Walt Blanton was about as punk rock as it got. Opinionated, passionate and burned with a youthful fury in his dealings on and offstage that was inclusive and inspiring to students, peers and colleagues alike. Walt and I talked about Jack Kerouac novels a lot. It was easy to understand as an undergrad that men like Walt were exactly who Kerouac was talking about when writing about those that are “Mad to live, made to talk, mad to experience everything all at once, and never say a common place thing.”
It was rare…if ever, that you didn’t get 100% of Walt. On the chance I didn’t….Walt would put his hand on my shoulder and apologize…then down his fourth…or fifth espresso of the day. Walt was a barfight in well pressed slacks…..a riot in a collared shirt serving as an educator, musician, mentor, father figure and more to countless individuals over his teaching career.
After talking with Walt…you were every bit as energized, engaged and inspired as any follower of Lombardi, Bernstein or Eisenhower. One comment from Walt would have you taking on the Mongol hordes with a potato gun. One comment could inspire the confidence and pride in yourself to dig ever deeper, and find the core of an etude, exercise or excerpt…and claim it as your own.
As an incoming college student years ago, Walt was served not only as my Trumpet instructor, but also a safe harbor. I had zero clue what I was doing going into college…and truth be told, I stumbled, staggered and bounced around the music college until they decided I had enough, and gave me my walking papers five years later…in form of a college diploma.
You could count on Walt to always be there in your lesson. That was the double edged sword. He was either the Dad you brought the shiny new etude you practiced all week and were ready to show off….or he was the leviathan waiting in the deep to scare the hell out of you because collegiate partying and co-eds ranked higher that week than the Thelonious Monk song you were asked to learn.
There probably isn’t a student of Walt on this planet that wasn’t the focus of his fury at some point in time. I remember the time 21-year-old me thought it would be a great idea to sass back at Walt because I had enough ‘tough love’ that particular lesson….Tigers don’t move as fast as an enraged Walt Blanton kicking you…your Tumpet case….backpack and anything else you walked in with out of his studio and closing the door.
He scared the living hell out of me that day…….
My next lesson…..I could play ‘Bemsha Swing’ better than most mortals.
The next three years….I listened to, read, researched, transcribed and studied all things Louis Armstrong with a reckless abandon. Walt introduced me to one of my largest inspirations on Trumpet and in a sense….Louis Armstrong inspired me to be the best teacher I could be.
My favorite photo of Louis is one that was taken on the steps of his home in Queens, New York. Looking more neighborly with his summer clothes and hat than one of the deities of Jazz Music, Louis has two neighborhood kids enthralled by the guy who simply lives across the street and happens to play trumpet. The look on the kids faces says it all. The humanity pouring out of the photo has always touched me. It shows Louis Armstrong the person…not the public image or icon. Just a guy being a good neighbor and hanging with some kids.
The look on the kid’s faces was not entirely different from what my Trumpet brothers and sisters would have with Walt showing us phrasing, breathing, scales or blowing over Rhythm Changes.
My second or third year of college I came back to school after a long summer, but now had a major change to contend with. Braces. I tried practicing over the summer with them…but had very little success. I almost quit music. I almost ‘took a semester off.’ The day came when I articulated this to Walt.
“John,” He says….”You still have to play Trumpet.”
Angry. Sad. Confused. I could only reply, “Why?”
“Because you have to.”
Don’t give up.
No matter how dark it may get…how high the mountain may be…how fast the wind is blowing…go back to your basics…..long tones….lip slurs….blowing the pipe….and go after that goal….just keep putting your feet in front of each other.
The last time I saw Walt, I ran into him at a restaurant in Las Vegas. The reaction I had when I first saw him, the other dining patrons must have thought the Beatles were setting up for a secret gig. How else can you react, but with unabashed love and joy when the man who instilled so many positive tools for a life, shows up at your local watering hole?
I never got the chance to show Walt my new path I forged in music. I never got the chance to show him that like him, I would constantly search for the cutting edge in my own artist expression, and use that as a jumping off point.
What I lacked in opportunity, I make up for in my actions. My own path has me in front of tomorrow’s artists…. guiding, encouraging….and at times kicking them out of my own studio for not practicing. I have to consider, what would have happened if I didn’t have Walt’s guidance to keep pushing further into music. What would have happened if Louis Armstrong transcriptions were never part of my own musical upbringing?
The greatest monument to a person isn’t etched into a mountain or held behind velvet ropes in a museum. It is in your thoughts….your actions….your ideas in the quiet moments in life. How many people Walt inspired will never be known, but it doesn’t take too deep of digging to see those living tribute to Walt Blanton on the world’s concert halls….or shows on the Las Vegas Strip…college symposiums in South Carolina, a Trumpet lesson in Colorado….or a symphony in Japan.
Walt’s shadow will cast long after he is laid to rest. Still though, I have to look to my brothers and sisters in music and implore them as Walt would….Keep pushing, keep working…if it gets tough, go back to basics and recommit. Find the edge and go past it. Take the chance and stay focused. Not because it is right…not because it is wrong…but because you have to.
Las Vegas, NV
Just Alliance's Blog
Thoughts, ideas and musical musings from this Silver State Loop Artist.