A humility lesson worth repeating

I’ve told this story hundreds of times now, to my private students, and have slipped mention of it in a few videos here at FJi too.  It represented a watershed moment in my musical development.  One of those “ah-ha” moments, that we also immediately follow with a forehead slapping “I should’ve known that!” …I’ve found in life, that these kind of realizations are usually the best and most true.

Anyways, the old video that re-taught me “it’s not what you know, but what you DO with what you do know that matters most” re-surfaced in my inbox this week via a Facebook post for a Stan Szelest tribute coming up in Buffalo, NY (my original hometown).

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For those of you who do not know of Stan’s Rock n Roll piano work, he is a Buffalo, NY music icon, in the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame (as am I am proud to be as well by the way ;~) that, I am told, played piano with many famous folks in the 70’s and 80’s including Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, the Band, Robbie Robertson and many others.  He was kind-of Buffalo’s version of Jerry Lee Lewis.  His band Stan and the Ravens always packed the bars in Buffalo, and had many great players go through it’s ranks including drummers Gary Mallaber (Steve Miller Band, Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Eddie Money), Sandy Konikoff (Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Taj Mahal), and Tommy Walsh (America).  Stan’s early Rock n Roll style influenced me greatly with all that odd rag-tag somewhere-between straight-and-shuffle grooves (think early Elvis Presley).  The dance floor was always packed too.

Sadly, Stan passed of a heart attack in the early 1990’s at the young age of 47, after a recording session with The Band for their “Jericho” album.  They dedicated a song to him entitled “Too Soon Gone.”  He is missed, but his influence still lives on in the Buffalo area as is evident by tributes to him still happening almost 25 years after his death!

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OK!  So, that story…

Back when I was a member of Gamalon (1987-1995), and we were not on the road, we’d play the same bar in Buffalo every Tuesday night. It was a rather small place, and always packed… packed enough that if the band members got there too late, we’d have a hard time getting through the crowd to the back of the club where we played.  Anyways, the bar owner became a friend over the years, and once, when we were on break, he said “Hey guys, I have a video tape of Stan playing Carnegie Hall.  Wanna see it?”  For those who might not know, Carnegie Hall in New York City, is possibly the most famous concert hall in the world, and considered the apex of “making it.”  We said sure, and he put it on the bar’s TV.  We were all kind of proud for our hometown boy.  It was a show called the Godfathers of Rock (I think) and featured three guitarists up front, Roy Buchanan, Lonnie Mack and Albert Collins, the later of which I didn’t know much about.  Stan was the piano player on the gig.

Roy and Lonnie were well known, accomplished guitarists, and played well.  The band was having fun.  But as I watched Albert play, I realized that he only knew a very easy open tuning blues scale!  He used a cheap capo whenever the band changed keys and just would use that same fingering in the new position!  Now, myself being a rather uber-trained musician, I immediately had a bit of a bad attitude against such simplicity and (half kiddingly) announced “wait a minute, that’s all that guy knows?  I should be at Carnegie Hall, not him!”

But… it did not take very long for me to be humbled, as the more I listened, the more I realized that Albert Collins was possibly the best performer on that stage!  Not only that, he was killing it!  Every note rang clear and meant something.

So that was where I had my “ah-ha” moment… realizing, “of course… it is not how much you know, but what you DO with what you know that really matters!”  I was youthful and maybe a bit arrogant… what can I say?  I became a huge fan of Albert’s and remain eternally grateful for the “reminder.”

To this day, I tell every student who learns their first blues scale… “with this, you can have a CAREER!”  Students usually giggle in disbelief, but I reassure them that I am not kidding, and tell the above story.

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Here’s the video that taught me that great lesson!  Enjoy.

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