By Greg Brown
There’s a special CD in my music cabinet—although not played for years, it broadcasts warm memories each time I rediscover it. The battered case and crudely illustrated cover mark a treasured musical journey, fueled by the aspirations of two young teenagers and piloted by their hopeful father.
Music has long filled our home. My older son, Hannis, joined string orchestra in the fourth grade. His brother, Austin, soon followed with piano studies. Both toiled through years of classical training until events redirected their musical interests. We moved to a school district with no orchestra program, so Hannis switched from violin to guitar. Then Austin’s piano teacher retired.
When we learned that jazz lessons were available from grad students at nearby Arizona State University, a corner was turned in the boys’ musical careers. Jazz turns out to be a wonderful pursuit for young people, because the requisite skills—sight-reading, rigorous theory and improvisation—are relevant to any kind of music. The flexibility to explore everything from Ellington to Mozart to Dave Mathews kept Hannis and Austin performing throughout their formative years. By ages 13 and 15, they were playing in the school jazz band, experimenting with original compositions, and pondering where music might take them.
That’s when a special opportunity presented itself. An old flying buddy of mine, Joe Statt, had established a successful recording studio in San Diego.
“Bring the boys over,” he offered one day after suffering stories of their accomplishments. “We’ll burn a CD.”
“Record Hannis and Austin in your professional studio?” I asked, surprised. “I doubt their skills or my wallet are prepared for that yet.”
“What if we did it for free?” It turned out that Joe had hired two aspiring recording engineers as student interns, and wanted to test their skills on a freebie project before turning them loose on paying customers. We set a date three weeks away; then I dropped the news on the boys.
“Burn our own CD?” At first Hannis and Austin were alarmed at the awesome burden of responsibility implied by the act of recording. But then they set to work. The next day I discovered the two jamming in the living room, in lieu of more customary after-school activities.
Father-son journeys are rare treasures in the short span of children growing up. I was reminded of that the morning we launched from Scottsdale for Joe’s San Diego studio. Behind us in the baggage compartment snuggled two guitars and a keyboard, while ahead for two wide-eyed boys lay prospects of stardom. Not since the long-ago Santa Fe trip when Hannis accidentally opened the door at 10,000 feet had such excitement filled our cockpit.
The boys had just briefed me on their musical agenda, when over Gila Bend I contacted flight service for a weather update. San Diego was still below visual minimums—no surprise at this hour and time of year—but Yuma was zero-zero in fog. I should have guessed that such an epic journey would be graced by miracles—fog is precious stuff in one of America’s driest deserts. Sure enough, a misplaced puddle of stratus shrouded Yuma when we flew over, extending to the Imperial Sand Dunes across the Colorado River.
We straddled the border dividing Mexicali from Calexico, then the colorful irrigated fields of Imperial Valley. This is one of the rare places where you can actually see a political boundary from the air, defined as it is by a fence and a blue canal bisecting featureless amber desert.
“Is that really Mexico over there, Dad?” asked Austin in the dialect of curious kids. “What would happen if we accidentally crossed into it?” We were still pondering the answer when the imposing wall of Laguna Mountains rose before us. We climbed to skim wooded summits at 8,000 feet, then plummeted though morning stratus into Montgomery Field.
“Pretty cool!” reflected Austin during the instrument approach. “I’m gonna learn how to do this one day.” Indeed he would.
Joe waited at the airport when we landed, along with a vanload of kids.
“I’ve turned the recording session over to my interns,” he said. “It wouldn’t be cool for us ‘fossils’ to hang around.”
Hannis and Austin nodded agreement from the background. After dropping my boys at the studio, Joe and I reminisced at an ocean-side park about our flying days together while his kids played soccer.
“How late can you leave, Greg?” asked Joe upon phoning the studio that afternoon. “Your guys aren’t done recording yet.”
“Just so we clear the Laguna range by nightfall,” I said. “Beyond there the terrain is low, plus there’ll be a full moon and plenty of airports in case of problems.”
My sons were exhausted when I finally collected them from the studio, but clutched in their hands alongside guitars and keyboard were freshly-recorded tapes and CDs.
“We named it ‘Brotherly Blues,'” boasted Hannis. After six hours of recording it was all they could do to eat sandwiches and board the plane before falling asleep—pro talk about overdubs and mixing would have to wait until tomorrow.
Alone in consciousness, I crossed the sierra with final rays of twilight, pondering along the way the content of those CDs still cradled by my sons. Such thoughts were displaced by a different sort of music, played by the rising moon over the lights of Mexicali. Yuma soon sparkled from beneath a lingering veil of stratus; then little Gila Bend twinkled from up the road.
When only the black-and-jagged Estrella Mountains separated me from the golden glow of Phoenix, I turned to admire my moonlit young men. How lucky I am to have kids, I thought, and friends like Joe Statt to help make their dreams come true. Of course, I knew at the time that the boys’ album would never top the pop charts; I figured it was just a waypoint en route to something bigger. I underestimated, however.
Not until years later, after my sons left for college, did I fully appreciate the treasure they had created in “Brotherly Blues.” For captured in those long-ago recordings under that wonderfully crude cover, is a starry night flight played to the eternal tune of “family.” On the lengthy passage from childhood dreams to lifetime achievements, I’d been privileged to pilot one small part. Here in my music cabinet, recorded by two blossoming young men, is tribute to that journey.