A Little History:
My Grandfather, Herbert Phillip Wagner, was an accountant for The University of Michigan. He also had a deep love of music. While attending U of M, where he met my Grandma Lilias Julia Kendall, he often appeared on the radio singing in a barbershop quartet. It was a great match up… two Germans and two Hawaiians, one of whom became a federal judge. I have their promo photo on my studio wall. When my mother was born in 1928, he immersed her in music and she and her brother, born later, also attended Michigan. She studied theater, music and English, her brother Herbert Phillip Wagner II, accounting. Yes, I was named after my Gramps. The first Phillip Wagner showed up in the U.S. in the 19th century. My Mom also spent many summers at Interlochen National Music Camp, playing viola, piano, and singing in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. She ended up founding a G&S group the year before I was born that survives even now after her passing. The Savoy-aires were named after the Savoy Theatre in London where Gilbert and Sullivan premiered their works. I even have facsimiles of the original programs from each premiere, inherited from my dear ole Ma.
My first memory is of her playing the piano while I sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” with the phone sitting off it’s hook on top of the piano for my Grandpa to listen. I was taught to read by learning lyrics of songs. Still wonder why she was teaching me a battle tune, but hey, what can you do when you’re four?
At age seven, I took up piano and got to where I could sight read Mozart and Beethoven. I can’t now, but still have all the theory, as piano is the basis for it. At eleven, I began trumpet, but never developed any ambature, so after making flatulent noises in band for awhile, I dropped it. I begged my Mom to let me take guitar. She suggested another string instrument, unclear that guitar is string percussion… no bows involved unless you’re Jimmy Page. That lasted less than a month. I pestered her further and she broke down.
In my early twenties, I added Appalachian Dulcimer and Banjo through lessons at The Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. I let them go by the wayside, as well, feeling like I had a handle on them, but wanting to focus on fewer rather than more instruments. I did, however, stick with Ukulele, which I taught myself. I continued studying guitar and voice privately until attending Columbia College Chicago for a degree in Music Composition and Performance. While there, I also went through the Fiction Writing curriculum. This book is not fiction, even if the stories are colorful.
While at Columbia, I worked as a tutor and teacher’s aid. I was into it, but kept wishing they’d have me work later hours. I was never good at being competent at 8am. I was also hired as a production assistant for the Chicago Jazz Ensemble under the direction of jazz great William Russo. Bill was a mentor to me, if a bit of a pain in the ass. This seems to be the usual with brilliant people. With I aggravated everyone more, but I don’t feel enough light and arrogance to get away with it.
I would sit in Russo’s home studio in Chicago’s Italian Village, his walls lined with Ellington, Strayhorn and Kenton manuscripts and do his bookkeeping while he toodled around on the piano fixing arrangements for his latest compositions. In his late sixties, he was quite competent on a Mac and had everything well organized, even using Finale to orchestrate his music once he’d scratched enough ink on a page. He’d stop in the middle of something, print out a page and hand it to me. I’m expecting to see some brilliant new musical work. It’s a grocery list.
“Here’s the card run to Jewel, don’t take too long. I’m having a dinner party tonight.”
“Wait, do you know what endive is?”
“No, but I’m sure I can…”
“It’s important to my recipe this evening, so be sure you don’t mix it up. Go, I’ll see you soon Paul.”
I got tired of correcting him. He did explain that he had a son or nephew or something named Paul, so it was a compliment when he mixed it up. Besides, it happens to me a lot.
To be cont’d
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