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Conversations With an Artist by Tamara Conniff

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This article first appeared in 1997.

My dad, sporting old jeans and a polo shirt greeted me at the door with a big hug and offered me a double espresso -- drinking strong coffee with my dad is one of those daughter/father bonding experiences. My father drinks approximately five double espressos a day, made lovingly from his little European coffee machine. We sat comfortably in the kitchen, sipping our caffeinated speed. After a few moments of silence, I asked, "Dad, how am I going to make any money being a creative human -- an artist? How am I going to do what I really want to do and expect to support myself?" My dad smiled at me, and his eyes faded out for a moment --

Maybe he was thinking about the very first memory of his life. He was five years old -- riding his tricycle along the narrow paths of a park in Martha's Vineyard -- his dad playing trombone and conducting a small band in the center of the park on a white wooden bandstand. The music from that summer day in the park made him decide in high school that it would be cool to learn how to play the trombone, so he asked his dad to teach him. He assumed that learning how to play the instrument would be very easy, but when he sat down in his room with his dad he was unable to make a single clear sound and started to cry. His father patted him on the back and said, "Listen son, I have this extra trombone, and I am going to leave it with you, right here in your closet, so whenever you feel like giving it a shot, just pick it up." The teary eyed boy nodded. A few days later, the trombone lingering in his room like a shadow, he picked it up again, with more confidence, and learned how to play. He started a band with a bunch of friends, and spent his high school years playing trombone, learning how to arrange- -teaching himself music. He played out locally in Boston, near his home town of Attleboro, Massachusetts, sitting in for society gigs (or cover bands), and when he was 21 years old, he got on a bus, $200 in hand, and decided to give it a shot in New York City. In 1938, six months after his arrival in the Big Apple, he was playing with Bunny Berigan's band.

My dad sat back, returning from his reverie, put his hand on my back, and gave me a reassuring smile. "If you love what you do, and you do it because you love it -- it will happen. It's not about money. When I started out, all I did was play my trombone -- I sat in at every club in New York City, jamming with musicians, because it felt right -- and because it felt right and we were having fun -- the people dancing and sipping their drinks in the clubs felt it too and it made them smile. I didn't get paid. I didn't even care that I didn't get paid. I did the rehearsal band scene too. I would bring my arrangements around and give them to the bands just to hear them played. People got to know me, 'Oh ya, that Conniff guy, he's good' -- I was sitting in the Forest bar with Joe Dickson, a friend of mine from back home in New England -- he told me Bunny Berigan had had a run in with the first trombone player so there was a spot open, and asked me if I would like to give it a shot. Would I!! The next night I went to the Paradise Restaurant on 49th Street and Broadway which was where they were playing, and I sat in. The band started playing 'It's Wonderful.'" My dad, as he always does, started singing the melody of "It's Wonderful" to me, in that special musician way--part of him still present with me in the kitchen, another part of in the land where only sound and notes exist. I smiled after a few bars, and confirmed that I recognized the song. 

So Bunny came over and asked, 'Do you know this song, kid?' Of course I did, I knew every one of the popular ones, because I was making the rehearsal band scene -- so instead of having the girl singer sing the chorus, I played it solo on trombone. I knew it note for note in any key, so I could watch the band as I played. Bunny looked over at Georgie, the best sax player in town, for approval -- and Georgie gave him the code -- the old index finger to the eye trick -- meaning 'get a load of this' -- I knew I was in. Touring with Bunny was my first gig and it was one of the highlights of my life. I got that gig because I believed, and because I practiced, because I loved to play, and because I was real lucky and the timing was right. If you're good, and your put your energy and your talent out -- people will feel it, and things will fall into place." 

I nodded and looked down at my hands. "I know what you are saying, but I just don't think it's that easy." My dad sighed and was silent for a moment. "No, it's not easy -- I've had hard times. I moved to Los Angeles after touring with the Artie Shaw band in 1945. I was in the service from 1945-1946 playing with the Armed Forces Radio Service in Hollywood, and when I was discharged I wrote arrangements for Harry James. When he wanted me to start writing Bop instead of Swing, I walked out and said he should find someone else, it just wasn't my style. I was sure I would get another gig -- but I didn't, and I ended up digging ditches for two years trying to support a family. I was pretty beaten down. I remember running into a friend of mine -- told him my sob story and asked him to lend me twenty bucks. He gave me the twenty on the condition that I read a pamphlet on Christian Science. I did, and it really changed my attitude. For two years, I was dragging my heals, feeling sorry for myself, telling everyone how badly I was doing, and to please give me some work--instead of holding my head high and being positive. People want to work with people who have something to give, and when my attitude changed, I stated getting work again." He paused for a moment, searching the remember the timeline of events.

"I moved back to New York City in 1952, because more was happening there, and I got a staff gig for the NBC studio orchestra. I was also getting into conducting -- while I was digging ditches for a living, in my spare time, I would lock myself up in the shed in the back of my house in Reseda and teach myself how to conduct. Things started happening again in New York City -- and my outlook of music changed -- when I was with the big bands -- all of us musicians, we played to impress the guys in the band, not for the audience. Music for musicians -- and it was fun -- but who is the music really for -- it's for the people who listen to it. I started doing research, looking at all the pop charts, looking at what worked and what didn't. Mitch Miller, the head of A&R for Columbia Records, and I started working together while I was thinking all this s tuff through, he loved my ideas. While I was engineering and arranging for Frank Sinatra and Don Cherry -- I really got into voices -- using voices and instruments together, not as separate entities, but to complement each other. I then arranged Johnny Mathis' 'Chances Are,' and Johnny Ray's 'Just Walking in the Rain.'"

He got up to make two more double espressos. When I was a kid, before the bonding espresso machine -- my dad would make me food 'inventions' -- things like toasted bagels with peanut butter and bananas, and various ice cream drinks. We would both get very excited about these inventions, which always made my mom smile. When I was a little older, we would go on beach excursions in Paradise Cove, a Los Angeles beach, and spend the day combing the sands for lost treasures, sending out messages in bottles, and writing roman numerals in the sand. My dad placed double espresso number two in front of me.

"I got to do a B side for Mitch that went real well, and then I got the chance to record an entire album, I think it was 1956 that S'Wonderful came out -- and man it was a hit all over the place -- the DJ's loved it, people danced to it, and Latin America loved it too. My research paid off -- and I was making music for people -- music that everyone could understand." My dad looked at me lovingly and said, "You are going to be fine kid, just do whatever is in your heart to do and enjoy the struggle of trying to make it -- because you will look back and it will be the greatest time of your life." 

We fell silent for a while, sitting in the kitchen, happy to be spending some time together. I thought about my dad, and everything he has done. He was the first pop artist from the West asked to go to Russia, in 1973, to record an album in Moscow. He performed at the White House during the Vietnam War. He has survived in the music business for over 40 years, and has made over 90 albums. He is the proud recipient of a Grammy, two Grammy nominations, a Golden Globe Award, over 10 gold albums, Australian awards, Brazilian awards, British awards, Mexican awards, Peruvian awards -- recognition for doing what he does best. His catalog sales have surpassed those of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin. He has been touring through South America for the past 25 year playing for audiences of twenty-thousand smiling people singing along. At one show, when my dad started to play "Besame Mucho" a woman screamed, "I conceived my first child to this song!" All this from a poor kid from Attleboro, Massachusetts who cried the first time he picked up a trombone. 

My dad finished his espresso, and as he rinsed the cup in the sink, he said, "You never know who you are going to touch, or how what you do is going to affect other people. I think if you can affect at least one person in a positive way through your work, you have done well, you have done your job." 

My dad responds to all of his fan mail -- he reads it all himself, signs pictures, and often writes back. He received a letter from a young woman in a Latin country. She was not living with her natural parents, and was severely neglected -- and when it was time for her confirmation, a very important day, she was completely ignored. This was a last blow for her, and she decided that life was not worth living anymore. She managed to get a hold of a gun, went to her room, put it to her head, and was about to pull the trigger when she heard some music coming from the record store down the street. It struck something in her, and she put the gun down and went to the record store. They were playing a Ray Conniff album. She wrote my dad to say thank you. He received another letter from a woman who had been in an insane asylum. She had been very despondent and did not speak or respond to anything. One day her husband brought in a record player and one of my dad's albums, and she visibly started listening to it. So, her husband kept bringing Ray Conniff albums for her to listen to, and she eventually pulled out of her depressive state and got better. She also wrote my dad to say thank you. 

Ray Conniff turned 80 years old on November 6th, 1996, and he is still recording approximately one new album a year. He tours annually through Brazil with his complete orchestra and chorus, and full houses of people of all ages sing and dance along as he runs up and down the stage like a 20-year-old kid -- conducting, singing, talking to the crowd, playing his trombone -- putting that creative energy out there that the audience responds to -- music that makes people feel romantic and happy.

Over the years, when my friends are concerned about trying live in this world by following creative pursuits, I tell them what my dad told me. If you believe in your art, and you love what you do, that energy will go out, and people will respond. Don't make art for other artists or for 'intellectuals', make art for people -- and if you can touch just one person in a lifetime and make a difference -- you have succeeded. I tell my friends about my conversations with my father -- conversations with an artist.