The Champagne crowd of Auto City

I didn’t think about it at the time, but we really had two distinct audiences. Our traditional fan base was made up of immigrant farmers and their descendants, mostly from Eastern Europe. These people had come to America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, seeking a better life in  a landscape that looked like home. They came from Poland,  Slovenia and the Baltic nations. but in our area the great majority were Czech. The local radio station had a “Czech Hour” every Saturday with Mildred and Tony, who would read the announcements in English before repeating them in Czech. They spun vinyl records from Czech-influenced Michigan bands (button accordion, tuba, drums) or the famous Czech brass bands from Nebraska. The ZCBJ, which was sort of a Czech fraternal club, had the best venue in town for wedding receptions. The dance floor was a substantial fraction of an acre, and you could buy a bottle of Pilsner Urquell (still among the best beers in  the world) at the bar for a buck. The receptions were catered by the in-house cooks, who would produce tons of greasy fried chicken in big aluminum trays. I loved the Czech parties, with the attendees chattering in two languages and the little kids sliding around the dance floor in their stocking feet. When the guests had eaten their fill, we would play a waltz so the cooks — all of them stocky, rather stolid women of a certain age — could dance with each other.

Like our first audience, our second was a product of migration. After World War II, a stream of young men — some alone, some with families — flooded into Michigan from Southern states to take good-paying jobs at a string of automobile factories that ran from Detroit up the I-75 corridor to Flint, Saginaw and Bay City. By the 1970s, General Motors employed half a million people in Michigan. Hundreds of thousands more toiled at Chrysler, Ford and the suppliers that made everything from upholstered seats to car batteries. Many people in Owosso commuted 25 miles to Flint to work in the giant Buick assembly plant, which the locals called simply “the Buick.” Like most newcomers, the auto workers flocked together in communities that reflected their roots. Ypsilanti, a working-class enclave abutting swank Ann Arbor, sometimes was referred to derisively as “Ypsitucky.” These migrants brought their culture with them, including a taste for hard-edged country music. For some, country songs spoke to their sense of alienation in an urban, industrial landscape. One classic tune, Bobby Bare’s 1963 hit “Detroit City” (“By day I make the cars / By night I make the bars”), sounds the oft-heard refrain of a lonely man whose friends down South think he has it made. In reality, all he wants is to go home to Ma, Pa and the girl he left behind.

Auto City Eagles Club– Fenton — Eagles Club Owosso — cigarette smoke — guys with Elvis sideburns




Randy’s father gave me a conspiratorial leer.

“Sixteen?” he chortled. Then he leaned in for some advice.

“Get yourself a piece of ass.”

At that moment I felt like Dustin Hoffman’s character Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.” Having been graced with a rare tidbit of wisdom — in Benjamin’s case it was the one-word career mantra “plastics,” whispered by a family friend — I felt utterly incapable of translating that gift into anything that might be acted upon. Trust me, I thought, I would if I could figure out how.


How I found my ear

When I was a sophomore in high school, I taught myself “relative pitch.” That means I learned to recognize the intervals between notes as they went up and down. If you think of the eight notes of a major scale, the intervals can be numbered. The interval from the first to the third note going up (a C to an E in a C-major scale, for example) is called a third. The first to the fifth note (a C up to a G) is called a fifth.

Anyone who learns to recognize intervals can “play by ear,” reproducing melodies by playing back the intervals and the rhythms that make up the song. It’s an unusual, but certainly not phenomenal, skill. I’d guess maybe one in a hundred adults can do it. And it can be learned — either through formal “ear training” or, in my case, by simply memorizing intervals in one’s head.

Even before this point, I had realized that my sonic instincts were fairly acute. At the beginning of my sophomore year, before we moved from Omaha to Owosso, I worked at the radio station at Omaha Central High School. One of our advisors — a very cool guy named Frank Bramhall — was a disk jockey for WOW-AM radio and a weathercaster for WOW-TV.

I used to listen to him on the radio. WOW was an “adult contemporary” station, aimed at the 25-to-49 demographic. They played the softer hits like Elton John but not the hard stuff. No Black Sabbath for this crowd. But something about the music bothered me. It sounded “wrong.” After some listening and some comparison to the music on other stations, I realized that it was pitched too high. I asked Mr. Bramhall about this.

He seemed utterly nonplussed. “We geared up the turntables,” he told me. WOW was playing 45 rpm records at 48 rpm — meaning that both the tempo and the pitch were nearly 7 percent higher than the artists who recorded the songs had intended!

It sounded “peppier” that way, Mr. Bramhall explained, and listeners who got used to it wouldn’t want to turn away.

Yeesh. It’s a good thing that, like most kids in Omaha, I preferred the younger sound of KOIL-AM (Mighty 1290). I still hear the songs of that era in my head, in the key they were meant to be played in. The thought of remembering the early 1970s in a squeaky hyper-pitch is even scarier than a polyester leisure suit.


I almost joined the Army

Well, maybe not “almost.” But I thought about it.

In the spring of 1976, I was about to graduate high school. I was a typical dumb 17-year-old — full of half-formed impressions about the world, and ready to act on one of those hare-brained ideas if the impulse seized me. So I went to see an Army recruiter in Owosso.

Why? I had a half-baked hallucination that I might join the Army band, see the world and play music. I would acquire a passport full of exotic visas and maybe a hot German girlfriend. After I’d spent a couple of years building international goodwill, a grateful Uncle Sam would give me a pile of cash for college.

The recruiter was more than happy to encourage my delusion. He sent me to an Army Reserve unit in nearby Flint, where I took a battery of aptitude tests. The tests did not involve a trumpet audition. Hmmm, I thought.

I remember seeing lots of guys strutting around in those calf-length officers’ coats that you see in old WWII films. We all got time for a cigarette break. I didn’t smoke.

I must have done well on the tests, because the recruiter called me several times in the days afterward. By then the delusion had passed, like a fleeting adolescent brain fever.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that military bands are professional, career organizations that employ only the finest musicians, many of them graduates of the best music conservatories. Brass players in such outfits are as good as symphony orchestra musicians, with all the requisite skills — endurance, articulation, intonation, and flawless sight-reading abilities. Trumpet geeks from Owosso wouldn’t make the first cut.

Well, now I know. Sometimes — only sometimes — I wonder what would have happened if I had followed that path. I know I wouldn’t have been an Army musician, but I might have gotten an alternate education in journalism by writing for a base newspaper.



The curse of hearing everything

Perri Knize sits in her living room Thursday with the grand piano that became her obsession and the subject of her new book. The Missoula author details a quest to find the right piano and her resulting exploration of sound, music and humanity. Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Perri Knize. Photo by Tom Bauer/The Missoulian

I’ve just finished Perri Knize’s fine memoir, “Grand Obsession: A Piano Odyssey.” Knize, a Montana-based journalist, bought a hand-crafted German grand piano at a New York showroom and had it shipped to her home in Missoula. When it got there, it sounded nothing like the instrument she fell in love with. So she set off on a three-year quest to restore her piano’s trademark sound. Along the way, she learned a lot about how pianos are made and maintained.

Every piano is unique. Even Yamaha, which has a reputation for turning out uniformly manufactured instruments, has never made two pianos that are exactly alike. That’s because pianos are like living organisms; they are made of wood and felt and wire, and they are exquisitely sensitive to temperature and humidity. A piano’s sound changes over time. It’s the job of the piano technician to give an instrument precisely the touch and timbre that the artist desires.

Pianists and technicians both can be finicky creatures, so their relationship can be volatile. At times while reading “Grand Obsession,” one might be forgiven for thinking that Knize is deeply neurotic, so insistent is she on restoring the sound her piano was “meant” to have. But as she consults the nation’s most renowned technicians (she even flies them in from New York), it becomes clear that Knize has a rare gift that doubles as an affliction: She hears everything. The techs can’t dismiss her as a head case, because they hear the same things that she does. So they join her in an epic effort that involves many tunings, much voicing (the shaping of the piano’s hammers to alter the sound) and even the wholesale replacement of some very expensive parts. Suffice to say that no one made money on this effort. In the end it’s a fascinating and sometimes hair-raising search for the sort of sonic reward that only a handful of people can appreciate.

I have a very good ear, but after reading this, I’m sure it is nothing like Knize’s. Perhaps that’s just as well. By the way, the story does have a happy ending. “Marlene,” as Knize calls her piano, is now singing as she should. I’m happy for both of them.



I’m with the band

For three seasons now, my daughters and I have played in the Lake Mills City Band. It’s a small band in a small community, and it’s open to everyone.

Last night we rehearsed again, and it was a bit ragged. It’s a summer band, so this is the off season, and attendance is spotty. We had seven musicians last night. (Be grateful that you were not there to hear our run-through of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.”) I am the de facto concertmaster of the band, as I occupy the first cornet chair. When we’re at the full roster of perhaps 18, there are five or six halfway decent players, and we pull the group along with us. Not that this is all bad. One benefit of playing in a middling ensemble is that one’s contributions are always appreciated. And the members have been exceptionally welcoming to my daughters and me.

I have played in several community bands over the years — in both Michigan and Wisconsin. The best of them, the Cudworth American Legion Band in Milwaukee, was a tremendous all-city group in which I was buried somewhere close to last chair. The others — well, each of them is a story in itself.

Like most of my interests, playing in a city band is an outmoded — some might say dying — avocation. I don’t care. When the baton falls for the summer season, I’m so psyched that I might as well be on stage with Leonard Bernstein at Tanglewood.


Thank God for church gigs

I played in church again this morning. Nothing special — we’re in a period of what Catholics call “ordinary time,” to distinguish it from the holy seasons of Easter, Advent, Christmas and Lent. No incense or bells or anything like that. Just good, straightforward music with our music director, Lisa Kysely, and the adult choir.

Catholic music is a mixed bag. The church has no modern musical heritage, so we borrow from elsewhere and compose our own. The Lutherans invented modern church music. They had Bach, of course, and Martin Luther himself wrote “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The Anglicans rule the organ universe, and gospel music flowed from the black and evangelical churches. By contrast, a Catholic parish is only as good as its music director. Some churches rely on volunteers, and they get what they pay for. Lisa is a professional. She’s a music-school grad, and she’s a solid pianist and organist with a good feel for what works. We borrow heavily from what I like to call the “stuffy Protestant” canon, and Lisa fills in with gospel styles and Latin American stuff. There’s some material from the 1970s, but most of it has aged about as well as that era’s polyester leisure suits. We play some of that, but not too much.

People in our parish actually sing. My daughter Lucy cantored this morning, but she and my older daughter, Margaret, join me occasionally on alto sax and clarinet, respectively.

I like playing in church. The music is decent, Lisa is great to work with, and it’s gratifying to do something in service of the parish.




The mighty mighty Strad

The image in the header is not my horn, but it’s the same model as mine. The trumpet above is a Bach Stradivarius Model 37, medium-large bore. I bought one of these toward the end of 1974, when I was in high school. I still have it, and I still play it. It’s the only horn I’ve ever owned as an adult. The case was replaced several years ago, and I have also replaced one bottom valve cap. Other than that, it’s original — a couple of small dings, and the silver plate has worn off in places, but it’s still a great horn.

Playing a Strad is like driving a Mercedes-Benz: It’s solid and responsive, and the ML bore pushes back just enough to keep the player from careening all over the place. If the intonation is off (as mine sometimes is), it’s the fault of the musician, not the horn.

We trumpet players are fortunate in that, unlike violinists, we don’t have to pay a fortune for an excellent instrument. A new Strad today will set you back about $2,300. Back at the end of the Nixon administration, I paid $330 for mine.