Editor’s Note: Every jazz musician seems to have a defining moment that led to a lifelong love of the music. Some of these moments took place at home, some at school, some with peers. KPLU Jazz reporter Jason Parker will explore these moments in a three-part series titled How I Came To Jazz. Part 1 is Parker’s own story, as told to KPLU’s Kirsten Kendrick.
My story of how I came to jazz has two parts. It begins in the spring of my second-grade year, when every student at my elementary school was asked to choose an instrument to play. I fell in love with the sound of the cello from all the classical music that my dad put on nightly in our house during dinner. The depth and warmth of the instrument spoke to me, and I announced this to my music teacher. She, however, had other ideas for me. She said I was too small to play the cello and that I’d have to start on the violin.
I was gravely disappointed, but her promise that I could switch to cello when I got bigger placated me somewhat. However, all of that changed during the first week of April, 1975. Let me explain.
That week, we were all called into the multipurpose room at the school and told that a band was there to play for us. I don’t remember if we were told it was a jazz band, but that probably wouldn’t have meant much to me at the time anyway. My dad did have a couple of Dave Brubeck records and maybe one from the Modern Jazz Quartet, but it was mostly his classical records or my mom’s folks records that were played around the house.
The Moment I Knew
So there, I found myself, sitting on the floor at the front of the room, looking at the instruments that had been set up: drums, electric guitar, upright bass and a trumpet that seemed crooked, with a bell that pointed up to the sky. When the band came out, I found myself sitting directly at the feet of the trumpet player. He was dressed in a dashiki and seemed about 20 feet tall from my vantage point. He played thrilling runs on the trumpet, his cheeks puffing out so much it seemed they might burst. He sang, led us in clap and sing-alongs, directed the band with wild abandon and joked and smiled his way through the set.
The band probably played for 20 to 30 minutes, but that short set changed the course of my life forever. That day I went home and told my parents that that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to play the trumpet and play jazz music.
Had It Really Been Him?
It was only later in life that I discovered that the trumpet player that set me on a lifelong course of trumpet and jazz was none other than Dizzy Gillespie. I don’t recall when, exactly, or how I found this out, but after years of telling this story, I started to wonder if it had actually happened. It didn’t seem likely that the top trumpeter in the world would stop at my elementary school. Had I made the whole thing up?
I went in search of proof of the event, which was an almost two-year odyssey. After tracking down former teachers, old schoolmates and parents of friends, I found some people who did recall seeing Dizzy, but still had no hard evidence. I even went so far as to take a trip down to Palo Alto with my wife and comb through two years worth of microfiche, trying to find some mention, to no avail.
Just as I was about to give up hope, my lucky day came through the magic of Facebook when the sister of one of my old chums found these two clippings from the Palo Alto Times about Dizzy’s week spent visiting elementary and middle schools in Palo Alto, including Garland.
There in black-and-white (and a little yellow) was the proof I had been searching for. I hadn’t made the whole thing up!
And That’s Not All — The Story Comes Full-Circle
But the story doesn’t end there. During my search, I called up the Stanford Lively Arts foundation, as someone had suggested they might have been the one’s to bring Dizzy to town. I told my story to the director, who didn’t think they’d had anything to do with it.
But she was so taken with my story that she invited me to come to Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto and play for the kids there, just as Dizzy had done for me 25 year earlier! It was such and honor and thrill to be able to play in front of those kids and try to bring even a fraction of the joy and inspiration that Dizzy had brought all those years ago. It was a true full-circle moment that I’ll never forget.
The second part of my story involves hearing the Miles Davis 1964 live recordings, the details of which I've already shared on Jazz24.
This series is a part of KPLU's celebration of the 10th year of School of Jazz. On Tuesday, we'll bring you the story of Monique Khim, a senior saxophonist at Lynnwood High School.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as "the next generation of Seattle jazz." Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.