If you are interested in jazz music and have not yet heard John Henry Goldman, jazz trumpeter, then you are missing something. I stumbled upon him a few Wednesdays ago in the lower level of Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street. I recalled an article five years ago about the trumpeter playing at the old Sunny Garden restaurant. I had wondered then how that brassy instrument would play inside a quiet room. This was my chance.
Goldman makes it look easy. Accompanied by a drummer, keyboard player, and bass guitarist, he works his instrument more like a piano than a bugle. While he plays in front of a dozen people or so another dozen come and go through the bookcases filling the rest of the room — the bookworms are not at all distracted by the hipcats.
A few weeks later I show up at another quiet venue, Tre Piani in Forrestal Village, with my boys Rick, 18, a trumpet player in his high school band, and Frank, 16, a trombone player. At the intermission I introduce myself to Goldman, and mention that my boys play a little music as well. He talks briefly to them, discusses some software that enables a player to have musical accompaniment while practicing alone, and then resumes his performance. At the end of the evening, as we are leaving, Goldman calls out to the two kids. Would they like to stop by Labyrinth on Wednesday and sit in for some songs? They say yes.
How is this going to work, I wonder. I know that high school activities are a long way from professional endeavors. And Goldman has never heard my kids perform. I hold my breath and follow the boys into Labyrinth. Somehow it all works.
Now I have to find out not just the secret to making a trumpet work in a quiet setting, but also the magic that enables a seasoned professional to bring some young amateurs into the group. I look up the 2005 article from the West Windsor-Plainsboro News and discover that Goldman’s background also includes summer camp director, basketball coach, and Pilates instructor. I E-mail him and ask if I can interview him. I’ll only need a half hour, I promise. A few days later I meet him at his house in West Windsor. First, I ask, could he have known that it was going to work out when he brought the 16-year-old — sound as yet unheard — up on stage?
Goldman, surprisingly, says he didn’t know how it would work out. But he also didn’t worry about it. “It’s taken me a long time to relax enough to play my own music,” he says. “I’ve finally reached the point where I don’t worry about whether or not it’s going to work. If Frank couldn’t play that first song, I just would have asked him to pick a melody he could play. We’d find something.”
As for the volume of the horn in a quiet setting, Goldman says that’s solved by bearing in mind that “high volume is only relative to low volume. I’ve learned to play very softly. People can be eating at a table three feet from where I’m playing and I can hear their conversation. And the other musicians love it, too. We can hear each other. My role is to accompany what’s going on in the room, not be the center of attention.”
At Labyrinth the session occasionally gives way to brief discussions of music composition and performance techniques. On the day my kids joined in, Goldman speaks about the challenges the player of a B-flat instrument has in playing music written in the C scale and later about the improvised solos that are a trademark of every jazz performance. “Think of it as spontaneous composition,” he says. The solo shouldn’t just be a wild ride up and down the scale. Nor should it be a recitation of familiar riffs.
“It’s easy to stay in the comfort zone,” Goldman elaborates in our interview. “The challenge is to be spontaneous while still having a compositional quality to what’s being played.” Goldman gets into a discussion of melodic and harmonic references. I expect him to cite a course at Berklee or Eastman or some other college of music. But there is no college of music, no college at all, as a matter of fact.
Goldman’s unusual path to professional jazz trumpet playing began at age 6, when he was at the summer camp in Maine owned and operated by his father and asked the bugler if he could try to blow the horn. “I was hooked,” he said. The Goldman household on Long Island was a musical place — his older siblings were “wonderful pianists” — and young John Henry (named after both his grandfathers) took naturally to trumpet.
But in the eighth grade another interest loomed: Basketball. Though he is just shy of 5-foot-9, Goldman excelled and was elected captain of his team as a junior. In 12th grade, however, Goldman quit the team. “I devoted so much time to it that it kept me from being exposed to other things in life.”
He took trumpet lessons from Jimmy Maxwell, who had played with Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and the Tonight Show band in the Johnny Carson era. By the time Goldman graduated from high school he had zero interest in attending college, but he felt confident that he could be a professional trumpet player. However, he discovered a major obstacle. “I wasn’t able to stand in front of an audience.”
While his peers from the Class of 1970 headed off to college, Goldman struck out on his own, doing landscaping and other manual labor and ending up in Warwick, New York. There he discovered the writing of the Russian mystic, George Gurdjieff, whose teachings emphasized, among many other things, the value of physical labor, crafts, music, and group activity. (The basketball player may have connected with the trumpeter, I think to myself.)
Goldman returned from Warwick to join his father in running the summer camp (a year-round job) and moved with his parents when they relocated to central New Jersey. By then he was married. He and his wife, Martha, have two sons, now 30 and 28, and he credits her with finally “giving me the freedom to play music” in public.
Goldman also rekindled his interest in basketball. In West Windsor he founded a kids’ program called the Basketball Club, which sponsored games in which no scores were kept, no standings maintained, and no parents were allowed to coach their children. Players in the Basketball Club were allowed to pass but not dribble. The only exception was if one dribble would allow a player to attempt a shot.
More recently Goldman has stepped up his performance schedule, building up a network of musicians who can also play with him at private parties and corporate functions — “events that will support me as a musician.”
This Saturday, July 24, at Tre Piani Goldman will appear with two of the “historic jazz elders,” Richard Wyands, 81, on piano, and Lisle Atkinson, 69, on bass. Goldman is excited: “I’ve come from the age of 17, not imagining that I could ever play like these guys, to actually performing with them. It’s the full circle of a dream.”
My half hour has suddenly become an hour and a quarter. Am I missing anything? Actually, yes. I never did ask about Goldman’s Pilates training. I figure that will have to wait.
Goldman and friends will appear Wednesday, July 21 and 28, from 5 to 7:45 p.m. at Labyrinth Books at 122 Nassau Street, and Saturdays, July 24 and 31, from 7:30 to 11 p.m. at Tre Piani in Forrestal Village. www.straightjazz.com.