I was in over my head. I knew it, and so did the man sitting across the desk from me.
He was a legitimate jazz man who ran in the same circles as Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. I was a 17-year-old kid from a lily-white private school whose “jazz band” started with two teachers and two students playing nothing that sounded like jazz. We were popular, at least, because we debuted by stretching the Hawaii Five-O theme with so many self-indulgent solos that the assembly ran long and several tests scheduled for the next period had to be rescheduled. All I really knew of jazz was what I’d read in Musician magazine, which had encouraged me to pick up a couple of cassettes by Miles Davis and various Marsalis brothers.
In that high school “jazz” group, being a jack of all trades and master of none was fine. I’d quickly gathered that the Duke Jazz Ensemble was a little different.
But he humored me as I worked my way through several instruments. I was a competent classical piano player who could get through some complex arrangements of Rush songs. I was competent on clarinet, which I would later play in marching band, though it’s strange that he let me audition on an instrument that they didn’t really use in the jazz ensemble. I could play Stand By Me and a few other tunes on bass, though I’d never been trained in doing the “walking bass” so essential to a jazz ensemble. He got a good laugh out of my drum set audition.
As intimidating as he was, a compliment from him went a long way. Two of us auditioned on guitar, and he tested our ears by playing a note on piano and asking us to match it. The first kid had no clue. I had built up a decent relative pitch — something that would help me boost my GPA in music classes — by figuring out rock riffs on my guitar, so once I found the first note he played, I was able to follow him with no trouble. He tried to trick me with a tritone that went nowhere near the key in which he was playing, but I got it right away.
He nodded. “You have a good ear,” he said.
My audition also led to one of those freak coincidences that changed my college years. I needed to find a string bass on which to audition, and I asked an older gentleman in the equipment room for help. “Oh, you play bass?” he asked? That man was Paul Bryan, who had led the Duke Wind Symphony for decades and was getting ready to take most of the group on one last semester-long trip to Vienna. He also liked having string bass in the Wind Symphony, as counterintuitive as that sounds. No, I didn’t go to Vienna, but the man they called “PB” recruited me to play in the “scab” Wind Symphony that stayed home, and I stuck around to play seven of my eight semesters. The conductors who replaced PB — who still sometimes plays with the group at the age of 95 — decided they needed a percussionist more than they needed a bass player, so I switched instruments.
Back in jazz ensemble, things weren’t going well. Somehow, we settled on having me play bass clarinet, on which I would play tenor sax parts. I simply couldn’t keep up — at times, I was playing every other phrase and letting my section-mates handle the rest. A lot of the time, I just hoped Jeffrey couldn’t hear me.
He was a unique conductor. He tucked his arms in close to his body and flapped his hands in 4/4 time like a bird making a really weak effort to fly. If the tune was in 5/4, he’d add a little beat as his hands swung out. And if we sounded horrible, he’d let us know — he’d remind us how long he spent writing out the charts for us to play and tell us he needed a few shots after our last rehearsal.
Before one concert, a pad fell off the bass clarinet. He growled and offered little help in fixing it, so I just went back to my dorm and missed it.
That wouldn’t be the last I saw or heard of Paul Jeffrey, though. We overlapped in another of the activities I sought out upon arrival at Duke, DJing at the campus radio station. I went through DJ training, where the one thing they emphasized was that we should never leave “dead air” — you play a song, you speak as soon as it’s finished, and you speak until you play the next song.
Paul Jeffrey had a different approach:
(song ends … silence … a few more seconds …)
That was ……. Impressions …… by John Coltrane …………….. from North Carolina …… Coltrane ……………….. he’s from North Carolina ………… and that was ………………….. Impressions.
I actually thought his show was more interesting than the rest.
My extracurriculars changed after that first semester. I never got called to take a DJ shift at WXDU for some reason. Nor did the people at Cable 13 ever get back to me. I joined the marching band my sophomore year, though I ran out of time to stick with it the next year. I stayed with the wind symphony until my last semester.
And after that first semester, I walked away from the jazz ensemble and walked into the office at The Chronicle, where it’s no exaggeration to say my life changed — I found friends, memories and a career.
The paper needed more arts coverage, and so I wound up frequently calling on Paul Jeffrey, often with a bit of trepidation. Big things were happening with jazz at Duke — the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz was coming to Durham and would be affiliated with the school. I wound up in Jeffrey’s office on the phone with people who were setting up the institute, and he growled at me once when I asked someone to tell me about the interest in the project outside Durham. I insisted I was trying to get across to the Duke audience how big this really was; he wanted to get across to me that the South was jazz’s heart and soul, a point re-emphasized when I wound up on the phone listening to Thelonious Monk Jr. for about 30 minutes, trying to scribble down quotes as he went through an enthusiastic monologue about jazz and the South.
This was the big time. I wound up standing on a stage trying to do interviews and getting elbowed aside by photographers getting pictures of Clint Eastwood, who had come to Duke along with Steve Allen and Clark Terry to kick-start the institute.
I crossed paths a few other times with Jeffrey due to scheduling conflicts back in the days before the music department figured out how to avoid such problems. I wound up playing in pit orchestras for the stage musical group Hoof n Horn, where my “jack of all trades, master of none” traits were put to good use. I played woodwinds in one show, drums in a couple of others, and bass in a couple more. One day after exams and before our Graduation Weekend shows, I went to the equipment room at Duke to find that Jeffrey had taken all of the string basses — some Italian jazz buddies were in town, and it was his right to take them. I wound up playing bass parts on a keyboard for the final shows.
My senior percussion recital was scheduled a few hours before a jazz performance in Baldwin Auditorium. I walked in before my performance to find my equipment shoved to the side, with the stage set up for the jazz show. I managed to get my stuff up to the front of the stage to play. After my recital, which went surprisingly well despite the vibraphone falling over, I recruited audience members to help me reset the stage. “We don’t want to make Paul Jeffrey mad,” I said.
But Jeffrey’s honesty meant his compliments and his willingness to help out were sincere. If I needed to get in touch with someone, he’d help me track that person down. One day at The Chronicle, I called Jeffrey to ask something for the next story on the institute, just a couple of days after my last one. “I read your story,” he said. “You’re a good writer.”
To this day, I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder to hear that.
I saw Paul Jeffrey at least once in the year after graduation. I was bouncing up to The Chronicle office, having not yet cut the cord from the group I considered family. He was probably headed to Page Auditorium next door. He smiled and greeted me warmly, and we chatted for a few minutes about the arts at Duke. I think he and I recognized that we shared a passion for the subject, even if our experiences differed greatly.
The Thelonious Monk Institute never got off the ground in Durham for some reason. But Jeffrey stuck around Duke for a couple of decades, leading the jazz ensemble and teaching a jazz history course that was well-known for being one of the easier classes at Duke. He didn’t care about that rep, he’d say, as long as kids were listening to the music.
Listening to the music was what mattered.
Paul Jeffrey passed away on Friday at age 81. And while I never became a great jazz musician or even a great jazz writer, I’m glad I listened to him. I’m sure thousands of Duke alumni feel the same way.