Don’t Fake It: A Key West Lesson
My first trumpet lesson was the most important trumpet lesson I ever had. My wife and I used to take a week out of every March to go down to Key West. It started where some of our biker pals here in northwest Jersey were going down to Daytona for bike week and then, before heading north for home, heading down the coast and doing Key West for three or four days. Not being bikers, Toni and I skipped Daytona, and hit Key West a few days ahead of them. That week in March is a good time to experience Duval Street. The bikers are doing the town before heading home, and the spring break kids are just starting to show up. You can dine outside, off a tablecloth, while college girls in bikinis stroll by on the sidewalk, and some beautiful Harleys cruise by out on the street. Later, down Duval, in a place called The Bull, there’s a barmaid who’ll pull down the neck of her peasant blouse if you ask the right way.
I wanted the protagonist of my trilogy, a kid named Shake, to be an artist in some way, to have a dream that took discipline and passion to achieve, to make the journey of self-discovery that becoming an artist is, to define himself apart from the model son his father and religion wanted. A writer was out because writing about a writer has never made sense to me. I rejected painter and sculptor because neither pursuit had ever interested me and I wouldn’t do them anything close to justice. The same held true for belly dancer, sword swallower, fire eater, tightrope walker, potter, figure skater, other forms of artistic self-expression. Music was different. Especially jazz. I’d watched my kid brother become a jazz pianist. I loved hanging out with his crowd. For many years, in Utah, New York, and Jersey, most of my friends were jazz musicians. I envied them. I’d taken piano lessons but I’d never had the discipline when I was young to see them through. I’ve longed to live those years again and focus this time on learning an instrument.
And suddenly there was a way. I could make my protagonist a jazz musician. At a young age, I’d put him in a place where he’d discover jazz, give him the dream to play it, and make sure he stuck it out, trumpet lesson after trumpet lesson. I’d find him a teacher. I’d make him pay his way. I’d throw all kinds of trouble in his path. All I needed was an instrument. I don’t know why I picked a trumpet. Maybe for how portable it was – he could lash it to the back of his bike and go. Maybe the clarity, the ringing shimmer of steel, the sense of flight in its sound. And maybe it wasn’t my choice after all, but his.
Soon after I got into the writing we took our week in Key West. We stayed at a place on Mallory Square where you could sit on the balcony drinking a mojito overlooking the sunset action. The torch thrower and the fire eater. The Houdini guy who chained himself in a straight jacket and hung himself upside down from a tripod. And there was music. One night, wandering the square, we came across a quartet playing a mix of standards and latin jazz. One of them played trumpet. He was an older guy – tall, lanky, going gray – and his face showed he’d been around. On a break, we talked, and I told him I was writing a novel about a kid who played jazz trumpet. It got his attention. Ah, he said. So you play trumpet too. No, I said. Just piano. Okay, he said. You’re writing a book about a kid who plays trumpet, but you don’t play trumpet. It can’t be that different from piano, I said. And there’s stuff on the Internet. He looked at his horn, then at me, smiled, shook his head, told me good luck, and walked off toward the tiki bar.
Coming home, getting back to writing, the look he’d given me kept nagging me. And that line about stuff on the Internet. It made me cringe to remember saying it.
My niece had a student trumpet she hadn’t played in years. The mouthpiece was stuck and the valves weren’t coming up. I offered her $300 and dinner at a restaurant of her choice. In a black dress, wolfing down a delmonico steak, she looked stunning. I had the trumpet reconditioned, opened some space in the furnace room, and went for middle C. I blew that first note all to hell. If the sound that came out of the bell had been blood, the room would have looked like a slaughterhouse. It was nothing like piano. You didn’t learn a scale your first time out. You learned one note. Each note was different. Each note had its own mix of what it wanted from your lips and the volume and velocity of breath you fed it. When you found that mix – that place where the metal would suddenly ring and the note fly clear – you practiced till you owned it. And then the next note. And there was everything else – the way you held it, the heft it had in your hands, the cold hard rim of the mouthpiece, how light reflected off the brass of the bell, your breath suddenly that bright steel sound.
My first trumpet lesson was discovering how right that guy on Mallory Square had been and how lucky I’d been to find him. From there, whatever I learned, Shake learned, hands on, the hard way, the way my readers would know was real. I found a teacher named Mr. Selby. Shake signed up for lessons too. After all the astute decision making – what kind of artist he’d be and then the instrument I’d give him – I’d come so close to ruining things for him. You can read the outcome of the lesson I learned in Journey.