Access to the Top

Ask any band kid, “Who is Jamey Aebersold?”

Every band kid worth his or her spit will offer some form of the answer: ?He?s the music book guy.?

The guy who invented the play-along, a way for students to have a back-up band without actually having to round up a bunch of musicians. Aebersold has a voice known round the world. Because he counts out every song with a flat ?one, two, three, four.? Come to think of it, no one I?ve ever heard has gotten past two. Isn?t it always ?one, two, Unh, uh??? If he gets to four it must be Jamey Aebersold.images

At a restaurant in Kentucky I met a savvy sax player who told me that Aebersold was in Denmark one time and heard a guy playing on the street, using one of his play-alongs as a back-up band. He stopped and listened. When the song ended, Aebersold asked the street musician, ?Do you mind if I count the next one out for you??

When Aebersold, with his monotone, ?one, two, three, four? perfectly matched the recording, the musician grinned, stood up and shook Aebersold?s hand, realizing instantly who he was.

Jamey also keeps a summer jazz workshop going every summer at the University of Louisville. (Say it LOO-uh-vull).

My kid, who we?ll call ?Seth,? is headed to the University of Miami?s Frost School of Music this fall where he?ll be a freshman majoring in jazz performance. He has wanted to do the Aebersold camp for years.

This was his lucky year.

Not only did he get into the best combo (?even though kids in lower combos are better than me,?) his teacher for the three hours of combo rehearsal every day would be none other than a guy we’ll call “Eric Alexander,” the best saxophone player alive today.

?He has total mastery of his instrument,? according to Seth.

As mom, I only knew my kid was being challenged, having to learn new music overnight, trying to keep up with three other saxophones in his combo ? and getting to work with a hotshot guy from New York.

I showed up at the final concert Friday afternoon. Seth had a gig in D.C. Sunday so I had planned for us to drive partway home that night, to avoid the nine-hour drive in one shot.

After the concert, Seth was hanging out with his combo but eager to get outta town. I talked to a couple of the other players, both professors at colleges I?d heard of. The director of the combo, Eric Alexander, did not seem like a New York Hot Shot. He told the group it had done well, having gotten lost but having recovered. He asked them what had gone wrong and they had all known. This conversation was over my head.

But I was eavesdropping. Was this really the great Eric Alexander my kid had been raving about? He looked like any German kid.

Suddenly it was time to say good-bye so someone suggested a photo. I became the phone juggler, trying to take pics from everyone?s phones before the smiles became fake. Eric Alexander had his shades on. I asked him to take them off.

?No,? he said.

Alright then.IMG_1885

I finished up, tried to match phones with musicians ? and watched as the musicians, ranging in age from Seth, who is 17, to a guy Seth would later tell me was in his 70?s, hugged, shook hands and suddenly realized they didn?t have their phones. Two of the guys were professors. My father was an absent-minded professor, I was familiar with this scene. They all rushed at me for their phones at once.

When a kid lurking on the edges came forward, Seth introduced him as his roommate. Knowing they had free meals through breakfast the next day, I told them to go have lunch and that I?d meet them later at the dorms. I had to move the car.

What I really wanted was a nap, I hadn?t slept well at the cheap hotel across the river.

I lay down on a grassy knob near the music school (at the University of Louisville campus still) and hoped for a brief nap.

Nope, it started raining.

So I headed for a sushi place my iphone told me was about a block away.

Before I got to the sushi place a sidewalk sandwich board lured me into Griff?s restaurant with a promise of prime rib sandwich.

Griff?s walls are lined with large black and white photographs featuring an athlete, whether in basketball or football jersey I didn?t really notice.

I was guided to a table by a sharp young man who acknowledged that I was alone but nonetheless pulled out a chair at a table for six.

Soon I had ordered and had caught up with my emails.

That?s about when Alex Ericson walked in. Or was it Eric Alexander? I texted Seth quickly.

He straightened me out but the best saxophone player in the world just waved and headed for the bar.

Oh well.

Then Eric Alexander himself, gripping a tall glass of something soda-ish, apparently recognized the phone-juggling woman and headed my way. I pointed to the empty seat across from where I was devouring my prime rib drippy messy sandwich.

?I?ll just take a seat here,? the celebrity sax-god said.

Immediately he started in on how much Seth had improved this week.

He remembered which kid was mine? I was impressed.

?You don?t have to tell me this,? I said, having heard many, many teacher-telling-mom-what-she-wants-to-hear monologues. ?It?s not perfunctory.?

So Mr. Eric Alexander shifted gears dramatically, telling me several long, sad stories about his career that made me vow to make sure Seth enrolled in at least one non-music-school class every semester.

Jesus. This guy is the most-listened-to jazz musician alive today and he has to work his ass off to survive.

Then he noticed Serena Williams was playing tennis on the large screens overhead. ?Excuse me,? Eric said. Together with three African American women at the next table, we cringed as she faulted, cheered as she pounded the unknown opponent from UK. We talked psychology of the game, we agreed if Serena were not so dramatic, so caught up in the power struggle of the game itself, she wouldn?t have won. I learned something.

Soon Eric and I were back to the struggles of raising two children while maintaining status at the top of his game. He showed me pictures of his kids, his ski trip in Europe ? then he told me my phone was buzzing. His ears are better than mine.

?I?ll be there soon,? I texted Seth back.

?I?ll be waiting in the dorm lobby,? he answered.

Eric was almost in tears telling me he would never get a good job at a good music school because he is white. He couldn?t get a job in Europe because he isn?t European. He has recorded more albums, played more gigs, outplayed everyone in the game. But he still doesn?t get the steady paycheck he needs to live in New York and pay for his kids? private school in the Bronx.

An hour later I remembered Seth again. ?I?m at Griffs,? I texted. ?Maybe you should come over.?

Soon Seth showed up. His face when he walked in the door was priceless.

He mouthed the words ?What the Fuck?? but I couldn?t hear him.

Seeing Seth, suddenly Eric came back down to earth, stopped cursing, stopped being an ADHD OCD musician-slash-gladiator. Suddenly he was a professional, musician-educator.


I kinda liked him better as he was.

We got a late start out of town, but I learned more about music in two hours than Seth could possibly have learned all week.


By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.