Loud Even When Quiet
June 11, 2012
We were only quiet for a few hours a day. Sometime after three or four AM, the last notes were played, the roach of a joint scalded a bassist’s calloused fingertips, a record needle wandered off the end of a groove, tomorrow’s conducting test suddenly dawned on someone, and we stumbled back to our own apartments or just passed out on the couch.
After dawn, the silence broke. On their way to morning classes, Boston Conservatory opera students sung scales in the alley behind our building, until their reverberating notes were abruptly silenced when one of us hurled a “shut the fuck up!” out the window. Then we were up, stretching under-nourished bodies, hacking the smoker’s morning cough, and already humming before we brewed coffee or sparked a bowl. We wore what we had slept in or grabbed clothes off the floor. There was no grooming.
We lived at 13 Haviland Street – a four-story brick walk-up in the heart of the musician’s ghetto, housed almost entirely of current and former Berklee College of Music students. We were male, largely straight, with a few closeted homosexuals in the mix, and with no one around to impress or seduce, our most intimate relationships were with our instruments. We had slept within arms reach of guitars, basses, saxophones and trumpets, and with a new day they brought the possibility of euphoria, self-hatred, and cocktails of other emotional extremes. Looks, intelligence, social graces, sense of humor and wealth meant nothing to us; we cared how good we were, how well we could play. To get better, we practiced in every free moment, and it was time to begin.
A guitarist started noodling on an acoustic – a checkered flag for the rest of us. From then until late the following morning, the music never stopped. A trumpet player warmed up, running through mixolidian scales, piercing the air and drowning out the guitarist. Someone hammered out cords on an old out-of-tune piano, tweaking an arrangement for harmony class, the drummers grabbed their stick bags and cymbal cases and lumbered out to the practice rooms, and all the other guitarists plugged in, tuned up and let loose.
Within minutes, the musical layers thickened into an indecipherable stew of noise – genres, scales, instruments and tempos collided, chased and pummeled each other, until any attempt to take in the sounds as a whole was dizzying.
Once the wall of sound had plateaued, the singing began. None of us were singers, technically, but ear training classes were mandatory at Berklee, and the better musicians amongst us sang, hummed and skatted to quickly learn a new tune or arrange horn parts for a composition class. Singing was a necessary evil, preferably done alone and soon forgotten.
Miles, Mingus and Monk joined the cacophony of sound, and we worshipped our gods at max volume throughout the day. We consumed CDs, tapes and vinyl in small bites – track by track, solo by solo – but never in their entirety. We listened to learn, not for pleasure, absorbing the infinite wisdom in every phrase, measure and bar. We could eye the exact spot on a Jazz at Massey Hall vinyl where Charlie Parker’s solo on “A Night in Tunisia” kicked in, or rewind right to the first note of Jaco Pastorius’ bass line intro to “The Chicken.”
Jazz was the common language, the undisputed musical champion of our world. We devoured the catalogues of John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillespie and other household names, but also dissected the work of their sidemen – lesser-known but highly influential musicians like Ron Carter, McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter.
But we weren’t all swinging. A guitarist going through a blues phase put on an old Freddy King record, plugged in his Stratocaster and started soloing along, note for note. An upright bassist obsessed with the work of Ivan Lins thumped out bossa nova bass lines, the ostinato a welcome relief amongst a backdrop of soaring scales and solos.
Any music, any good music, was fair game. We listened to old James Brown, savored Herbie Hancock’s funk recordings, and clung to Jimmi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and other sentimental favorites from our musical youth. As was the case with jazz, our loyalty often lay with individual musicians – funk rhythm section heroes like Mike Clark, Paul Jackson, David Garibaldi and Marcus Miller.
At five minutes to nine, several of us plucked, struck, sang, blew or bowed one last note, threw a sax, trumpet, guitar, upright or electric bass in a case, rushed down the sagging stairwells and through the dusty hallways of our building, and made sharp left turns once our feet hit the unfinished pavement of Haviland Street. Then we sped-walked or ran towards Mass Ave, where thick two-way traffic and the lack of a crosswalk created a dangerous game of musician’s Frogger that we played, instruments in tow, throughout the day. Classes began on the hour and, depending on the instructor, arriving late called undesired attention to our performances.
We mumbled through ear training, gesticulated in conducting, decoded in harmony, rehearsed with ensembles and fumbled through private lessons. Legendary vibraphonist Gary Burton, drumming savant Kenwood Dennard and hundreds of other instructors corrected our technique, analyzed our progression, assigned us new material, and shared anecdotes. More than a few of them also winced, laughed, checked the time, fielded personal phone calls, and showed up ten minutes late or not at all.
We shuffled back to Haviland Street, still processing what was just assigned, witnessed and endured – an emotional potpourri of inspiration, frustration, shame and self-doubt. A bassist called upon a more experienced pianist for help with a complicated big band arrangement, two rock guitarists tried to swing their way through some bebop, and a saxophonist with time-issues played scales at the lowest metronome setting.
The day’s first lessons, classes and ensembles behind us, we lunched on 25¢ granola bars, shared a joint, listened to some late Coltrane or early Miles, and argued about Pat Metheny, who was either a guitar genius or a smooth jazz fraud, depending on which of us you asked. Then we scurried back to our apartments to practice some more.
We lived in total squalor. Half-eaten cereal bowls collected mold in the sink, makeshift ashtrays spilled over onto paint-chipped windowsills, empty wine bottles topped rickety totem poles of records, musical scores and CD cases, and dust covered everything. Off-white walls held a few album covers, an old tapestry or nothing at all. A wobbly upright piano leaned against a water-damaged wall. Every couch was a curbside find.
Oblivious and indifferent to our surroundings, we practiced, listened, jammed, transcribed, rehearsed, hurried out, traipsed back, and practiced some more. A spontaneous early afternoon jam session brought two guitarists, an upright bassist and a fresh eighth of weed together, the indulgent solos and smoke trailing into the hall and inviting the rest of us to partake.
We had dropped off the grid. A few apartments had phones, but they never rang. We had no use for TVs, computers, newspapers or magazines. We knew nothing of current events, politics, sports, even weather. If it was cold, and it almost always was, we wore coats. If it rained, we walked faster, as carrying an umbrella and a guitar wasn’t worth the hassle.
The jam session devolved into a listening session, when someone showed up with better weed and we zoned out to some solo Keith Jarrett, while the dust kicked up before settled in the early afternoon haze. No one spoke, but plenty was said: a raised eyebrow or squint approved a daring note choice, muffled laughter applauded technical prowess, and winces and head-shaking marked moments of pure musical perfection. We were even loud when we were quiet.
We were the last generation of musicians before the digital age. Not yet able to download, torrent and stream, we explored our parents’ music collections, dug through the dollar bins in used record stores, or received prescriptions from older musicians and teachers – you need to check this shit out. We could recall where we were and who was to thank the first time we heard Coltrane’s Sheets of Sound, when we realized that Headhunters was not Herbie Hancock’s seminal funk recording (it was Thrust), or for our first exposure to the Hammond Organ wizardry of Jimmy Smith. Every discovery and epiphany had a lineage – a musical debt, a connection to a mentor.
Later in the afternoon, a drummer stormed back to the building bitching about the subpar bassist at his recording session, a trumpet player shuffled out for a private lesson, and a pianist cornered and aggressively recruited a tenor player for a jam session that night. Every hour, right before the hour, a few of us left and a few came back, as the music simmered, rolled to a boil, and simmered again, but never stopped. A keyboardist kept playing the same eight bars of Chick Corea’s “Spain,” someone belted out an awful Stevie Wonder impersonation, and two guitarists on different floors took advantage of a lull in the action to spontaneously trade licks.
None of us had real jobs. A few held coveted work-study assignments – which was, essentially, paid practice time – and a couple scored the occasional paying gig, but the rest of us scraped by on a monthly allowance or a student loan handout. If money got tight at the end of the month, we bought granola bars with couch cushion change, hawked old musical equipment or fasted. Ours was a game of sustenance – to maintain a lifestyle of complete and total musical immersion as long as possible.
Someone collected funds to grab a cheap bottle of wine, and a guitarist recovering from a brutal private lesson opted to continue smoking weed, while the rest of us made our way around the block to Little Stevie’s Pizzeria, whose mammoth $1.50 slices fed most of the musicians and junkies in the neighborhood. A trumpet player and pianist conspired to start drinking early, while the rest of us scarfed down our slices and dug in for one last hour or two of practice.
Our musical brotherhood ran only so deep. The worst musicians amongst us were social pariahs, their only hope for inclusion resting on providing drugs or alcohol. If they were lucky, they comped cords at a jam session or provided a couch for a better musician to crash on, but they were more than happy to just fit in and not be exposed. If someone left a rehearsal early, his playing was endlessly dissected and scrutinized before we settled on a flaw or set of flaws, making us all feel that much better, if only briefly, about our own.
As the sun set, we all congregated somewhere; in recording sessions and ensemble rehearsals at Berklee, in our building or a neighboring one. With each hour the music grew more aggressive and less academic, more charged and less measured, more celebratory and less contemplated. By nightfall, we played not in pursuit of perfection, but in release.
Occasionally, one of us disappeared. Breakdowns were common, but rarely discussed, and often involved heavy drug use or a psychotic break. A semester off turned into a year or more, but by that time the troubled musician was long forgotten, having been replaced within a few weeks by our alcoholic, absent landlord, who ran 13 Haviland Street as an efficient, albeit technically illegal, musicians’ boarding house.
One of us brought two German saxophonists back to the building after a recording session, and the jam session down in Apartment Two gained momentum. Someone upstairs blasted Sketches of Spain so loud it shook the hallway bannister. A bassist chugged a cup of cold black coffee and ran out for a gig. Several of us debated about whether or not to make the pilgrimage to Wally’s for bebop night – the rhythm section was supposed to be top-notch.
We came from all over the world. Many of us had been coddled in upper middle class US suburbs – our lofty tuition helping to pay the scholarships of Japanese and French pianists, German horn players, and guitarists from Venezuela, Czechoslovakia and everywhere else. Language barriers were eased by a common musical vocabulary and a social hierarchy determined solely on talent. For thousands of savants, musical shut-ins, social phobics and brooding longhaired guitarists, Berklee was the first place that really felt like home.
Two jam sessions merged as lesser musicians yielded to their musical superiors and a few of us sucked down a joint, threw on coffee-stained and cigarette butt-burnt jackets and dodged the Mass Ave panhandlers on the long walk down to Wally’s.
Once inside the infamous musician’s proving ground, we stood pinned against the side wall and shuttled Budweiser cans and dollar bills to and from the bar. We watched in awe as an endless cadre of horn players one-upped each other. Musical flourishes were met with whoops and yeahs as tenor after alto after trombonist wailed over the increasingly charged groove offered up by the pianist, drummer and bassist. One of us had brought his horn “just in case,” but we all knew he didn’t have the requisite balls or talent to take the stage with the big dogs, where a few unsure notes or a hesitant sideways glance was all it took to illicit boos from onstage and off.
We worshipped the best musicians amongst us, flocked to all their gigs and performances, and spoke of them endlessly. We knew them by first or last name alone – Fausto (hand percussion), Anat (tenor sax), Vincent (piano), Deantoni and Deitch (drums) – and studied their every gesture and mannerism, hoping to uncover some clue into their superpowers. Where once they had been within arm’s reach, someday their names would stand alongside our gods, and their albums would join our canon.
We staggered back to the building, shivering in sweat soaked clothes as we dissected the musical brilliance. The pianist was a total badass, the drummer had insane chops but played too busy, and whoever the fuck that little Asian alto player was, holy shit – that dude would be gone within a year. When one of them, one of the best, disappeared, it was for a tour or high profile gig, and more often than not, they were gone for good, a royal few earning honorary degrees years or decades later.
We could recite the endless list of famous Berklee alumni in our sleep: Quincy Jones, Bruce Hornsby, Melissa Etheridge, Kevin Eubanks, Branford Marsalis, Juliana Hatfield, Diana Krall, Steve Vai, it went on and on. John Mayer was there back then, but he was just a student, as anonymous as we were.
Our building was as rollicking as we had left it. The guitarist who had been eviscerated in his private lesson was passed out drunk on the front stoop. We helped him to his room, laughing at his incoherent mumblings about dropping out and starting a bluegrass band. After pounding on the door to Apartment Two, one of us jimmied the lock, and we busted up the jam session, howling about Wally’s and demanding weed. Their frustration quickly gave way to laughter as a French guitarist rolled another joint and an Argentinian trumpet player puked in the bathroom.
Someone shouted “to the roof!” and we grabbed anything we could bang on – a huge soup pot, an old empty vase, a busted snare drum found on the street the night before. Tonight the end would come violently.
We spilled out into the back stairwell, almost knocking over a bassist on his way back from a recording session, who promptly joined our procession. We burst through a screen door and onto the roof, taking in the Back Bay panorama: the squat concrete labs of MIT across the Charles River, Fenway Park still glowing from a night game, and the downtown skyline, anchored by the towering Prudential Building.
The pristine nighttime glow was soon shattered by wild, ugly noise – we banged, thumped, struck, slapped and howled at the moon, a pack of wild booze-soaked musical dogs. Someone screamed the lyrics to “Love for Sale” in German, and a few of us doubled over with laughter. The fuck yous and threats to call the police were already raining out from neighboring buildings when the bassist stumbled and dropped the vase off the roof, its piercing shatter in the alley below silencing the debauchery above. A long pause was followed by an oh shit!, laughter, and finally a mad rush back down the stairwell.
Most of us retired to our apartments, but a few clung to the night, blasting Miles Ahead and inhaling what we could from two roaches discarded earlier. Our arms and backs ached from a full day of practice, rehearsals, and schlepping gear in and out of buildings, up and down stairs, but the pain told us we had paid our due, we had chased the impossible a little further, we had milked another day of music.
Within a few years, it would all be gone. Very few of us would make a living performing, many of us would have to teach long days of private lessons or junior high school jazz band, and some of us, impossible as it once seemed, would eventually stop playing altogether. One of us would win Grammies and produce albums for Jay Z, Kanye West and Beyonce, and another would become obsessed with the Koran and attempt to convert to Islam before succumbing to an inevitable breakdown. The rest of us would fall, indistinguishably, in the middle.
But back then, at the world’s largest and most notorious music school, as twilight lingered, we were finally quiet.
Justin Feinstein is an NYC-based writer and the Assistant Director of the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop. A former professional musician, he is nearing completion of his memoir, Music School: A year of drumming, drugs and debauchery at the world’s most famous music college. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children. Follow him on Twitter @justinfeinstein.