ROME — MY father, Marty Curran, known as Charlie after he took over Charles’s Liquor Store, was a Yiddish-speaking second baseman on the Hope High School team in Providence, R.I., and, unlike his cornet-playing brother Bob and sister Adele, played the trombone.
Sunday afternoons he took his horn, and me as page turner, to a vaudeville theater in Pawtucket, where he played in a stage band for sundry down-home acts who opened for a Hollywood feature film that we in the band watched backward from the far side of the screen. The trombone was off limits to me as a young musician; the only instrument I was supposed to learn was the piano. But the 1910 Olds trombone in its green velvet-lined case, exuding an inviting smell of mold mixed with slide oil, seduced me.
The horn was put away during my father’s liquor store days, but when hard times hit a few years later he took it out again, bought himself a cheap double bass, and formed a lasting and successful 1950s bar mitzvah band: the Marty Curran Orchestra, complete with signed white-and-blue folding cardboard music stands and a brochure stating “Music for Every Occasion.”
By then I’d long since stolen into the upstairs closet where the trombone was stored, found some moth-eaten beginner’s trombone book, and taught myself to play well enough to become the whole trombone section of the Summit Avenue Elementary School Orchestra, whose chaotic, detuned chance music I have been trying to emulate ever since. In the end my father didn’t mind, but he said, “Don’t tell Mrs. Einstein” (my piano teacher from Odessa).
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At the serious age of 11, I formed a dance band with my buddy, Joe McCarthy, who played percussion. I’d begun to get the hang of piano chords, but what I really wanted was to be able to play those changes on the trombone, to be one of those players who can make the band sound like some contrapuntal gearbox where the trombone tailgates — ripping, growling, sliding and blat-farting — as if imposing order on a floor of 300 bumper cars.
The kids fell out of their seats in the Nathan Bishop Junior High assembly hall when Joe and I hit “Ain’t She Sweet” on trombone and drums. Later, with other kids, we formed a no-name dance band playing standards from stilted written-out arrangements called “combo-orks.” I was the trombonist but wanted to be the pianist — the other kid wasn’t really good enough. The trombone was a good friend, but the piano was clearly becoming me.
By the time I graduated from Classical High the piano had become my main instrument, but the trombone gave me a seat in the Brown University symphony orchestra directed by the inspiring Marty Fischer, and a place in the band. So I found out what Brahms were, and learned how a wacky marching band could walk randomly on a football field playing Bugs Bunnyesque music for the Ivy League. I’ve been orchestrating brass ever since.
In 1960 I disappeared into the murky dodecaphonic seas of the Yale School of Music and placed my dad’s trombone in mothballs. But first I gave it one last oil swipe with the Leonard Suess band at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. Leonard played the trumpet and did a ventriloquist act with a hand-held puppet whose name I’ve forgotten. I was mainly the group’s pianist, but since three of us played the trombone Leonard concocted a “Seventy-Six Trombones” number complete with unison choreography — a winner with any mob of patriotic alcoholics.
After that the trombone went back to rest in that upstairs closet in Providence, where it stayed until the late 80s. When my father died, I thought I might want to use it in a new composition, and I brought it down from Overhill Road to New York. But the old thin black trombone case landed in the basement of my friend Melissa Gould’s apartment building and there, after a shake-up of the tenants’ storage spaces, it disappeared.
I was heartbroken. That horn was my one material musical link to my father and to my own early years. My ambition to search for it in all the pawn shops in the city melted in the summer heat. One old Olds was missing in action — gone, just had to live with it.
Like a religious icon, that simple instrument had been a powerful catalyst in my becoming a professional music maker. Its primitive brass tubing, curves and spit-valve and all, was itself a resonant gesture, resembling a person about to start making music. For me, it was the essence of unabashed musical Americana, its mouthpiece an amalgam of chopped liver, Mom’s tuna salad, kosher hot dogs, kasha and planetary garlic breath fused with silver and steel and a century of house mold. Gone, it left only a tarnished brass memory. For years, the pristine analog sound of Kid Ory on Dixie trombone could make me stop, listen and open a nostalgic bottle of India Pale Ale any time of day or night.
A few months ago, Melissa moved from her longtime Fifth Avenue apartment to a place in the country, and amid her things piled high, misplaced, or forgotten in the basement emerged a slim black musty instrument case. It was it, and on the inside the instrument was intact. She emailed videos immediately to me in Rome, proof it was real: trombone life after death, a brass miracle, then bubble-wrapped the case to the hilt and Fedexed it over.
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I let it sit for a few days to acclimatize. Then with my wife, Susan, snapping pictures I carefully removed the layers of wrappings one at a time with a kitchen knife — and then opened the latches to reveal an unpolished silent brass corpse inside, smelling exactly the same as it did when I surreptitiously opened that case for the first time some 70 years earlier in Providence.
I took it out, assembled the beautiful, slender parts, deposited some spit on the slide, which worked smoothly, and proceeded to play the prelude to the third act of “Lohengrin,” which I had never before tried in my life. I got through three arpeggios before my lip turned blue, and I felt as if I had just had a triple bypass while standing on two feet. Soon Marty’s childhood horn will forget that it ever spoke Yiddish and start speaking proper Italian.
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