Gateway Drugs

Mar 04, 2021

I took the family dog to the vet a couple days ago – it was time for her annual shots. Really, it was a total setup, and she would be well within her rights to be thinking bitter thoughts about the whole thing right now. I mean, here comes the master of the house, bearing collar and leash, suited up for the great outdoors, in the hour just after the morning bowl of food. What's this? Collar and leash? Don't mind if I do! How far are we walking today? I've been waiting since yesterday to sniff all the same spots! Again! And then – into the car, down to the vet's, and for what? Shots. The annual needles, packing the annual drugs. And not even recreational drugs. What. A. Ripoff.

Colleagues of mine once worked on a short film about the scientist who coined the term "gateway drug." They hired me to do the music, but I barely remember what I wrote. I do remember, however, seeing this scientist on screen and thinking "That's the guy!" Imagine, birthing a phrase that becomes so ingrained in the lexicon it's now a metaphor for a variety of meanings far beyond its original circumstances. That must feel positively Shakespearean.

For instance? There are always certain records or songs which you realize, in retrospect, provided that window into music that now holds a central place in your personal discography. I'm sure you know what your gateway drugs have been. Here are a handful of mine, in no particular order:

1. Guy Van Duser, "Black Beauty." Everything about Guy Van Duser's early solo record Stride Guitar made an impact on me, but his arrangement of Duke Ellington's 1920s masterpiece "Black Beauty" not only immediately made clear how hard one could groove on nylon string guitar, but sent me scrambling in search of the source. Which in turn led me to similarly vibey "jungle period" pieces like "East St. Louis Toodle-oo," and later elaborations on that mood including "Ko-Ko" and "Blue Serge."

2. Scott Hamilton, Scott Hamilton Is a Good Wind Who Is Blowing Us No Ill. An epicly weird and digressive debut album title matched only by the cool hand-colored photo of Hamilton sitting back in a folding chair in shades, sneakers, blazer and retro pompadour, blowing his tenor. Not only did this album introduce me to a handful of positively classic swing-era tunes ("Exactly Like You," "Stuffy," "Ill Wind") it was my introduction to breathy, conversational yet swinging saxophone playing. And of course, Hamilton wore his influences on his sleeve, or at least spelled them out in the liner notes, so it was obvious the very next stop on the listening train was Ben Webster. Who I didn't even realize at the time was the saxophonist I was hearing on records like "Blue Serge" in the first place, but I got my hands on Soulville, with Oscar Peterson and Herb Ellis, and that was that.

3. Lee Morgan, "Sweet Honey Bee." I was driving home at 2:00 a.m. from a gig in Manhattan when this came on WBGO, Newark's 24-hour jazz station. I'd heard of hard bop, but this was the perfect introduction to actually listening to it: a cool tune, in an accessible straight-eights groove, with the colossally fun Billy Higgins on drums, Hank Mobley on tenor and of course Morgan's trumpet, a badass mix of impossible doubletime, half-valved blue notes and swaggering phrasing. From here, it was just a matter of connecting the dots, starting with Mobley's own Blue Note LPs Soul Station and Workout, and anything with Wynton Kelly, who played piano on those two Mobley records.

4. Roy Clark and Gatemouth Brown on Austin City Limits. I somehow tuned into this PBS broadcast on the black-and-white TV in my parents' bedroom about twenty-five years before it ever occurred to me to live in Austin. Those twenty-five minutes I caught were enough to bookmark Gatemouth Brown as an impossibly cool guitar player. I will never be able to convey to anyone my kids' age how magical and elusive it was to actually see the kind of music I liked – people playing electric guitars, for cryin' out loud –  on as public and popular a forum as a TV show. Once I got my hands on actual Gatemouth Brown records like One More Mile and Alright Again, their ninth chords, horn sections and walking bass lines introduced me to the idea that the blues could swing. That idea that was further reinforced when I found out about Albert Collins, another Texan who also played bare-handed (no pick!), used a capo and liked having horns around.

5. Count Basie and Joe Williams, "Every Day I Have The Blues." The idea that the blues could swing like jazz was a revelation. So was the idea that jazz guys could play the blues, which is what I discovered when my professor put this track on during "History of African American Music" my sophomore year. There's no way to describe this record, so I won't even try, but if you put it on, you'll see what I mean. It's from an album called Count Basie Swings, Joe Williams Sings, and "The Comeback" and "My Baby Upsets Me" explore similar turf. That class also introduced me to "Parker's Mood," a different way of expressing the same idea: that someone as stratospherically adroit as Charlier Parker clearly knew how to get down and play the blues when he wanted to.

I've put together a playlist of some of these tunes; you can find it on the Playlist page of my web site:

Gateway Drugs