Tuesday, June 04, 2013

M is for Music in His Bones

As I sat in the cushy seats in the Pensacola Junior College auditorium that spring morning, I could hear the children behind the curtains taking turns practicing. One played haltingly; one completely forgot the song; and one played flawlessly. The last one was Jay. They all played the same song, a piece with just enough “show off” in it to impress the judges.

The curtains parted, and the first two children each walked to the piano nervously, their eyes averted from those of us watching. Each one played hesitantly, making many mistakes. When the second one finished, it was Jay’s turn. My boy—very small for his age—walked confidently to the grand piano in the middle of the stage, nodded to the audience, gave them a crooked eight-year-old smile, adjusted the bench so that it was just right, and lifted himself up, his feet not quite flat on the floor. Not one mistake in his performance. The children weren’t in competition with each other; they were just performing in hopes of getting a Superlative rating. I don’t know what the other little boys earned, but Jay got the ranking that he wanted.

As we walked out of the auditorium, he turned to me and, with a serious look, said, “Mom, I couldn’t believe it. Those other boys were so nervous and afraid to play. I told ‘em I couldn’t wait to get on the stage!” He had completely psyched those other children out. He was just telling the truth . . . he loved to perform.

Jim Hussong, Jay’s piano teacher, entered him in every contest available because Jay always excelled. Whether it were a local competition or one for state, he won. He memorized easily. In fact, once Jim gave him the wrong music to prepare for a contest, discovering his mistake only a few days before Jay was to perform. When the teacher confessed his mistake, Jay said, “That’s OK, Mr. Hussong. Just give me the piece, and I’ll have it ready.” Amazing. When he was about twelve years old, he announced that he didn’t want to take piano lessons any more. He had several reasons: Some of his friends were making fun of him for having to go home to practice piano (it was sissy to play the piano); he wanted to play soccer because he was going to be the next Pele; he was just plain tired of playing the piano. We gave in and let him quit in hopes that he’d want to go back to the piano someday. After all, he was playing saxophone in the Bellevue Middle School band, and he had finally gotten to the point that he sounded sort of good (It was a struggle at first with all the squeaking and squawking that went on while he was learning to play. We wanted to relegate him to the barn when he practiced, and you can be sure that he wanted to practice.). Though we knew that he played the piano so well, we had to be satisfied with saxophone in the middle school band.

He was still in middle school when Wendy went away to college at Southern Miss. I think he really missed her, and every evening he’d go to his room, ostensibly to do his homework, which I guess he did at some point. As I’d be doing dishes, he’d come down, sit at the piano, and play a few bars of something that sounded a bit familiar; however, with my tone deaf ear, it didn’t sound like much. After several evenings of this routine, he came downstairs, sat down and played from start to finish Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” He had a tape of the song and was memorizing it by listening. I think that was the moment when we realized that he truly was gifted. I don’t think he read another piece of music after that. He just listened to a recording, memorized, and played it.

At the end of his eighth grade year, he announced that he wasn’t going to be in the marching band at Pine Forest High School. It was stupid to march with an instrument in your mouth . . . you could knock your teeth out. Wendy happened to be at home when he made his announcement, and she promptly took him out to the backyard to talk to him. We never got a real report of what she said to him, but when they came back inside, he had decided to learn how to play mallets . . . xylophone. And play that instrument, he did. He taught himself how to play, and he was all over those keys! And when he and Jimmy Mills auditioned for and were accepted into Suncoast Sound Drum and Bugle Corps, he hung out with the drummers and learned drums. During his senior year in high school, he was still playing xylophone, but he wrote the cadence for the drummers to march in to, and he led the way. Oh, but my boy was talented!

During his senior year, he lacked only English and maybe one or two other subjects for graduation. So . . . he took a brass class. I never heard him play trumpet, but he said that he learned to “blow” it, and I believed it. Then he announced to Wendy that he was going to learn French horn. Wrong!! His big sister put her foot down. French horn was HER instrument (and she was very good!), and he couldn’t touch it. She knew that he’d love playing horn and that he’d be good, to say the least. She absolutely refused to be in competition with her little brother musically.

Sometime during his junior year, Jay and a fellow musician, Joey Allred, decided to form a band. Boys began invading our home on Saturday mornings, eating us out of house and home, and playing what we vaguely recognized as rock music, not hard rock, you understand, but music that had a tune to it. I bought packages of hot dogs and buns on Friday afternoons in preparation for the onslaught. Cookies and chips were devoured by the package, too. I think there must have been about eleven of these budding musicians, but gradually the number dwindled, and when Velvet Melon finally emerged as a band, there were four or five musicians and Jimmy, the sound man. By the way, Velvet Melon doesn’t mean anything in particular. The guys were practicing one evening early on and as usual were throwing around prospective names for their band. The phone rang, I answered, it was for Jay. Gina Forsberg, Jay’s current girlfriend, was calling to chat and to tell him something funny that she had seen carved on a desk at Tate High School—VELVET MELON. “Thanks, Gina! You just named our band!” There was never a question about the name. Everyone loved it!

Velvet Melon became THE band in Pensacola, attracting young and old to their gigs, whether they were at Chucky Cheese or Longneckers or Coconut Bay or Chan’s Bayside or the Shell at Pensacola Beach. Melonheads thronged to their gigs, giving them all the support that a young band needed as they grew to be one of the most popular bands in the Southeast. While Velvet Melon was in existence, Jay played drums, keyboards, guitar, bass guitar, and saxophone. And he played each instrument like a pro. What? He WAS a pro. My boy truly had music in his bones.


Anonymous said...

I remember Jay. My ex husband and I followed Velvet Melon when they came to Mobile. They were our favorite. After Jay's death it wasn't the same. I still remember Jerry and his long wavey hair and the guitar solos. Talking to the band during breaks. I was just talking with someone yesterday and the band came up in conversation. It was mentioned that one of the guys was killed in a car accident not long ago. I would love to know where everyone is and how they are. I can still see all of them in my mind's eye. Being silly and singing the them from Gilligan's Island. It was years ago but still feels like yesterday.

Forever Young said...

Thanks so much for the comment! I wish I knew who you are, though. Frank and I always love hearing from Jay's friends. Even after all these years, our hearts soar to hear that others are still remembering our boy.

As far as the band members . . . Darin is still in Pensacola and playing music occasionally. Brett (not sure that you will remember him because he was in the band in the very early days and not for very long) is still in Pensacola, too, and plays solo at The Fish House frequently. Keith Brooks (one of the drummers) lives in Panama City, is married, and has two boys, both of whom are the most important people in his life, except for his beautiful wife, Kim. Todd Laws (the drummer at the time that Jay died) lives in West Virginia, is married, and has two absolutely beautiful children, the light of his life. Jerry and his wife live in Pensacola (maybe it's Gulf Breeze); he teaches guitar; and he still plays around Pensacola. Mike Magno is the only one who has made music his career. He lives in the Atlanta area and plays consistently. Last summer, our daughter, Wendy, planned a Velvet Melon Reunion (20 years since Jay died), and the main activity was a Reunion Concert with all of those band members! What a wonderful evening at Seville! All of the guys are still so talented and really wowed the audience!!

Again, thanks for writing. Are you on Facebook? Wendy has a page for Jay . . .