When I look at my early years growing up in Detroit and now, I can't help but see some things that haven’t changed or a repeated cycle. In 1973, I was out of high school, joined my first band and enrolled in community college to study commercial art (as it was called then). People were losing their jobs due to high gas prices and the gas-guzzling cars that were the main auto fare. The idea of the economy car was still fairly new.
My nineteen-year-old mind could not handle what I perceived as a violent place to live, depressing gray weather, and a string of macho heavy rock musicians that I was beginning to encounter. My quest for independence took precedent over my family and I wanted education and a career but on my terms. Being a self-made success seemed more attainable without a degree back then. I wanted to be a rock star. I wasn’t sure how but I was sure Detroit was not the place to do that since I had just missed out on the best local rock era in Detroit when all the local bands like Bob Seger, Ted Nugent and Grand Funk were no longer local. New York seemed too rough for me and I thought I wasn’t ready for a major music center anyway until I got my “education”. So by 1974 after a trip to a design conference in Aspen, Colorado and a motorcycle accident soon after my return home, I was determined to move to Colorado. I had to save up money quick but I was still recovering from the accident and had a cast on my leg. So my job-search had me literally crawling up the steps at GM in a cast since I couldn’t maneuver them in crutches as passersby observed in amazement.
"Running Away" to Colorado
By spring of ’75, I was ready. My friends and I packed our 3 cars and headed west. One of our cars got stranded in a blizzard in Iowa and my driving partner and I ended up in Boulder nearly by way of Wyoming. (Obviously, way before the days of cell phones and texting.) Nonetheless, we were reunited in Denver and continued on to Aspen. Yes, John Denver and TV shows broadcast from Caribou Studios with Chicago and Elton John made me believe this was the next LA. But soon I realized I was not cut out for the Aspen lifestyle since the options there for young hippies with little money were waitress work, maid work or construction. And I was not a skier. I managed to save more money by cleaning hotel rooms and being a live-in housekeeper for a family. I went horseback riding near John Denver’s and Jill St. John’s house and worked at the hotel where Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel stayed. (My friend recently informed me that we partied at Hunter S. Thompson’s house. I barely knew who he was back then.) When the snow started to fly I was ready to move closer to Denver.
I discovered Evergreen, Colo. since one of my girlfriends moved there. I loved it. It had its own little music scene where players like Lee Ritenour, Michael Murphy, band members from Loggins and Messina jammed at the local clubs. I got a job as a waitress in hopes of working my way up to the stage to play. This was all in my mind. I considered myself a vocalist and flute player at this point. I wanted to play the sax. I had previously rented a tenor sax in Denver for $10/month and made noise to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker records to the amazement of the kids I lived with as the housekeeper in Aspen. I later was the source of strange sounds resembling a goose slaughter in an Aspen trailer park as I conquered major and minor scales on my rented tenor on scorching hot August afternoons. I was trying to teach myself. While living in Evergreen, I would run scales and arpeggios for hours on end, on the flute and sax at 9,000 ft. altitude until my lips bled and I was close to hyperventilating. You could hear me for a half mile away. I was getting nowhere. I was “playing” at a dive bar on Colfax with a band. I kept asking people if they knew any good sax teachers. The name “George Keith” was mentioned again and again. After finally contacting him, I went to his house.
I was living in a cabin on a hillside off Hwy 285 in Conifer, Colo. There was only a small strip mall and a restaurant at this intersection. Sometimes I would drive my boyfriend’s flatbed dodge truck to one of my music lessons in Denver. Negotiating this steep rugged hillside in winter was a challenge. There was a sharp left turn before entering the main road at the bottom. If that was missed, the road was about 30 ft. below. I can remember a few occasions where, farther up that hill, I thought the brake was secure. I would run after the rolling truck to stop it from flying down the hill onto the highway below. Other times on my trips to town I would make a turn on a winding road and have to hang onto my saxophones so they wouldn’t drop out of the truck door that was secured only with coat hanger wire.
George greeted me on his porch in Five Points, an area in Denver that was alittle rough at the time. He made sure I arrived safely. He was possibly in his forties at the time with long black hair. He smoked brown More cigarettes. His living room was filled with a grand piano, dusty books, sheet music, with faded pictures of Charlie Parker and other family photos. He asked me if I wanted tea and calmly inquired about my interest in learning how to play like a psychiatrist would study a patient. I told him of my struggles to teach myself, how I was playing in loud bands of macho guys that did everything but encourage my playing. I was, at the time in one group that would totally undermine it, either by the guitarist blasting over my solos or a bass player threatening to fire me if I played. Agents would tell me to stick to singing as not to “confuse” the audience. While I shrugged off this type of response, being determined to do what I want no matter who discouraged me, I was still looking for support. He proceeded to have me take my old Conn Alto sax out of its case and assemble it. I handed it to him. He attached his own mouthpiece and played it alittle, took a drag off his cigarette and blew smoke into the horn looking at the keys to see where the smoke escaped. “That’s how I check for leaks. You’re Bb needs work.” He went into another room returning with a box of tools that he dumped out onto a table. Out of that pile he pulled out a long chord with a small light on the end. He put the light down the horn and once again examining the keys for light showing through. To me this was not the average music instructor I would encounter that would throw a music book in front of you to play marching band songs. He was a bebop guy who went to Julliard and played for Sonny Stitt. He said he taught Tom Scott. He told me that Denver was a popular stop for bands in the forties. His parents, musicians themselves, had other players stay there while in town, like Billie Holiday. When he had me "play" on the piano, he said that he hadn’t heard it ring though the house like that since she was there. (Not that I could actually play, I was just hitting random chords, messing around.) I thought that maybe I found a saxophone guru or mentor. He treated me as though I could be his star student to go onto big things. He reassured me that no matter what anybody said, with all the people telling me I couldn’t, I was female, I wasn’t talented or whatever the early assumptions were made of me at age 20, he told me to ignore it all and keep learning, practicing and playing. Play long tones, arpeggios, scales every kind, backwards, forwards, minor, major, every combination possible. Listen, sing it, scat it, play it. He was my teacher for eight years who taught me the love of music, all kinds, especially jazz, Parker, Coltrane, Monk and Zappa. I learned theory, intervals. He had the patience to help me sort out sightreading and play by ear to his piano chord changes. I’m one of his many students that owe him for everything they can play now. I would follow him into old pawn shops on Larimer Street as I would watch him sort through old horns and show me which needed work, how much they’re worth. He would take me to his friend’s music store to watch how horns were repaired. A few times he had me take mine totally apart, replace a pad on a key and put it all back together. The guys at the repair shop would chuckle every time they’d see me with him. They called me his shadow.
I went to George for music lessons, pep talks, various jam sessions with his other students and friends or just to chat over tea for about 8 years. I had heard from a friend and another of his students that he passed on a few years back. I never considered myself the jazz player he was always pushing me to be, but I am playing more R&B/jazz. Every once in a while I play a riff that makes me think of him or someone comes up and asks where I learned to "play a mean sax like that". I thank them and say “George Keith”. Then I thank him.More "Confessions of a Sax Maniac" Moving to Cali
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