October 6, 2017

Make Your Own Luck



Some people believe in luck. Some people dismiss the very idea of something occurring without a specific reason. A number of celebrities have addressed the role of luck in their careers, including Oprah Winfrey who stated, “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity”; and Loretta Lynn who said, “In the long run you make your own luck—good, bad or indifferent.”
Jimmy Owens is a highly accomplished jazz trumpeter, an advocate for jazz education, and a 2012 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master recipient. I was recently drawn to a story he told during our interview in 2001, and in a sense it has to do with luck. Jimmy was fortunate to come from a household that appreciated music and his supportive father took him to see the Miles Davis Quintet in a club when Jimmy was 15 years old. This event occurred in 1958, a period where Miles Davis was becoming a household name and leading one of his most celebrated combos who in less than a year would record the iconic “Kind of Blue” LP. Jimmy tells the tale:
JO:  What happened was my father took me to see Miles Davis. I am fifteen years old. And Miles was working at a club called Small’s Paradise doing a matinee, and my father took me to see Miles, and when we got there, the band was off. They were on a break. So my father is at the bar and I’m next to him, and I walked over to the bandstand, which was this high off the ground you know, and I’m standing there, I’ve heard all of these stories about Miles Davis being a nasty person. I’m standing there with my hands behind  my back looking at the trumpet and the piano. I’d never seen a blue trumpet before. And he had this horn that was tinted blue. And all of a sudden someone slides down at the piano, and I see it’s Miles. And he looks up at me and he’s playing some chords, and he says, “You play trumpet, kid?” I said, “Yeah.” He played a little while, and he says, “Play me a tune.” And he gave me his horn. So I took the horn and I was going to take the mouthpiece out and I said, “Take your mouthpiece.” “What you going to do, play without a mouthpiece?” I said, “No, I’ve got my own.” I put my mouthpiece in the horn, and I played “Walkin’.” Okay? At which point the musicians were coming back on the stage. And the last person on the stage — Miles took the horn back you know — the last person on the stage was Bill Evans. And Miles said, “Hey, Bill, you hear this kid play?” “No,” he says. Miles gave me the horn and said, “Go ahead, play it again.” So I started to play “Walkin’” and the whole band joined in. And when I say the whole band, that’s Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. And I played “Walkin’,” and take a solo, you take it out and Miles says, “Go play another one.”  I play “Bags’ Groove.” And Trane takes a solo you know, Cannonball takes a solo. Oh it was unbelievable.
There are a number of things that struck me about this story. First, the idea that Miles Davis would offer young Jimmy Owens his trumpet, mouthpiece in place. Sharing mouthpieces may have been common back then, but it certainly is not something you do today. And this is the Miles Davis who had built a reputation as the “Dark Prince,” with an aloof and sometimes irascible reputation amplified by his half-whispered, raspy voice. Perhaps Miles was tired and welcomed the opportunity for a guest to fill some time.
The other thing I recognized in this story is that the young Jimmy Owens was making his own luck. The fact that his trumpet mouthpiece was in his pocket was not “luck.” The fact that Jimmy had been working on the Miles Davis composition “Walkin’” and that he knew the tune “Bags’ Groove” was in the  band’s repertoire was also not simply lucky. Jimmy Owens was prepared. He probably thought that even speaking with Miles Davis was a pipe dream. Nonetheless, he prepared for any eventuality. So there’s a lesson to be learned.
I constantly tell my college students who pursue jazz that they have to be ready when opportunity strikes. If they’re asked to sit in they need to be ready by knowing (without music) a number of songs they can play and improvise on. I elaborated more on this on this in our blog entitled Jazz Etiquette: The Art of Sitting in, from March 19, 2013.
It would have been a wonderful, fairy tale ending if after the gig Miles had suggested that Jimmy call a fellow band leader who was looking for a trumpet player, or arranged for a recording session for the 15-year-old phenomena. That did not happen, but the confidence that Jimmy gained that night is an experience money can’t buy.
There is a noteworthy addendum to Jimmy’s story:
JO: I mentioned specifically Jimmy Cobb, because we played together many, many times. And he was teaching at the New School where I was teaching. And one day in the office I bumped into him. And I said, “Hey, Cobb, I want to ask you something. You remember working at Small’s Paradise with Miles?” He says, “I remember working there.” I said, “You remember a matinee that a kid sat in with the band and played with them?” He said, “You know I do recall that.” I said, “Man, that was me.” He said, “What!” I said, “You remember that for sure?” He says, “I really remember that night, because that was my first week working with the band and I look up and at the bar there is Philly Joe Jones and I got so nervous. Well when he told me that story, I just broke up. And he really remembered that night, me sitting in with the band, or a kid, a young kid sitting in with the band.
From the Fillius archive, here is a link to the full YouTube interview I conducted with Jimmy Owens on January 12, 2001.

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