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Steven Halpern at Rhodes

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August 2017

Summertime Flashbacks: Bands, Gigs and Intense, Mindful Practicing

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©Steven Halpern

I wrote last month about several major musical anniversaries. That seems to have triggered an opening of long-neglected memory banks of playing in bands and seminal events that contributed significantly to my development as a musician. I bet most of you don't know that, long before I devoted myself to researching, composing and recording healing, meditative music, I played guitar, trumpet and even bass in a number of bands. 

I also played some weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. 

When I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, music had already grabbed me. I was not inspired to be a rock star, as many were who saw that show. But I had already been turned on by the pleasures of improvisation. This was of much greater interest to me than reading little black notes on white paper, or copying other musicians so we could 'play it like the record'. 

My renewed appreciation of the music of the Beatles is much deeper than their "Sgt. Pepper" masterpiece. Keeping my car radio tuned to channel 18, the new Sirius XM Beatles channel, I've been reminded that I played many of their earlier songs as the lead guitar in high school and college. Harmonically, I recall many a time when my mates and I would be trying to figure out one of their chord progressions, that had never been done before in pop music. We'd say, "How could they play that chord? You can't do that?" But they did, and they made it work. 

Our band covered the original versions of the Beatles versions of early three chord R&B hits, like Chuck Berry's "Roll Over, Beethoven" and Barrett Strong's "Money". Three chords got boring pretty fast. But pretty soon, their songs broke new compositional ground. In the process, they help stimulate the creative juices of musicians like myself. 

They also provided a guitar player's aerobic workout with another pre-"Sgt Pepper" hit. Can you identify that song? 

It contained George Harrison's fast crossed-triplet strumming. (Factoid: Who was the fastest strummer in our high school?) 

The song is "All My Lovin". Even if you only play air guitar, here's a brief workout that can alter your consciousness, and create a natural high. Keep up with George. For extra credit, play the entire song, not just the first 30 seconds. Oh yes... and remember to breathe. 

Accelerating Evolution with Revolver

Revolver introduced us to a new era of psychedelic sounds, Indian trance-inducing instruments like sitar and tambura, and text from The Tibetan Book of the Dead in "Tomorrow Never Knows." My freshman English lit instructor, Michael Aldrich, handed out joints to help us 'get in tune' with the same state of mind that the Beatles were in when they recorded the song. 

It worked. 

I heard the music with new ears. 

I never had the chance to thank him...until forty nine years later, when we reconnected at a healing research panel at an Emerald Cup expo conference. Dr. Michael Aldrich went on to become a founding member of NORML. And his wife Michelle told me she had used my music, along with CBD medical marijuana oil, to heal from cancer. 

She, of course, had no idea that her husband had made such an impact on me back in college. Talk about coming full circle! I love it when that happens. That's better than winning a Grammy. 

Summertime and Double Time for Practicing 

Summertime always gave me more time to practice, but things got more serious in 1967. That was when I discovered John Coltrane and A Love Supreme. I wore out several LPs, and have been inspired by John's prayer, to use music as a vehicle to lift up the souls of his listeners, ever since. 

Spending many hours a day practicing was required to develop the muscle memory and familiarity with the history and theory of jazz improvisation. It was also a way to get into a natural altered state of consciousness without the use of any other substances. (Of course, we didn't use that term back then.) Unless you've ever practiced an instrument that intensely, it's hard to communicate in words what that feels like. 

At that age, it was so easy for me to get lost in "the music zone". It felt great. It was also much easier to practice guitar for hours and hours than trumpet. My embouchure would give out way before my fingers would. 

Summer of 1967 found me taking Botany and Biology 101 at CW Post College on Long Island rather than at the much more competitive UB. At night, I'd be sitting in on trumpet at a gig at a bar called Satan's Alley with my friends from Buffalo, who had the number one blues band, The Conqueroos. Their keyboard player was one of my best friends and piano mentors, David Gittler. Their lead singer, Jeffrey Lesser, had a vibe like Jim Morrison. (After Lesser left the band, he went on to fame as a top music producer, working with Barbra Streisand and many other top artists.) 

When the Conqueroos broke up, Gittler called me up one midnight and said, "You need to come over right now and hear the new Paul Butterfield Blues Band album I just scored. They have a horn section, and they take jazz solos. Let's find a sax and trombone player and put together our own jazz-rock blues band with horns." 

This sounded like a great way to be able to play trumpet rather than just guitar. As a student of improvisation, I was always more interested in taking solos and exploring new sonic territory rather than copying someone else's arrangements note for note. I lived for the unpredictable, the magic moment when something that had never been played before was born. 

When the teach-ins and political rallies needed a house band, we got the call. After multiple changes of personnel, including the legendary Madeline Davis, that band evolved into New Chicago Lunche. We were heralded, in 1968, as 'the next big thing', expanding upon the sound of Paul Butterfield, Blood, Sweat and Tears, and Chicago Transit Authority, before they became Chicago. 

In hindsight, we were much too jazz oriented to be more than a one-hit wonder. But every night on the bandstand, there were peak experiences, playing with and learning from Jon Weiss on keyboards, and Joe Ford on sax. Joe was a monster musician and a major mentor, just standing next to him and listening every night. 

How good was Joe? He went on to play with the great McCoy Tyner. McCoy, of course, had played with John Coltrane's classic quartet, on albums like A Love Supreme. (Another case of less than six degrees of separation.) 

Summer of 1968 and the Ron Carter Doctrine 

I made another quantum leap in my growth as a musician when I was allowed to audit a master class taught by the great bass player, Ron Carter. He was part of the new Black Studies program; I believe the University of Buffalo was the first university, or certainly among the first, to set up this kind of program and music was an integral part of it. 

You might ask, "How was I able to audit that class since I was not a) a music major, and b) not African-American?" 

The answer is simple. They needed a trumpet player, and I was the best in town. It was in that class that Mr. Carter told us, "If you are serious about being a musician, you have to practice eight hours a day. Consider it your job." 

I raised my hand. I addressed him as he insisted we do. "Mr. Carter, what about my college classes?" To which he replied, "Fit them in around your practice time." 

That summer, I did, and my chops got in such good shape that I was then able to sit in with jazz artists like Larry Coryell, Rick Derringer, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Frank Zappa. 

I studied poly-quartal harmony, modal scales, and studied the solos of other artists by playing along with their records. When it was my turn to take a solo on stage, I drew on all I had been learning to come up with new combinations of notes that I had never played before. 

What most people don't realize is that there is state-related aspect of playing high energy jazz. You have to be totally focused, listening to everyone else, yet totally "in the moment." It was a natural high. The music was not always pretty, but for the musicians, it was almost addictive. 

Playing trumpet also required total mental and physical concentration on posture, breath, and embouchure. (Guitar and piano are way easier, on that level.) Sometimes, the intensity of the energy created a portal, an energy vortex, where we would 'break on through to the other side.' 

In hindsight, I look at these experiences as contributing to the breakthrough I had that opened me up to connecting with my Muse and playing the meditative and healing music I do today. 

Summer of 1970 

My undergraduate studies continued through 1969, as our New Chicago Lunche band prepared for our major label recording session in New York City. Our producer was replaced at the last minute with one who did not get who we were. He wanted us to play only slow grooves like the new Manfred Mann album, which was heavily influenced by heroin. On the subway, someone tried to steal Joe's sax. Learn more about New Chicago Lunche here: https://www.stevenhalpern.com/ncl 

We tore up our contract, and walked out of Jimi Hendrix's Electric LadyLand studio. That was a major drag. 

But it turned out to be cosmically perfect for me. With two weeks suddenly freed up in my schedule, I bought a round trip ticket to San Francisco in November, 1969. I was looking forward to returning to Buffalo, playing with the band, and beginning my graduate studies with full scholarship to study the cross-cultural use of music in healing, meditation, trance and altered states of consciousness. 

In fact, in August, I interviewed William S. Burroughs at his loft in Greenwich Village. Among other things, he told me that I needed to go to Morocco and meet the Master Musicians of Jajouka that he and Brian Jones had been hanging out with. I was looking forward to scheduling that field trip, for sure. 

While in California, all my plans changed in an instant during that meditation in the redwood grove. Without the scholarship, I needed a new source of income. I joined several bands while I lived in Santa Cruz, CA. The leader of the first band also played trumpet, but more importantly, he had one of the first Fender Rhodes electric pianos. I sat in with them at Mike's Lounge at a Sunday jazz jam session, and essentially took over the stage with my New York jazz chops. 

Their keyboardist and I bonded immediately. He told me he wanted to play more trumpet, I told him I wanted to get my hands on his Rhodes, since I had no budget yet to buy my own. So we joined forces. 

Oh yes. The name of that other keyboardist/trumpet player? Randy Masters. Some of you may recognize that name. He is now one of the most respected names in sound healing, a genius whose work in sound and sacred geometry is top notch. I'm honored to say I introduced him to the concepts. 

Perhaps my strangest gig ever found me playing bass in a trio with two other music teachers. We were the backup band for Larry Lake, an Elvis tribute singer, at a biker bar at the Santa Cruz beach boardwalk. 

Best thing I can say is, I survived, but barely. Every Friday night it was like a scene from The Blues Brothers movie. I'd have to hide behind my bass amp to avoid flying beer bottles and fists. 

Before I left Santa Cruz to attend grad school at the Humanistic Psychology Institute at Sonoma State University, I also had developed a well-deserved reputation of being fired from several bands during the middle of extended jazz-inspired solos as the guitar player. This often happened during "Proud Mary" or "Light My Fire". 

The manager would run up to the stage and screamed, "People are watching and listening to you, they're not dancing and sweating and drinking." 

Long before the Trump era, I heard "You're fired!" more than once. 

It was obvious I needed to make a change in my life. But at that time, there was no career path for anyone in the field of healing music. In fact, there wasn't even a field to have a career in. 

So I started one. 

Montreux Jazz Festival 1970: One Door Closes, Another One Opens 

Although I enjoyed (mostly) playing in rock and R&B bands and getting paid, there were very few paying gigs for trumpet. However, within days of arriving in the San Francisco Bay Area I had connected with Bert Wilson and the Berkeley jazz all-stars. Every day, incredible jazz musicians like Michael White (violin), Sonny Simmons (sax) and others would meet at Bert's house on Curtis Street and jam. 

Bert and the others accepted me right away, and being in their presence was like musical satsang. It was like a master class every day. Once again I was playing trumpet at least four hours every day. My skill set increased by leaps and bounds. I studied and memorized the Bible of many artists, Nicolas Slonimsky's Thesaurus of Scales and Modal Patterns

Bert had polio as a kid, and played while in his wheelchair. He played with so much power you'd never know there was any kind of physical limitation to his physical body. He and I often sat in with the early jazz-rock pioneer band, The Fourth Way, led by Mike Nock on Rhodes piano and Michael White on violin. When they got invited to appear at the prestigious international Montreux jazz festival, I was invited to join them. 

I figured this was my big chance to get prime time exposure as the new jazz-rock man with a horn. My hopes were dashed when the tour manager said that only the four main members were welcome. I countered, and offered to pay my own expenses. 

The answer was still a resounding 'no'. It was a clear sign from the universe. That was the end of the line for my career as a hot-shot trumpet player. 

I had met famed research scientist Dr. Stanley Krippner when he presented a program at Bridge Mountain Foundation, which was where I worked after having my visionary experience under the redwoods. (It was right across the road!) He observed the effect of my music at the weekend workshops, but told me I needed to do biofeedback research to provide 'objective confirmation' of the positive effects. 

Dr. Krippner had just become Dean of the first of its kind Humanistic Psychology Institute at Sonoma State College (now University). He said his program had the best biofeedback equipment around, and he'd love to have someone do research on healing and music. Plus, he said I could use it for free as a grad student. 

When I got the call cancelling Montreux, I remembered what Dr. Stanley Krippner had offered. I applied to the program and was quickly accepted into HPI, and never looked back. 

Well, almost never. 

That's why I get an extra thrill when I see the 50th celebrations of Chicago, the Beatles, and others, whose music inspired so many uplifting experiences. It rekindles my on-stage high times. 

A note on the power of memory: Research with Olympic athletes and others has proven that reliving these memories can create the same mental states and related endorphins as the actual experience. Dr. Herbert Benson wrote a book about this related to health entitled Remembered Wellness. This was his follow-up to his best-seller, The Relations Response. 

Can Listening to the Beatles be Dangerous while Driving? 

Flashbacks can be a bit dangerous, too. Can listening to the Beatles be dangerous to your health? 

It almost was for me, yesterday. I was driving home from jury duty, and zoning out listening to the Beatles on Sirius XM. 

Suddenly, I heard the lyrics, "...Somebody spoke and I went into a dream...." from "A Day in the Life". Flashbacks to all those deep listening sessions back in the 60s made it suddenly hard to drive. 

Several songs later, on came "I am the Walrus", with that amazing continually ascending ending tone at the end. I wound up halfway in the next lane. Luckily, there was no car there just then. 

I thought to myself, should include a warning: 

"Do not listen to while driving." 

I wonder how many other drivers drifted out of their driving lane as they drifted off to the music. 

I'm just sayin'. 

Until next time, keep the music lighting up your life. 

Steven Halpern