Monthly Archives: October 2015


This is part of a chapter from my book, Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond:

Leon Collins

Leon Collins

I was still unhappy with my piano playing. I’d had a few gigs off and on since I had quit the Top of the Hub, but I felt there was something wrong with my sense of time. It wasn’t swinging the way I wanted it to. Charlie Banacos had showed me some methods to get my lines to sound more swinging, but I felt it wasn’t just my hands and arms that were the problem (and I’m sure he knew that, too)—it was my whole body and the way I felt about it. I’d never been particularly graceful, not good at sports, and not much of a dancer, either. One night Mad, Hil and I were watching TV and the Nicholas Brothers were on.

“Look at the way they move,” I said. “If that isn’t jazz in motion I don’t know what is.” The girls were fascinated, too, especially with the way they tapped up and down the stairs. I’d seen lots of tap dancers on TV, of course, like Shirley Temple and Gene Kelly, but there was something different about the way these guys danced. I wanted to find out what it was that gave them that fluid, relaxed, hip way of moving, so I decided to find myself a tap dance teacher. I really thought it might help me with my piano playing.

I knew I didn’t want one of those Broadway types that flailed their arms around and made big dramatic sweeps across the floor, so I asked around and someone mentioned Leon Collins. They said he was one of the old-time “hoofers” like Honi Coles and the Nicholas Brothers and the Copasetics, so if I wanted to learn the real deal, I should look him up. It turned out that Leon was giving tap lessons in a studio not far from the Monitor newsroom, and his classes were all jammed, mostly with white women. I signed up, and got Mad and Hil into classes, too. Now we were the tap family.

Leon was skinny as a toothpick and loose as a mop, with a big, toothy smile, and he loved his “girls”—many of whom were well past middle age. He also played the guitar and sang a little, and was a walking jazz machine. There was always a tune running around in his head, accompanied by some new tap step he could fit with it.

Before long, Leon and I were having long conversations about music, and I’d stay after class to show him something on the piano or watch him work out an improvised line on the guitar. I turned him on to some tunes he’d never danced to, like Randy Weston’s jazz waltz “Little Niles” and Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia,” both which became part of his regular show repertoire. Leon was wide open to new ideas, and even made up some tap routines to a couple of classical pieces.

I enjoyed the tap classes and they really did help me with my rhythm, both on the piano and in general. But the best thing that came out of my association with Leon was that he asked me to be his musical director. This is how I came to be involved with many, many tap dancers over the years and be known as the “tap dancers’ piano player.” I got to know Chuck Green of Chuck and Chuckles, James “Buster” Brown, Leslie “Bubba” Gains and Charles “Cookie” Cook of the Copasetics, Bunny Briggs (who had danced with Duke Ellington), Jimmy Slyde, Sandman Simms, and then later on Greg Hines and Savion Glover.

The older tappers were all Leon’s contemporaries and colleagues, and I even got to play with some of them, because of Leon. Once he took me to a jazz club in Harlem and Chuck Green was there. I sat in to play for him, and he danced in his socks! Everyone kept shushing me so they could “hear” his steps…shh, shh, softer, softer!

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6a00d8347993c469e20133f38c455f970bOne day in 1986, when I was working as a music writer for The Christian Science Monitor, I got a call from a representative at Channel 13, New York’s PBS station. He told me that PBS was going to do a Great Performances special and they would like it to be covered by the Monitor.

“You’ll be interviewing Miles Davis,” he said. MILES DAVIS?!! Omigod! I’m gonna meet MILES!! I was flabbergasted, not just because I was actually going to get to meet the man himself, but because I’d heard that Miles never talked to anyone. The PBS guy went on: “You’re to pick up Miles at his apartment on Fifth Avenue and then take him to lunch at the Carlyle Hotel. We’ll send along one of our PR people to go with you. We’ll pick you up on Thursday at 3 p.m.”

OK, I thought. OK, yippee! I’m gonna meet MILES!!

On Thursday a black stretch limo came to pick me up at 3 p.m. on the nose. Angela, the PR rep, was sitting in the back when I climbed in. She was black, classy and no-nonsense. She said, “Listen, Miles will probably give us a hard time, so be prepared.”

I nodded, and guessed that she’d already been through this with some other reporters. The limo driver dropped us off in front of Miles’ building. We spoke to the doorman and told him who we were. He rang up Miles, who said there was no way in hell he was going to do any damned interview.

Angela grabbed the phone from the doorman. “Listen Miles. This is the time we set up and you agreed to it.”images

I couldn’t hear what Miles was saying on the other end, but whatever it was, it took a long time. Angela looked at me and rolled her eyes.

Finally she said, “OK, OK, Miles, we’ll set it up for another day,” and handed the phone back to the doorman, who smirked.

Angela said she’d call the limo back, but I told her I’d take the subway home. She said she’d phone me to set up a new date. I knew they had to get Miles to cooperate for the TV special, so I went home and waited for her call.

And call she did, the very next day, so we trekked back over to Miles’ place. This time we actually made it up the elevator. Angela knocked on the door. Miles opened it with the chain on and peered out.

“No,” he said.

“What?!” said Angela.

“I said no. No interview.”

Angela put her nose about an inch from his and said, “Listen Miles, you’re fuckin’ with my job. I don’t fuck with your job, so what makes you think you can fuck with mine?”

Miles opened the door.

“OK, you got twenty minutes,” he barked in a gravelly baritone.

hqdefaultMiles was married to Cicely Tyson at that time, and their apartment was a big, open, sprawling, multilevel affair covered with gray carpeting. Cicely was out of town. All around the walls there were clothes racks. Miles’ clothes, which he fondly referred to as “my shit,” were hanging on them. These were the many imported outfits he’d had custom made by famous designers from around the world, and he didn’t want to keep them hidden away in any closets. They were on display for all to see, with a big full-length mirror in the middle. I remember when Miles’ album “Tutu” had been released a few months before, with a killer close-up of only his face, Miles’ disgruntled comment to the press was “It doesn’t show my shit.”

Angela and I walked in, and I pulled out my tape recorder.

“Ohhh,” groaned Miles when he saw it. I sat down next to him on the sofa and pulled out the mike. He moved back, then got up and walked away. I looked at Angela. She walked over to Miles’ clothes racks and started poking through his clothes.

“Yeah, yeah,” said Miles, perking up a little.

Miles was a style man. When all the other guys his age were still carrying the torch around the arena one more time playing bebop and standards, Miles was forging ahead, setting up rock rhythm sections behind his horn and wearing satin jackets and sequined pants on stage. Even though his trumpet playing never changed much, he still liked to inject it into new settings.

As jazz singer Eddie Jefferson sang in his lyric to Miles’ tune “So What”:

“About the clothes he wears…

his style is in the future…”

Miles was anything but old hat. He said:

“If you’re not keepin’ up with the times, you end up with ‘bell-bottom music.'” He beckoned to me to join him and Angela as they took a closer look at his wardrobe. His jackets and coats were made from exquisite fabrics and leathers, things trimmed with peacock feathers, shimmering with silver and gold threads or sparkling with tiny reflective black studs. He insisted that Angela and I try some things on. I picked a Japanese black suede coat painted with white designs.

“Shit, that looks almost as good on you as it does on me.” Miles hoisted up his baggy printed pants around his skinny waist. I was having a ball, but was starting to worry about the interview that I was supposed to be gathering for my editor. I knew I’d never get Miles to sit down and talk into the dumb tape recorder, so I said:

“Miles, I have a ten-piece band with a similar format to Birth of the Cool.” It just slipped out, because I didn’t know what else to say, and I wanted to make some kind of connection with him. Bingo. Miles smiled broadly, and said:

“Yeah, Birth of the Cool, really?”

Birth of the Cool, for those who may not know, was the nine-piece band Miles put together and recorded in 1949-50. It was, along with Gerry Mulligan’s Tentette, one of the bands I’d most admired when I was a kid, and was undoubtedly one of the things that led me to my forming my own mini big band many years later. Miles grabbed my hand and dragged me over to his Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which was set up alongside the clothes racks where Angela was still busy trying things on.

“Do you wanna take a lesson?” he laughed. He played some chords, and then asked me to play a couple of my tunes. In an instant we turned from an uptight journalist grilling a famous legendary jazz trumpeter into just two musicians swapping ideas. Now that Miles was relaxed and feeling good, I said sheepishly, “Hey Miles, we were supposed to talk about the TV show, remember?”

“I haven’t seen it yet,” said Miles. “I don’t know how the idea came up. They asked me to do it. I probably won’t like it.”

“Why’s that, Miles?”

“Because what you see yourself doin’ doesn’t look the same as you think you look…you know what I mean? I’m not so sure I want to see it right away.”

Actually, when I got a chance to preview the show the next day, I was happy to see Miles looking quite fit, sipping mineral water and eating sugar free candies. His bout a decade before with various health problems, as well as injuries from a car accident, had kept him out of music for more than five years. I asked him about it in our “interview.”

“I was sick,” said Miles. “I was an alcoholic. I used a lot of coke. If I had kept on playin’ I’d be dead.” He told me he hadn’t thought about his music at all during that period, that he’d put it out of his mind, which reminded me of some years before when I’d stopped playing myself and didn’t even listen to music. When he finally did come back, though, he was ready for a fresh, new approach. But some of his fans, and even his colleagues, complained. They wanted the old Miles, the Kind of Blue and Seven Steps to Heaven Miles back again.

“It’s like clothes,” he said, pointing at the racks around the room. “Some people look wrong in these new clothes,” he said. “Music is the same way. I play styles. If it’s reggae, I play reggae. If it’s calypso, I play calypso—I don’t play the blues when I play ‘My Funny Valentine.’ When you play styles, you’ll always be up to date, but…I won’t force one style on top of another style. It’s like wearing a sweater over a tuxedo.”

I was intrigued by these remarks since, to me, his trumpet style hadn’t really changed. But when I stopped to think about it, everything he played fit in perfectly with the backgrounds he chose.

Then he stood up and said, “Look, musicians feel like they haven’t done anything if they don’t feel that ‘yes!’ when they play. That happens when you play off each other.”

Then he waxed philosophical and mused about whether some day it might be possible, by some electronic invention, to extract music from the air, music that had been played at some time in the past but had never been recorded.

“It’s out there somewhere,” he said, scratching his chin.

“How’re your chops, Miles?” I asked, wondering how he’d managed to make his comeback so quickly.

“I’ve finally got my tone back,” he said. “I sometimes hit a high note, but I don’t hit it like a trumpet player who plays high notes—I hit it like ptew!—like that, like a gun.”

He looked at his watch. Over two hours had gone by since Angela and I arrived.

“OK, your twenty minutes are up,” he growled. Then he smiled and kissed me and Angela on the cheek, and we were off. I was much happier with our casual chat than I would have been with a formal interview, and I wrote it up pretty much the way it went down, except for his frequent use of the S-word.

“Wow, I just met Miles Davis!” I thought, grinning from ear to ear.


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The ongoing search…


Anyone who has read my book will identify me as a spiritual seeker and, more specifically, as a student of Christian Science for over 40 years. The book was published in 2012 and it’s now 2015…a lot of water has gone under the bridge, and many things were washed away, including Christian Science. I didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. There are still some thoughts and ideas from that teaching that I find valid, but in my case it was simply time to move on.

In Christian Science we were taught that anything bad or evil is illusion, and should be denied and replaced with Truth (spiritual perfection, or God) in our thought, hopefully with enough understanding and inspiration to heal physical diseases as well as any other type of problem. I’ve known people who have had success with this approach, but have also known many who are puzzled and dumbfounded as to why they never seem to achieve physical healing through these means. I am one of the latter.

When I stopped studying “CS,” as we call it, I felt a sudden surge of freedom—I thought, wow, now I can read anything I want, study anything I want! Not that I wasn’t free before, I had just locked myself into that one teaching, believing that it was “it.” But when I realized that there is no “it” that can be boxed into one teaching or path, I started looking into lots of things. I love investigating thoughts about life, what we’re here for, what it all means, and so on.

One of the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) rules of CS was that you don’t talk about your illnesses, because that would make a “reality” of them. Consequently, many of us kept our sufferings to ourselves, or we would confide them to a Christian Science practitioner, who would pray for us. Imagine my surprise, then, when I started reading different teachings that encouraged us to “embrace” negative things and situations, and suggested that this is the way transformation takes place. Instead of resisting, trying to fix or get rid of, or trying to “unknow” our problems and illnesses, we simply (well, maybe not so simply) stop all of those stressful mental gymnastics and just “dwell” with what’s going on—welcome it, love it, let it do its thing. Most of the teachings I’ve been reading suggest that negative occurrences are actually catalysts to wake us up to recognize what’s really going on, i.e., harmony and goodness. Unlike in CS, “evil” things are considered part of the ALL…the reasoning being that how can ALL be ALL if it doesn’t include everything? CS says that evil is an illusion, but an illusion is still something—it’s still a thought, a part of consciousness.

At first I was afraid to stop resisting and trying to fix my various disabilities and just live—do things that brought me joy. I thought if I did that, the disabilities would just get worse and worse. I should mention that these new teachings I was reading didn’t preach against seeking medical solutions, but there are times when the medical faculty has no solutions to our problems, and so we must search elsewhere. And even if we do find a fix through medicine or surgery, there’s no guarantee that the problem won’t return or that we won’t have another problem. I’ve always, from a very early age, felt a desire to get to the root of things and not merely deal with them on a surface level, so the idea that I could just relax and the answers would come was very appealing to me, albeit a bit disconcerting. I thought, after all, I’ve been resisting my difficulties for over 40 years with little results—what did I have to lose?

I no longer feel that I have all the answers, or that one teaching or system has them. I’m looking to my intuition most of the time, and am doing my best to face up to myself and be honest. As a result, I sometimes feel that my life is being turned upside down, but to tell you the truth, I kind of like it.

Disclaimer: Keep in mind that are my thoughts and ponderings. They may not be yours, and you may disagree with some of them, and that’s as it should be. 🙂

For the curious, some of the writers/thinkers/teachers I’ve been checking out (and I’m certain there will be more) are Margaret Laird, Betty Albee, Bentinho Massaro, Jeff Foster, Anita Moorjani, Abraham/Hicks, Matt Kahn, Anthony de Mello, and Steven Pressfield.

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Sharing my book…

Cover_Getting_Down_to_Brass_Tacks_DuncanMy memoir, Getting Down to Brass Tacks – My Adventures in Jazz, Rio, and Beyond was my original incentive for starting this blog. The book was published in 2012, and has done well in terms of excellent, thoughtful reviews, for which I’m very grateful!

Now, as I tentatively begin a sequel to my book, I’d like to share some segments from Getting Down to Brass Tacks. Here’s the first one…from my childhood:

At school I had the reputation of being a weakling and a scaredy cat. First, because I was really small and second, because I was the only kid in my class who wore glasses. The nickname I’d acquired in kindergarten back on Long Island, “four eyes,” had persisted with a vengeance. The older boys and tougher girls teased me mercilessly, not just about the glasses but because I had been blessed with Pop’s aquiline nose, for which I earned the lovely moniker “hawk beak.”

Like any other kid, I wanted to be liked, to be popular, but I had this sinking feeling that it was never going to happen. When I was in the fifth grade I had a teacher named Miss Paquin. The kids all called her “old maid,” but I thought she was very “with it” because every day she used to have us push all the desks and chairs to the sides of the classroom to make a dance floor. Then she’d drag out the record player and put on some music and we’d all partner off and start dancing. She taught us some basic steps and encouraged the shyer boys to ask the girls to dance. She expected the boys to ask all the girls, not just the cute, popular ones like Juney Meyers, with her silky black hair and white angora sweaters, so I had plenty of chances to get out on the floor and cut a rug. Sometimes Miss Paquin would even set up square dances for us.

I remember there was a boy in the class named John Rice who had decided one day to put some firecrackers inside a tin can in his back yard and set them off. He ended up blowing off all the fingers of his left hand. None of the girls wanted to dance with him because they’d have to hold onto his stumpy hand, so I always ended up dancing with John. It kind of gave me the creeps at first, but I got used to it. At least he was a boy and had asked me to dance.

I remember becoming more clothes conscious around this time. Maybe it was because of the dances, but I wanted to look nice. To my mind, Ma had no idea what clothes would look good on me. Sometimes she let me and Bertie pick out our own things, but I remember she bought us some ugly, clunky loafers that I hid in the back of my closet and avoided wearing as much as possible. She still sewed a lot of our clothes, but at least she let us pick out the patterns and the cloth. One of my favorite outfits was a purple corduroy vest and skirt—Ma didn’t make it, she let me choose it from a catalog. I liked the name of the color in the catalog: “wood violet.” But my most favorite outfit of all was my red felt circular skirt with the poodle appliqué on it that I liked to wear with my brown and white saddle shoes. I went through a crinoline phase, too, and even had a hoop skirt for the short time that the rage lasted. Some of the girls I knew in high school wore dog collars on their ankles, on the right ankle if you were going steady and on the left if you were available, but I never got up the nerve to put one on my left ankle.


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I am the Phoenix

556537_10151118374248185_1234728733_n1I am the Phoenix

Rising from the ashes

Of my unconsciously self-created



Misguided convictions,

Unwitting resistance.

I watch them float away

In the purifying draught

Of realization and acceptance

Of the bliss that was always there

Patiently waiting for me.


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National Poetry Day!

Here’s my contribution:



My love is like a rock,
Unmovable, solid, strong.
My love is yielding,
Like water flowing
In a stony brook.
My love is patient, steady,
Not curious or anxious,
My love waits and watches,
Has no need to push, pull,
Wish, want, or get its way.
My love grows and fans out,
It covers multitudes of
Longing, sadness, fear,
And draws all to its embrace.


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