George Voland's Story: "Full Score" Version
(Click here for the shorter, "Riff" Version)
I Find My Real Voice
I met music thanks especially to my dad, a weekend "club date" musician who played cornet and trumpet in the New York and Connecticut areas from the early 1930's to the 1980's. I'm his namesake and his musical offspring as well.
But I can never hear or play "Sophisticated Lady" without thinking also of my mom, Margaret, who played it so gently on the piano and who was a talented lyricist and mother. Both my sisters are gifted with music—Diana as a pianist who could play symphonic selections by ear before she was six, and Elissa, a wonderful acoustic guitarist.
Speaking of Diana's early display of talent, I remember "Turkey in the Straw," a version improvised for a young Diana and me by Graham Forbes, later a pianist for Frank Sinatra, who honored Di's request during a jam session at the New Rochelle, NY apartment of trumpeter George Stacy. The next day, Diana was playing it by ear, including the Tatum-esque left hand and right hand flourishes.
I owe my chosen instrumental "voice" to my band director at Isaac Young Junior High School (also Bob Mintzer's director, I found out a few years ago when Bob sat in with a group I was playing with at The Tyler Place, a family resort in Vermont).
Director Harry Richman took me aside at the end of my first year in the junior high band. "George," he told me, "we have lots of trumpet players." He was gently implying, "We don't really need a player like you in that section." He might have added explicitly, "Plus, you don't sound that good and you don't practice, so we don't need you at all!" Instead, he handed me a large case that contained a baritone horn. "Practice this and learn how to play it by the fall." I took the horn home, scoured it clean inside and out, cradled it as if I'd always played baritone, put the mouthpiece to my lips, and blew.
The note that came out had depth and sounded beautiful, not like the pinched treble blats that had often shot out of my cornet. I honestly knew right then that I'd found my real voice, though I wouldn't have expressed it that way as a junior high kid: I simply loved the low sound of that horn! Thus began a lifelong love of playing that started in the summer of 1957 and continues today, thanks to Mr. Richman.
Hearing the Changes
There were no school-sponsored jazz bands in New Rochelle. Instead, my father inadvertently gave me the gift of "the changes" when he taught himself to play accordion He never played the bass note buttons under the left hand, but only played chords in his right hand—the keyboard side of the accordion—a la Art Van Damme.
I know now that he was voicing close-harmony chords with the melody on top. At age 7 or 8, though, I didn't know he wasn't playing the roots of chords. However, for some wonderful reason, I could always hear the un-played roots! Before I fell asleep in my attic room on nights when dad was practicing in the next room, I'd sing the roots to his good chords for songs such as There's a Small Hotel, I Could Write a Book, Mountain Greenery, Small World, Isn't It?, She is Beautiful, and many others whose names I learned because I'd get out of bed and go in and ask Dad, "What was the name of that last one?"
After I fell asleep, the music continued, and maybe the changes continued to print themselves on my brain, because those chords stuck with me, and the roots I added intuitively became the foundation on which to base my feel for improvisation even before I knew what that was.
Lessons with Miles, Chet, Stan, Oscar, JJ, Bob, Gerry … and Jack Sterling
Jack Sterling? Yes.
During the 1950's, Jack Sterling was an early morning radio host on WCBS New York. The transmitter tower was on an island in Long Island Sound, just south of New Rochelle, and Sterling's show came in clearly on the crystal radio I'd built as a Cub Scout project.
Every morning, I'd wake up by six, put on the earphones, and listen to the live studio band on Sterling's show. Sterling played drums, and his steady band included, among others, Mary Osborne (http://www.answers.com/topic/mary-osborne?cat=entertainment) and her "All-Girl Guitar." Guests included Dick Hyman, Barry Galbraith, Tyree Glenn, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and many others who were likely on their way home after playing gigs in the New York clubs. That live jazz, first thing in the morning, taught me style and tunes and I'm grateful that I grew up at a time when Jack Sterling's show and radio in general offered such a rich musical education.
And thank goodness for records and the players who became my teachers. It's not hyperbole to talk about wearing out the records that I played along with. They included Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess and Miles Ahead; Chet Baker and Strings; a Gerry Mulligan Quartet album with Bob Brookmeyer on valve trombone; Bob Brookmeyer and Friends, with friends Herbie Hancock, Gary Burton, Ron Carter, and Stan Getz; an Oscar Peterson/Ray Brown trio recording done live in Chicago; a JJ Johnson album on RCA that included "Lament"; the Atomic Basie album of Neil Hefti arrangements, with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis on tenor. The physical grooves on these records may have died through overuse, but I kept alive the rich context in which their swinging, lyrical playing and my developing jazz voice were the "constants" around which the rest of my life revolved.
In old dumps around the world, archeologists of the future may unearth the strata of the 1950s that include my spent records and those of so many other musicians. "Why did people back then make some records without sound and grooves?" they'll ask—and they'll come to this archived Web site for the answer!
Music at Middlebury College Opens Ears, Doors
At Middlebury College from 1962-66, I was an English major but a musician at heart. Because the college had no music school, musicians such as I—now playing sousaphone and valve trombone in addition to the baritone—had many playing opportunities. I played and directed the pit bands for musicals, directed the college band, played in a busy college dance band, the Vermont State Symphony, brass groups, odd chamber groups, and in dozens of informal jazz groupings. I'll never forget the beauty of Hindemith's Noblissima Visione during my first rehearsal on a Sunday afternoon. There I was in the trombone section with my unorthodox valve trombone, nestled right in the midst of all those musical colors and Hindemith's angular, lovely harmony and melodies.
Though I lacked formal training in jazz, I had been intuitively able to hear chord changes and roots from an early age. By my sophomore year in college, area musicians hired me for gigs around northern Vermont, and gave me an on-the-job education in great tunes and improvisation. I had to listen like a fiend because we had no music. The leader would call a tune and a key, and away we'd go. I learned style and nuance from the older players who were patient and encouraging—and good!
Doors Continue to Open
My career as an English teacher in Vermont allowed for hundreds of weekend and summer gigs, plus it gave me a solid base from with to share the gift of jazz with younger players. I have loved "giving back" to younger musicians, as director of the South Burlington (VT) High School Jazz Ensemble, interim director of the University of Vermont Jazz Ensemble, as a private teacher/coach to individuals and groups, and now—following my retirement from public school teaching in 1999—as a combo director for middle and high school players in the FlynnArts program, and as a staff member at Interplay Jazz in Woodstock, and Jazz Camp in Colchester, VT. I'm a member of the IAJE, an adjudicator for jazz festivals, a clinician, and a member of the team that auditions high school players for the Vermont All State Jazz Ensemble.
A charter member of Vermont's premier big band, the Vermont Jazz Ensemble, I've played the jazz trombone chair since 1976. I play regularly with Pine Street Jazz, a popular sextet that has also has a "stable" of great jazz singers who perform as "Pine Street Jazz and the Singers' Circle." As a freelance player, I play on-call with groups around the state, you can hear me as a sideman on many albums, and now on my own premiere CD, "Remember Beauty: George Voland and Friends."
Jazz is such a gift, to players and listeners. Played well and from the heart—by musicians who really listen to one another and who carry on a musical dialogue—jazz creates instant community on the bandstand. The audience gets pulled in. They're part of it—and the "it" is a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.
Played this way, jazz can be beautiful and absolutely "real." At this time in history, we could do with as much beauty and reality as we can get!