Los Angeles, January 29, 1969: There was this jazz piano-player named LaMont Johnson, who was a roommate in our large house on Western Avenue. He lived from October 1941 until October 1999, but back then 30 years earlier, at that time he was very much alive. He bristled with energy.
He was very, very good as a piano player, ranging from funk to jazz and it all rocked. He had played and done recordings with Woody Shaw toward the end of bebop, and with Ornette Coleman, George Benson, and other luminaries of jazz.
I mention him because I had decided to learn how to play music. I wanted to learn how to improvise like he did, making up new songs on the fly. That’s what drove me. I wanted to be learn how to improvise.
And so it was that I asked him a simple question —
What are the good notes?
What are the notes to play?
Now, although he could play the “good” notes, at that time either he couldn’t exactly tell me an answer, or perhaps I just wasn’t musician enough to hear what was being said.
Finding the Good Notes
In a book that I (under my stage name Traktor Topaz) wrote along with Henri DuPont, many years later in 2010, I presented for touchstyle players an improvisation system called “Basic Mediantic” by its originator, a guitarist named Werner Pohlert (1928-2000, and in 1956 voted “Best German Jazz Guitarist.”) He published his Basic Mediantic improvisation system in his huge and amazing “Basic Harmony” book in 1991.
And in this improvisation system, one finds the answer to that question that I asked of LaMont, so many years ago. This system shows you where the good notes are.
It is also very easy to do, because you can learn it easily, and then you can play over any set of chord changes, using only one chord shape and five substitution rules, and you will never hit a wrong note. Quite amazing.
So, as it turned out, although it took many years, I did get my question answered, and learned where the good notes are.
The Answering Service that Wasn’t
One day, LaMont got an idea. This was in the days before cell phones, before voicemail, even before answering machines.
And back then when the bunch of us lived in the large house on Western Avenue, that day LaMont got the idea that we roommates could create an answering service there in Los Angeles, and that we would specialize in providing answering service for musicians.
(At that time, an answering service meant a bunch of operators working round the clock, using the old switchboards with patchcords, and the client phones were wired into the switchboard so you could answer if the client didn’t. You’d take a message, and later give it to the client when the client called in.)
All us roommates got real excited. Me and another guy were assigned to go and enlist the president of the Los Angeles Musician’s Union to recommend our answering service. We failed. And that began the adventure of the Answering Service that never was, a project that lasted almost a week.
The Other Answering Service … That Was
Years later in San Francisco, because of a slip of paper that fell out of my phone bill, I made ignorant calculations and created Network Answering Service, which became a success in spite of my ignorance. There were ups and downs but it actually worked and we got clients, and hired operators and we grew.
In just a few years we outgrew our space in the tiny studio apartment, and moved to a larger office on Geary Boulevard, which is a big street that runs through San Francisco.
And then I got married, and my wife helped me to run the answering service. And it grew.
But I must go back in time to the roommates in the big house in Los Angeles, where one night I had a strange dream.
The Strange, Musical Dream
I dreamed that I was a musician in a strange science-fiction land, and I was playing a musical instrument by moving my hands inside a square grid. And there was a concert and the music was just great. And that led to an adventure with a synthesizer in a Los Angeles warehouse.
And that led me, later in San Francisco, to begin playing the Yamaha DX7 Synthesizer, and to compose music, and learning computers and synthesizers and MIDI.
Of course, during these years, I subscribed to Electronic Musician magazine. And in that magazine I saw for the first time a touchstyle instrument. I had a hard time finding one to buy, but I did, and began learning to play it.
And after some years and some hassles with the guy that made those instruments, it occurred to me that I could make a better one. And that led to the Mobius Megatar.
And that led me to Pohlert and his wonderful system.
And that led to learning — at last — to improvise.
So LaMont didn’t answer my question directly, but he led me to the Answering Service, which led to the other Answering Service many years later, which led to the synthesizer, which led to the magazine, which led to the touchstyle instrument, which led to Werner Pohlert, who gave me the answer.
It’s like one of those songs with a repeating chorus that gets longer and longer, like “Partridge in a Pear Tree” or “Hole in the Bottom of the Sea.”
And that is why — so many years later — I have to say: Thank you, LaMont Johnson.
Is it not peculiar how small events eddy forward and back through time, and this place links to that place, to illuminate meaning, to draw us along a certain path, to reveal something sought long ago, and gratitude swells for what was long desired, long elusive, and now, seeming inevitable, revealed simply, here to stay.