It’s A Small World.  At the insistence of the kids to do one more number, we allow them to read in on a Johnny Cash number, Folsom Prison Blues, and enjoy the irony.

I am singing well, I fit in with the guitarist and our leader, Mac, the trumpeter/vocalist.  The fact that I am singing in public yet people aren’t fleeing still makes me smile.

We send the kids away for All Blues, a Miles Davis song with lyrics that talk about the sky, the water, and ‘her’ eyes as “all blue.”  I am intensely conscious of the sun flooding the area, and the glorious context of where I’m playing.

When the guitarist finishes Mac turns and drawls, “Let’s do Summertime.”

I start frantically leafing through my loose-leaf binder.  I protest, “I can’t find the music.” Mac says, “Steve, you don’t need the music.”

With the way he says it, I know he’s right.  In the month that I’ve been in Alaska I have brought proficiency back to my playing.  In sudden realization, I know that all I have to do is have the opening note and I’ll be OK.  I put my soprano sax to my lips and I start on a B natural.  I play from the heart.

The last time I played this number in public I was part of another trio; we had a drummer and a pianist and in the summer of 1968 we were sure we would make musical history.  We lacked the knowledge of basic economics and its application to the world of music.  We made solid jazz that needed maturation,  but the reality of a world in turmoil caught up with us. 

From that summer till this, for becoming and being a doctor I have not had a real summer vacation.   I let the decompression of forty years carry notes and riffs that I hadn’t imagined till just now.  I am making beautiful music in a spectacular setting and for an eternal few minutes my consciousness enters a different level.