Dmitri Matheny

From 1988 to 1999 I was honored to study privately with the greatest flugelhornist in the world: Art Farmer.

I met Art when my friend, bassist Peter Herbert, introduced us at the Village Vanguard in New York City.

It’s truly a remarkable gift, to meet your hero, the world’s acknowledged master on your instrument, and for him to ultimately become your teacher and friend. Miraculously, it happened to me, and I will be forever grateful.

photo by Hank Hirschfeld

We met for lessons at Carmine Caruso’s studio in New York. Art lived in Vienna, but spent much of the year in the states. I would follow him around, carrying his case and pestering him with questions.

Art became my mentor and was one of the wisest and kindest men I’ve ever met. My years under his tutelage were an invaluable part of my education. He was my finishing school, and I’m profoundly grateful to him for how generous he was with his time, sharing his wisdom about music and life.

Mentor-protégé relationships in jazz are so important. While it’s wonderful that colleges, conservatories and other institutions are now embracing jazz education, I feel strongly that our master musicians need to maintain the lineage of the oral tradition. There are some things you just can’t learn in school.

Art Farmer taught me what to value in this craft of jazz: the importance of taking risks and challenging yourself, but never losing the fundamental primacy of playing in tune with a mature tone. He would say, “Fill that horn with air! It doesn’t matter how hip you can play if you don’t maintain a good sound.” And he really walked the talk, developing a tone so rich, round and warm, it has become the gold standard for anyone who is serious about the horn.

To this day, Art remains my number one hero and inspiration. For me, the elusive Holy Grail is to one day improvise a truly original melody as lyrically and soulfully as Art Farmer could.

Trumpet players sometimes double on flugelhorn the way saxophone players double on flute or clarinet. But I was inspired by Art Farmer to dedicate myself entirely to the flugel. Art proved that focused attention can yield extraordinary fluency.

I asked Art why I wasn’t able to get a richer sound on the flugelhorn. He said, “Man, if you want to play the Big Horn, then really play it. Put away that little trumpet. Just practice the flugel. Just play the flugel. That’s the only way.”

I was not the only young musician Art took under his wing. No matter how busy he was, Art always took the time to encourage the younger generation. He was a great champion of Ingrid Jensen, Brian Lynch, Geoff Keezer (who joined his band) and several other artists who have since become major names in jazz.

Art was a naturally gifted and intuitive teacher. He knew when to encourage you and when to “tell it like it is.” One of the last things he said to me was, “Dmitri, you play beautifully, but you don’t take enough chances. Listen to Ingrid. Check out how she stretches and reaches for new things all the time.”

When the movie A Great Day in Harlem was released, I made sure that all my musician friends knew which of the jazz gods stands at the apex of the pyramid in the famous photo!

In his final years, Art received international recognition, including a major retrospective concert at Lincoln Center. In 1999 I met up with Art at the IAJE conference in Anaheim. Art was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, the highest honor that our nation bestows upon a jazz musician. I was so proud. What a thrill it was to see those huge banners, with Art’s picture on them, all over Disneyland.

Around the same time, Art was also recognized by the Austrian government with a medal. I liked the way he said the name: the “Austrian Cross of Honor for Science and Art, First Class.” He smiled and gave a sly little wink at that last bit: First Class.

When Art Farmer was a young man he etched his own name onto his horn, because he was afraid someone might try to steal it. Toward the end of his storied career, however, Art branded his horn (a flugelhorn/trumpet hybrid instrument called the “flumpet,” created for him by David Monette) with the initials of his idol: Clifford Brown. “When I see that C.B. on the bell, it reminds me to keep going, and keep practicing,” Art said at age 70. “It reminds me of what’s possible.”

At Art’s memorial, much music was played; few words were spoken. Art would definitely have approved. The New York memorial was at St. Peter’s Church, and many musicians came to pay their respects. Billy Taylor and I played Ellington’s “Warm Valley,” Art’s signature ballad. I was honored to play one of Art’s three flugelhorns, a silver plated Benge with French Besson valves.

We also held a memorial concert in San Francisco, at Old First Church. Art’s longtime companion Lynne Mueller flew all the way from the east coast to attend. Bassist Ruth Davies and I joined with the Del Sol String Quartet to perform a composition I wrote in memory of Art.

After he died, I inherited Art’s copper bell Kanstul. His name is still visible, etched on the side. This is the horn I play today.

Here are just a few of the many things Art Farmer taught me:

  • Think of the melodic line as a river. The river’s nature is to flow forward, all the way to the sea, but its beauty lies in the surprising turns it takes to get there. A strong melody, whether composed or improvised, should sound both unexpected and inevitable.
  • Don’t perform. Just pay attention. Listen carefully and respond. Don’t reflect. Just listen better. Listen again. Respond again.
  • There is only one school, and sooner or later, we all have to go.
  • There is only one scale — the chromatic scale — it has all the notes.
  • There are no wrong notes, but some notes are more right than others.
  • Look for the “juicy notes” — thirds, sevenths, extensions, color tones and guide tones. Use them the most.
  • If you want to know how to phrase a ballad, learn the lyrics.
  • Melody is the soul of a song. It comes first and matters most. Anyone can learn orchestration from Adler, or study arranging in school, but a melody is a precious, heaven-sent thing.
  • Lesser musicians employ flashy displays of technique for the same reason small-time magicians employ attractive female assistants: as a distraction. Don’t distract your audience. Show your true self. Play from the heart.
  • Life’s too short to work for disagreeable people.
  • In music, as in air travel, what matters most are takeoffs and landings.
  • In the audience, there are always some who only want to hear something new, and others who only enjoy what they’ve heard before. But jazz is a two-headed Janus, simultaneously looking into the future and the past.
  • Surround yourself with talent. If you find you’re the smartest cat in the room, you’re in the wrong room.

Art Farmer continued to work hard, practicing and performing right up until the end. Some of his best recordings are his last.

Now that I’m entering the autumn of life, I think a lot about Art and how he was able to persevere.

I wonder how he found the strength to keep on keeping on. It seemed that no matter what life threw at him, Art maintained his dignity, humility and quiet consistency, like that grandfather clock in the corner that quietly, steadily ticks away, regardless of the weather outside.

I think of Art now like the American folk hero, John Henry. What a perfect expression of the futility and majesty of this jazz life! The roads are blocked and the choices limited. A lone individual, facing impossible odds, summons his power and sets himself against the machine. The task is overwhelming. He grows weary. There can only be one outcome: he will surely expire.

Yet he presses onward, determined to make his mark.

And he wins, because he never quits.

He just keeps swinging.


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