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DALE MILLS

I have been working as a musician since my first teacher took me out on a gig with him when I was 11. At that same time I joined a Dixieland Band of somewhat older kids, and we played a few gigs and entered talent contests. We always came in second to Corny and the Corvettes, led by the late great Cornelius Bumpus, who played oboe in the high school band (I played clarinet). Through my teen years I played high school dances with rock bands and did parties and weddings with accordion-drums-sax trios. With the dixieland band I started improvising by generalizing the ideas in the written arrangements, and by transcribing Pete Fountain solos from records. With the wedding bands I started memorizing the Great American Songbook.

Bands I have played with: 

Nuclear Whales
Cool Jerks
Mike Vax Band
Jerry Miller Band
Steve Walker Band
Martin Headman
Little Anthony
Mary Wells
Temptations

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In the 70s I joined the big band at Cabrillo College, more to meet people and join the scene than to study, but it was there that I actually began to learn the theory behind jazz. Through associations at Cabrillo I found myself in a fusion band for a couple years – Swampsteam. It became a lifestyle. We all moved into the buildings left from a farm and learned songs of Chick Corea, Mahavishnu, Weather Report, Miles Davis, and a lot of originals by our members. Swampsteam got to be the warm-up act on concerts with Weather Report, Sons of Champlin, Jimmy Witherspoon (backed up by the Robben Ford band, who were all our friends), and a number of other jazz headliners.

As fun as that band was, I never really liked fusion music, and went back to roadhouse rock, moving to Tahoe and playing with a wonderful party band, the Steve Walker Band, and with a couple other bands at the lake.

After a few years of too much fun at Lake Tahoe I returned to Santa Cruz, where I took all of the jazz-related courses at Cabrillo College, notably those taught by the great Ray Brown (no, the trumpet player/arranger), bought a tux and got back into the casuals scene. During this time I played with a blues band led by the flamboyant and wonderful Dallas Hodge, and a number of country-rock, rock, and jazz-rock bands. Somehow I also found myself playing baritone sax with a strange saxophone quartet that called itself the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra, featuring the great classical saxophonist, William Trimble.

This was great fun, but another commercial opportunity came along and I quit to play alto with a Motown review called the Cool Jerks, just in time for the Blues Brothers movies and the Motown revival. It was a 3-horn band of conscientious and talented musicians. We rehearsed and made our own arrangements and we worked like crazy for a few years, until the Motown fad died down.

By then I was back in love with the clarinet and left to answer the call of Dixieland and pre-WWII swing. But I had barely begun that pursuit when I got the call to rejoin the Nuclear Whales, who had by now become a sextet and a show. This time I took the tenor chair, which also involved some alto and soprano.

Sometime during the last few paragraphs I had spent some time in Los Angeles during which I started studying with the great Victor Morosco, who at that time lived in the Valley and worked in the recording and film studios. Vic was already connected the Santa Cruz scene then, coming up every few months to work with a number of students. I kept studying with him after I moved back to St. Cruz, as did all the Nuclear Whales, individually and as a group. It was a very profitable time for getting my sax chops up.

The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orcestra  recorded a number of CD’s and spent a fair amount of time traveling throughout the States, a few wonderful weeks doing the Edinborough Fringe Festival, and several Asian tours, mainland China, Taiwan and Japan. That second round with the Whales was 12 years of good times with smart, funny, good-natured people who will always be in my heart.

During all that time, and since, I have been freelancing among the casuals and jazz communities between Monterey and San Francisco. Some of the relationships became so regular that I was virtually with a dozen or so arranged bands much of the time. I’ve learned the popular music of the last century, blues, rock, various periods and styles of jazz, more than a little Jewish music, a ton of the Great American Songbook, and a bit of classical chamber music, and I might in any given week perform in any or all of these genres. The last couple years I have been playing with a Django Reinhardt influenced band called Hot Club Pacific, mostly on clarinet. I have always loved this music, and now that I’m getting to play it a lot with a very good band that really studies it, I’m having the time of my life.

I’m also teaching for many years now, enough that I’ve seen a couple generations of children grow into mature musicians, some of whom are now very accomplished and successful. My students are, and have been, a great source of joy and fulfillment for me. Each of them brings new shapes, new colors to the tapestry of the music, and of my life. My most direct avenue into the soul, the life force, of myself and other humans, has always been through music. I heard Baba Ram Das say once that all this talk we’re doing is just to keep our minds busy while the real communication is happening on another level. Teaching is like that. We share and explore the nuts and bolts and gain mastery over the wherewithal of the craft, while we are touching each other in places sometimes as deep as dreaming. It isn’t unusual to be in a lesson with a 10-year-old (or 85-year-old) beginner who is clearly not only my equal, but my teacher. Yes sure!  If I suddenly found I had won $50 million in the lottery, I think I would be doing the same gigs and I would still keep my students.

 

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