Friday, September 23, 2005

William Vacchiano, 1912 - 2005

I never had the privilege of meeting William Vacchiano, although he’s responsible for one of my fondest trumpet memories. He was a profound influence on several people who have similarly influenced me, and so I was as saddened by his passing this week as I have ever been for someone I didn’t know.

The name William Vacchiano probably doesn’t mean anything to most of you, certainly not to those of you without some close involvement to classical music. That was probably all right with him. Bill Vacchiano enjoyed what I would consider to be the perfect measure of fame: he could go wherever he wanted without being disturbed by the public at large, while his peers and aspirants parted like the Red Sea to make way for him.

Vacchiano became one of the small handful of truly great orchestral trumpeters by accident. His father sent him to the music store to get a clarinet. Young Bill had a little trouble deciphering the instructions (given in Italian), and came home with a cornet. It worked out well for everyone.

He made his first mark in 1935, fresh out of Juilliard, where he had studied with Max Schlossberg, the father of American trumpet teaching. Auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic on the same day, Vacchiano won both auditions. True, audition procedures were much more relaxed then than they are today; he wasn’t subject to the modern cattle calls of two hundred players that often show up for a single position. Still, playing for Simone Mantia and Arturo Toscanini on the same day was a tough gig; being hired by both is the stuff of legend.

Vacchiano chose the Philharmonic, where he served as associate principal until being promoted to principal trumpet in 1942. He held that position until his retirement in 1973, becoming probably the most visible orchestral trumpeter ever. For those of you old enough to remember, it was Bill Vacchiano playing first trumpet when Leonard Bernstein was televising his Young People’s Concerts and other programs that established Bernstein as the pre-eminent American musician of his time.

It’s only appropriate that Vacchiano was succeeded as principal trumpet by two of his students, Gerard Schwarz and Phil Smith. Vacchiano will be remembered as a player for as long as his recordings exist; his influence as a teacher will never end. He taught at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music for sixty-seven years, from 1935–2002. He also found time to work in some teaching at the Mannes School from 1937–1983.

It would be fair to say that every major American orchestra has had at least one of his students in the trumpet section at some time. I’d be surprised if any major orchestra didn’t have at least one player today who either studied with him or one of his students. There was no template to his teaching, no “one size fits all” approach. His students cover the gamut of playing styles, and encompass more than orchestral careers: Wynton Marsalis studied with Vacchiano at Juilliard.

I never met William Vacchiano, and haven’t played in anything like a serious ensemble in over ten years, yet one of the most cherished memories of my trumpet career involves him. It was the 1990 International Trumpet Guild Conference. I had helped a manufacturer in his display booth, and took advantage of the end of the day to sneak in a little testing of my own. I played the trumpet solo from Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale to what I thought was an empty room. Played it pretty well, I thought.

I finished with the feeling someone else was still there. I looked up and saw Bill Vacchiano about twenty feet away at the Stork mouthpiece display, getting ready to leave. We made eye contact for just a few seconds, then he nodded once, smiling only with his eyes. I can still see him; I don’t think anyone ever said anything about my playing that made me feel better than that glance.

If that’s how Bill Vacchiano could make a stranger feel at a random meeting, it’s no wonder his students, friends, and intimates, many of whom fill all three roles, feel his loss so strongly today. The rest of us can only imagine what it must have been like to get some of that every week, and be grateful that he has achieved a measure of true immortality. Not only will he be remembered well beyond his time here, but he continues to influence his art, and the lives of those who practice it.

Thank you, Bill.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

What's in a Name?

Ref·u·gee. (ref´ · ū · jē) noun
One who flees in search of refuge.

[French réfugié, from past participle of réfugier, to take refuge; from Old French, from refuge, refuge.]

Americans love to label things; thinking of a good acronym sends some (typically computer types or government workers) in a state resembling sexual ecstasy, or what computer types and government workers think sexual ecstasy might be like if they ever came across any. Many labels, once attached, take on lives of their own, sometimes wildly divergent from the original meaning.

It’s one thing to re-define slang, or words intended to be derogatory. The much-vilified N word, or the famous twelve-letter epithet denoting highly developed Oedipal tendencies come to mind. Sometimes a word is invented for a specific purpose, or shoehorned into a euphemism to keep from saying something is a duck, no matter how it walks or quacks. When our military crossed the border from Vietnam into Cambodia in large numbers, it was called an “incursion.” There was already an appropriate and well-accepted word available; “invasion” was apparently too war-like. (Since we didn’t invade, did we incurse? Where’s George Carlin when you need him?)

Now Jesse Jackson is up in arms because the media has referred to those displaced by Hurricane Katrina as “refugees.” I don’t know what term Jesse prefers, mainly because I don’t care. He’s not upset over the accuracy of the word, which is a good thing for someone who’s supposed to be well-educated. He says the word is racist.

It’s comments like this that have relegated Jesse to the status of Al Sharpton with better hair. Remember when Jesse was considered a role model and inspirational speaker, the most visible disciple of Martin Luther King? Probably not, if you’re under thirty or thirty-five. Now he’s reduced himself to arriving at media events with his entourage to give a sound bite, probably something rhyming or otherwise catchy to better ensure his appearance on the news.

The war in Iraq – pardon me, the peacekeeping in Iraq – has shifted most attention usually paid to civil rights away from the racial issues characterized by the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection guarantees, and back to the Bill of Rights. This means Jesse (and Al, and Lou) are scrambling for time on the news and coming out behind Scot Peterson, Natalee Holloway, and whether or not Jennifer Anniston can be happy with Vince Vaughn since Brad dumped her for that tattooed skank Angelina Jolie.

The sad truth here is that it’s Jesse who’s being the racist. I have no knowledge of him decrying the use of the term when applied to Iraqis, or those fleeing the genocide at Darfur. For him to imply that “refugee” confers an inferior status on those so called, he must therefore imply the same for these others, displaced through no more fault of their own than those in Louisiana.

This should be good news. It’s nice to know Jesse clearly feels race relations in this country have come so far that he can spend his valuable time quibbling over a dictionary definition. Instead of continuing the abstract discussion over how many racists can dance on the head of a pin, his time might have been better spent by using some of his pull with Operation Push to help the Red Cross and Salvation Army. Maybe he could ditch the expensive suit and get down in the dirt with some of the not-refugees he claims to care so much about and actually do something for them.

No matter how anyone feels about who should have done what and when, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is a tragedy in the true sense of the word. (Sorry, Jen, no matter how bad Brad the bastard behaved, you don’t qualify.) Of the millions of words of invective and finger-pointing, Jesse’s choice of argument has probably trivialized the situation as much as anything else, coming as it has from an ostensibly responsible and respected leader. Except maybe for Shrub’s comment about what a nice new house Trent Lott is going to have.

Those are examples of what passes for leadership in Twenty-first Century America. They are prosecution exhibits A and B in making the case for why so much of New Orleans isn’t there any more.

(Does anyone else see the irony? The word that means “one who flees in search of refuge” is French in origin?)

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Don't Let the Door Hit You in the Ass on Your Way Out

The Gulf Coast may have turned the corner in its recovery efforts: Mike Brown has gone back to Washington. His onsite post will be assumed by a Coast Guard officer who has seen disasters other than his own performance up close before.

Brown said through a spokesman that he was planning to leave FEMA after the hurricane season, anyway. Did the Prince of Darkness think leaving Brown to serve his nefarious purposes at FEMA any longer would be too obvious? A few weeks ago, this blog commented on how the Nineties and the Aughts were beginning to resemble the Fifties and the Sixties, partly due to government’s inability to be trusted, or to do anything right. While not absolving state and local officials in New Orleans, Brown had become the face that represented the government’s lack of initiative, compassion, and having a clue. Whether Brown really had planned to leave, or if that’s a last-minute cover story, Friday’s move can only be viewed as holding the door open for him.

Brown’s accomplishments as FEMA Administrator were defined when he said he was unaware people were stranded in the Superdome and Convention Center. Camel drivers in East Al-Boumfukk, Libya, knew thousands of people were living under conditions so bad that Sudan was taking up a collection to help them. Even staunchly conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer suggested in Friday’s column that Brown should have hired a few twenty year-old interns to watch CNN and keep him posted on developments as they occurred.

It might have been a coincidence, but Brown’s reassignment came within a day of the Mexican Army entering the United States for the first time since 1846, bringing water treatment plants and mobile kitchens. Is that depressing to anyone else? No insult intended toward Mexico’s generous and humanitarian gesture, but don’t we have any of that stuff? How can any American government official look himself in the eye the next time he criticizes Mexicans for illegally crossing the border? “We saved your pale asses, gringo. Now you see why we going in through Arizona and California. New Orleans makes Tijuana look like Monte Carlo. We won’t even drink the water there. Gives us Napoleon’s Revenge.”

FEMA did their best to keep out the Mexicans, along with the Canadians, Swedes, Germans, and probably several other countries. The Swedes had a state of the art emergency communications system loaded up and ready to fly in; they were told to hold for over three days because FEMA wasn’t ready to receive it. Mike Brown doesn’t know thousands of people are dying in the Dome and the Convention Center, and we don’t need an emergency communications system.

Better aid has begun to flow in. Thanks again to the Mexicans, who used their years of experience to show the rest of the world how to evade American government officials trying to deny them access to this country. And before I get chastised for once again being too hard on France, let’s appreciate their contribution. An elite French commando team snuck into New Orleans late last week to share their centuries of experience in mass evacuations.

For those of you who consider me to be a persistent bleeding heart liberal pussy, here’s the link to Krauthammer’s excellent op-ed piece of September 9. I have little argument with anything in there.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

What is Hip?

What’s it called when ten musicians, ranging in age from thirty to sixty, play a consistent repertoire of tunes, none of which have hit the charts for the last twenty years? If the musicians are known as Tower of Power, you have as good an evening of musical entertainment as can be had.

TOP started in 1968 and had a decent run on the charts. “Don’t Change Horses” and “You Ought to be Having Fun” were probably their two biggest hits. Their current show fits both of these into a medley including a few of their more generally popular songs. It’s nice they acknowledge their past; what they’re about now is pleasing their fans.

They don’t play a lot of gigs anymore. You’re not going to catch them trying to drum up some nostalgia business on a bill with Black Sabbath or Motley Crue. TOP plays fifty or so concerts a year, mostly to true aficionados, and no one has more fun than they do.

They’re a throwback to the days when live performances were more than promotional appearances for the new album. They’ve only made two recordings in the last seven years. Their cult status is secure.

It’ll stay secure, too, since so much of the cult is populated by other musicians, or knowledgeable laymen. There’s nothing new at a TOP gig, no special effects, no whoring to bring in new listeners. They’re happy with the crowds they draw, which overflow the venues they play. They play for themselves, and for their long-time fans. They’re not averse to new believers; my fourteen year-old has seen them twice and loved it both times. TOP just wants to make sure the true believers get taken care of. They’re like the Grateful Dead for people with jobs.

Every concert is an hour and a half of balls to the wall soul, rhythm and blues, soul, and acknowledgements of the greatness of James Brown. The Godfather of Soul can’t be duplicated, so they don’t try. Every tune pays homage without being a rip-off. Brown’s influences are everywhere, but no one sounds like Tower of Power.

They are the coolest act in show business. What makes these pre-geriatric farts so cool? They do what they do better than anyone else, and make no pretense to be anything but what they are. A TOP performance lacks the arrogance of some popular “artists” who treat their audiences like dirt because no one else understands their brilliance. Quite the opposite; TOP makes sure to give their audience what it wants: an evening of flawlessly played, tightly arranged, energetically performed music that can’t be heard anywhere else.

Emilio Castillo, Steven Kupka, and Dave Garibaldi have known what is hip from the get-go. Lucky for all of us they choose to keep sharing it. Everyone should get on down to the nightclub for a soul vaccination once in a while, even when it’s souled out. To paraphrase one of their tunes, wherever I go, whatever I do, one thing remains the same: I’ll still be diggin’ on TOP.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Opportunity is Where You Find It

The people of New Orleans can rest easy, their nightmare is over. George Bush flew over yesterday.

He didn’t land, but the pilot got as low as 1700 feet and flew around for half an hour so Shrub could look out the window like a kid discovering an ant farm. No time to stop, he’d only been on vacation for a month, his busy schedule of dissing Gold Star mothers didn’t leave any time for pressing the flesh, maybe ask how some of these people were doing. No point. He’s not running for anything, he has a mandate.

This is our president, the man who personifies compassionate conservatism. Like so many under that umbrella, the only thing he’s conservative with is his compassion. Certainly not with money; no one ever spent it like he has.

Now it’s time to see if we got what we paid for. Shrub has spent hundreds of billions of dollars to “protect” us from the ravages of terrorism. How can we best evacuate entire cities in the event of a nucular attack? Protect the water supply from contaminants? Maintain order in the face of crisis?

Here’s his big chance. Throwing out the first pitch at a World Series game, then turning out the lights in two countries half a world away is easy. All this time he’s been worrying about towel-headed fanatics living in caves, and who puts the big hit on him? The same God whose Agent on Earth Shrub considers himself to be.

This is his chance to be a hero. With the Iraq situation going to hell in a handbasket, his primary historical legacies will be having the world’s worst terrorist attack take place in his country, on his watch, and leaving the Middle East a bigger mess than he found it, no mean feat.

He said he was devastated, looking out the window as he flew over. “Those people down there must be doubly devastated.” Devastated twice as much as him? People who have lost everything, and have no idea when they can go back to clean up so they can start over? Twice as much as he’s devastated after his month-long vacation at his private ranch, off to spend the weekend at Camp David, unless he rolls up his sleeves and stays in the sweatshop called the White House?

It’s one thing not to be a good president; this clueless bastard isn’t even a good person. Shame on us, shame on us all for letting him happen.