Travels with Charley:
Zoom me up, Jason!
by Charles McKelvy
What’s a Benny Goodman wanna-be supposed to do when old Mr. COVID comes a calling and basically shuts down everything until who knows when?
Yes, I am that clarinet player who aspires to play a sixteenth as good as Benny Goodman, and, as you may recall from a column last year, I went and got myself accepted into the Southshore Concert Band in Benton Harbor, Mich.
I played two concerts with them last year, and was rehearsing for more this year when our conductor, Dale Reuss, announced that we were standing down until further notice. Now, it looks like we won’t be gathering as a band until February 2021 at the earliest.
But then there is Jason Gresl. Yes, you’ve seen his mug in The Beacher on more than a few occasions, possibly even with his wife Lara Turner, a celebrated cellist who collaborates with Jason as Claricello. Yes, they make lovely cello/clarinet music together, and they are both wonderful teachers of their respective instruments. Natalie found Jason for me in 2013, and I have been taking weekly clarinet lessons with him ever since, originally at Lake Michigan College in Benton Harbor, then at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Mich. as a private student, then sometimes at Jason’s house in South Bend, Ind., then back again at Lake Michigan College, and—you guessed it—lately on Zoom.
I mean the whole world, even Baby Boomers, are meeting on Zoom, right?
Hey, when the stay-at-home orders and quarantines and facial coverings and safe social distancing all started cranking up in March, I didn’t know a Zoom from a Zim. Just ask some friends who wanted me to set up some Zoom meetings so we could meet virtually.
I didn’t have a clue.
But, thanks largely to Jason Gresl, I am now a seasoned Baby Zoomer.
Who knew, right?
I sure didn’t, but I sure know that I look forward to my weekly Zoom lessons with Jason with a mixture of happiness and more than a little anxiety.
I told a musician friend that my brain hurts after my Zoom lessons with Jason; he said that means Jason is doing his job.
Oh, he’s doing that all right, and then some.
Allow me to explain.
Just Google “Jason Gresl,” and you’ll see that the Oberlin College graduate has clarinet credentials out the wazoo, but when a musical gig comes along requiring a clarinetist who can also play the flute, Jason goes and teaches himself to play the flute.
He’s that good, and even better, but he is a truly amazing teacher; he has really pushed me during this time of COVID shutdown.
Specifically, Jason turned me into a composer during the pandemic.
I would say he tricked me into it, but Jason would smile that wry smile of his and say that I had it in me all along.
Well, what I apparently had in me all along was this jazzy little tune we ended up calling COVID Ramble. Jason got me started by asking me to play three-note patterns, beginning with a low F. We went up and down the C scale, and threw in an accidental along the way, an E-flat. Clarinetists like the E-flat because there are so many cool ways to finger it, and because it has a bluesy tone to it.
Oh, and did I mention that Jason had me do the scale as a pentatonic scale, which means you skip every fifth note as you go up and down? If that sounds confusing to you, imagine what it did to my 70-year-old brain when Jason threw all this at me, in the comfort of my own home office, thanks to the good offices of Zoom?
Jason revealed a little more each week; then, one week, he sent me a printed piece of sheet music with my byline on it.
COVID Ramble by C. McKelvy.
And he sent me various “band tracks” to play along with.
“Play with the band,” he said.
“Play with the band,” he says every week.
And, yes, Jason, I do. (Well, mostly).
And, yes, I get behind. For a time I didn’t hold out the half-notes long enough. Then I mistook a downbeat for an upbeat and often got my fingers into a knotty mess, but, you know, I am now playing the tune Jason coaxed out of me with growing confidence, and even jazzy finesse. I like to think that Benny Goodman would be pleased to play my COVID Ramble. I do like to picture him on a cloud up there in heaven, toodling along with me. And, yes, with the band, too.
Yes, Jason, I play with the band. (Well, most of time).
And, yes, I played COVID Ramble in the parking lot of Detroit Institute of Arts, or DIA, during a recent trip to the Motor City. I did that because I wanted to be able to say that I had a gig in Motown. Now I can honestly say that I had a gig in Motown. I didn’t get paid for it, but I had a huge payout when a passing art patron nodded approvingly as she went to her car.
So, all this is to say that I have not been bored in the least during the COVID melt-down, or whatever you want to call it.
Quite the contrary.
I mean, how can you be bored when you wait in gleeful terror every week to be admitted to Jason Gresl’s Zoom site?