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The Enduring Power of Music — Beer vs. Bread

Where Can I Get a Robot that Plays Herbie Mann?

Herbie Mann timeline

by Greg I. Hamilton on January 28, 2010

“Where can I get a robot that plays Herbie Mann?” —from Kurt Catlin, written on my Facebook wall

Thank you for that little catapult ride back to my youth, Kurt. Ten words, like smells from grandma’s kitchen, like the feel of that favorite flannel, like a man on oxygen performing under a Jazz Fest tent in 2003 … The past is not as far off as we think. All it takes is a whiff or a riff.

Back when Kurt and I lived on Coachman Drive, I received a gift from my mom the teacher: 2-XL. It was an educational toy, a plastic robot that played 8-track tapes with multiple-choice adventures. I discovered it would play music as well and purchased my first-ever recording from a garage sale: Herbie Mann’s Turtle Bay.

Flash forward to Jazz Fest 2003 and you would find me leaving the rest of my buddies at the Widespread show (don’t hate me) to see Herbie Mann on the jazz stage. I walked into the tent decades the younger of everyone else already seated. Herbie made his way onstage with help, toting an oxygen tank and teetering his way precariously to a barstool centerstage. For the next hour or so I found myself near tears, so caught up in a solid performance that belied Herbie’s few remaining days on earth.

They say smell has the most powerful ability of all the other senses to transport us back to experiences of our past. But music packs an emotional punch that goes way beyond nostalgia or recollection. I sat there and realized I had listened to Turtle Bay thousands of times. It was my only music until a second garage sale turned up the soundtrack to The Wiz (complete with Diana Ross and Michael Jackson on “Ease on Down the Road”) and I loved every track. I would get sent to my room (not deliberately, I swear— and no, mom, I wasn’t being picky about dinner: I was being discerning) and there was 2-XL, Herbie Mann, and a few roundtrips through all 8 tracks, boogying to the funky jazz flute sounds of 1973.

My love for that flute, those perky rhythms, that complex musical experimentation made me a guaranteed fan the first time my brother played Jethro Tull. Another flautist, this time in a progressive rock band, and I was hooked. Luckily Ian Anderson of Tull is not on oxygen yet and I have seen him perform live ten times. I am also decades younger than the average Tull fan. But I digress.

Soaking in that Herbie Mann sound under the shaded jazz tent of pre-Katrina New Orleans, it all went in one ear and— for once— not out the other one. I saw the foundation of my musical preferences, I became living proof of the enduring power of music, and I saw how art can bridge generations. I even saw how it can cheat death. Herbie never performed again and died just two months after that performance, but I have since sought out vinyl— then, later, MP3s— of “Turtle Bay” and I continue to find “discerning” ways to get sent to my room.

Ain’t it funny how a melody can bring back a memory?
—Clint Black, “State of Mind” 1993

By the way, Kurt Catlin is a funkified musician himself. Next time you’re in Seoul, git ya Somah Dat. Thanks for reading. Cheers,
Greg

Photos by Tom Marcello (2)


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