Reflections on Life
under the Influence of Ayn Rand
by Roger E. Bissell

Part 3: "Don't let it go!"
Notes on my Professional Music Career


"Don't Let it Go!" -- Notes on my Professional Music Career 

In May of 1971, I completed work on my MA degree in music performance and literature from the University of Iowa. Immediately thereafter, my wife, son, and I moved to Nashville, Tennessee. That marked the formal beginning of my career as a professional musician.

It sometimes seems that I had been heading in that direction almost since the first day I began to play the trombone in 1956 (third grade). My abilities to transpose, play by ear, and improvise were already apparent by the fifth grade. That is when I began my eight-year period of study with Rex Peer, who later became my colleague.

My getting connected with Rex was actually a result of the first (and perhaps best) time the government warped my life. Until 1958, the Cumberland Independent School had two bands, both open to all children grades 3 through 12: the "Junior Band" and the "Senior Band." The designations were not based on age, but on ability. A skilled third grader could sit at the head of his section in the Senior Band--and a high school senior who was a total novice might sit last chair in the Junior Band. By the end of third grade, I had climbed to the front of the Senior Band trombone section, where I stayed throughout 4th grade, as I rocketed through the famous Arban Method for Trombone.

All of that changed with the much-touted "reorganization." The State Department of Education was pressuring independent school districts to consolidate. The larger tax base would allow more modern facilities to be built--supposedly leading to better education. Cumberland and Massena (where I was born, 6 miles away) decided to become C&M Community Schools. Beginning with the 1958-59 school year, grades 6 through 12 were bused to Massena, where there would be a "Senior High" band for those in grades 9-12 and a "Junior High" band for grades 6-8. Massena, who had had a crummy band, would be lifted up; Cumberland, who had a great band, would be pulled down. (My first encounter with socialism's "leveling effect--outside of my sister's eating up her share of the M&Ms first, then wanting half of what I had left! Hmmm---C&M, M&M--an ominous parallel?)

It seemed that I and the others in my 5th grade class would be left high and dry. There was talk of starting up a "Beginner" band (!), with private lessons for those who participated. But since neither I nor my parents could accept the outrage of my having to be in a band two levels and four years away from the one I deserved to be in, we tried to sign me up for "lessons only." Nothing doing, said the school officials. Fine, said my folks; we'll find a teacher for our son somewhere else. And they did.

Rex Peer was a native of northwestern Iowa and had played free lance in New York City for several years after getting his masters degree at Columbia. His father, Ralph Peer, was a world-renowned flutist and ocarina ("sweet potato") player, having appeared on "You asked for it" in the 1950s. More importantly, Ralph also ran the music store in Atlantic, fifteen miles from my home. His son Rex left the high-pressure scene in the Big Apple for health reasons and began working at the store to help his dad run the business and to give his family a more stable, secure life.

One day in the fall of 1958, my folks brought me in to see if Rex would give me lessons. He gave me a brief, eyebrow-raising audition. (I played "The Marine's Hymn" in several different keys, after learning on the spot what a "key" was!) The rest was history. I had won the opportunity to study trombone with one of the best natural-born teachers and all-around excellent role models I could have found. And for the outrageous sum of $1 per lesson!

Rex's favorite way to introduce me was, "I've taught him everything I know, and he still doesn't know anything!" (For my part, I envisioned him having a minor auto mishap in Atlantic City, New Jersey and the next day the newspaper headline reading, "Rex Peer Wrecks Pier.") Rex did teach me just about everything, including a lot about jazz playing, music theory, and writing songs and arrangements. He also had me learn dozens of popular songs and "legit" solos so that I would have a repertoire for later use.

With this solid preparation, I began playing for church and civic organizations and helped out organizations such as the American Legion, the Lions Club, and the Optimists by providing musical entertainment at their meetings and special events. (The Legion rewarded me for my numerous services by sending me to Hawkeye Boys State, a miniature government summer camp, after my junior year of high school.) I had several good piano accompanists, but a very helpful tool on numerous occasions was a small record player and a Nelson Riddle sing-along record, which I used to back me up on some of my public and radio performances.

During high school, I entered a number of competitions and usually did quite well. I went to the solos and small groups contest three out of four years and really cleaned up my senior year. Among other events, I was entered for a trombone solo, duet, trio, and quartet--all of which got I ("one") ratings. The only thing that somewhat diminished these achievements was the knowledge that ours was a "Class C" school, and that we were competing with relatively small, financially poor school systems. It would have meant a lot more, had we earned such ratings alongside some of the biggest schools in the state.

Also, I "sat out" most of the musical events during my sophomore year, due to a serious personality conflict with the band/chorus director. Ironically, the director, Suzanne Dougherty--the wife of one of my cousins--got it in her head that I was too "uncooperative" to be allowed to stay in the school music program. The circumstance of my treachery was this: my last period of the school day was split between French II and marching band, and one day I arrived at the band room to find that the band had been bused across town for practice at the football field. Instructions had been left for me and several other French students to walk to the field (about a mile walk). I balked, considering that I would have arrived just in time to get on the bus and ride back to school. Mrs. Dougherty not only saw fit to kick me out of band and chorus, but also to use without acknowledgment or compensation my marching band arrangement of "Let Me Call You Sweetheart" at the homecoming football game.

The one big event that I did attend all four years was the Thanksgiving weekend All State Music festival in Des Moines. I was in the first trombone section three years and the third section one year. I sat second chair/first, first chair/third, second chair/first, and third chair/first. It was frustrating to never make it up to first chair/first trombone, but the big schools had some good players who were also well known to the judges. Some combination of skill and bias always seemed to conspire against my designs for first place. That was what I told myself, anyway. I suspect instead that it was actually my first encounter with the small fish/big pond syndrome, which plagued me from college on. Nevertheless, I got to go, and the experience was magnificent. Thanks to concerned, generous, comradely people in the music programs of the Greenfield and Atlantic schools, I never wanted for the required chaperone, either. (My own director, Marvin Post, accompanied me the first year.)

I began playing paid engagements in 1963, the summer after my freshman year of high school. My first job was actually not paid, but should have been. I was invited to "sit in" with Johnny Fancollie's band on New Year's Eve, 1962, at the Anita Legion Club. He and his band members liked my playing so well that they invited me to play the entire job. Unknown to me and my parents at the time (Dad found out later), the manager of the club had thrown in an extra $20 to pay me. Johnny quietly pocketed it. My first experience with unscrupulous leaders!

Some of my Cumberland high school buddies and I started up our own band, the "New BelAirs," which played for several local dances, and for which I wrote some of the musical arrangements. Several of my All State pals from Atlantic also asked me to be in their band, the "New Jazztet," which likewise played some engagements as well as some concerts in the area.

The two main bands I played with during high school were Morrie Powers and the BelAirs (a band based in Coon Rapids, with whom Rex played regularly) and the Gil Wallace Orchestra, led by a handicapped piano player and music store owner from Greenfield. I only played a few jobs with Morrie, but I met Roger Newman, a sax player and local band director, who moved to Los Angeles and became quite successful as a musical arranger by the early 1970s. The lion's share of my income came from the many jobs I worked with Gil, for whom I also did quite a bit of vocal and arranging work.

My earnings, however, were not spent in pursuit of fast cars and pretty women. (Or is it: pretty cars and fast women?) It all went toward my college education fund, and my college program was to be a major in mathematics. I felt good about saving my earnings, but mathematics (which I dearly loved) was not my first choice.

My parents, children of the Great Depression, were very worried about the music business as a career choice. They were afraid that if I pursued a life as a professional musician, they would see me end up some day in the gutter or the poorhouse--or worse! Their fears led them to ask Rex to help persuade me to use my music making as merely a lucrative sideline to a more secure profession. These pressures, plus overly stingy scholarship funds at the two music schools I applied to, prodded me in the direction of the math program at Iowa State University.

Then, in May 1966 (my senior year of high school), I read Atlas Shrugged. This book literally changed my life. Unlike many Objectivists, I have only read it once. But once was enough. Rand's ideas and vision electrified me. (Not to mention, it was a helluva story!) I quickly devoured her other novels and plunged on ahead into two of her non-fiction books, For the New Intellectual and The Virtue of Selfishness.

My mother hit the ceiling. You'd have thought Rand was advocating baby murdering or Satanism or something. She snorted when I told her I wanted to live my life according to my own values, not hers or Dad's. I can hear her replies to this day: "Why do you need her to tell you that? That's what you already do!" and "Values? That's what you get during the sale at Sears or JCPenneys."

For the first time, however, I knew clearly and with certainty that the best thing I could do with my life was to live for my own happiness and to choose and pursue my own highest values. That it was the best course of action, no matter how difficult it might seem or how uncooperative others might be. This realization was reinforced just a week later at a concert in Des Moines.

I vividly remember standing in the Grand Ballroom of the Hotel Fort Des Moines and being riveted by the artistry and energy of trumpeter Bud Brisbois and the Drake University Phi Mu Alpha jazz band. As the sounds and sights of that concern rushed through my extremely nervous system, I made a promise to my dream of being a musician: "Someday, I'll come back to you. Somehow, I'll find a way." Less than a year later, I did...

I met some of those same musicians a short time later. Rex organized a jazz concert that was held in a small southwest Iowa town called Denison, and he used the Phi Mu Alpha band as his nucleus. He also asked me to be in the band and to do a feature jazz duet with him. We traveled together to Des Moines for the rehearsals. During the next several years, I worked with several of the Drake University guys on a number of state fair and other engagements.

Later in the summer of 1966, I went up to Iowa State University for my freshman orientation. I took several advance placement tests and ended up qualifying for calculus, advanced freshman English, and advanced freshman chemistry. Most significantly, I signed up for Symphonic Band and jazz band. (The capital and small-case letters were representative of the relative status of those groups in the academic community and the college catalog. For my part, I would have reversed them.)

I found college studies a lot tougher than high school. I went from being a big fish in a small pond to being not the biggest fish in a big pond. College chemistry was a real struggle. Calculus was manageable and very stimulating. English was a stretch-out for me--a lot of on-the-spot essay writing, which gave me a chance to work in some of my new philosophical ideas on Objectivist morality. (My favorite is still the essay I wrote arguing that the Christian slogan "it is more blessed to give than to receive," if consistently applied, would result in everyone waiting for everyone else to give to them. If giving is so blessed, you shouldn't be selfish about it; you should forgo that blessing and give everyone else the opportunity to be more blessed than oneself, by allowing them to give to you. Of course, if everyone were consistent Christians, this idea would lead to a paralysis of benevolent giving--let alone altruism; your only hope for receiving goodies would be from those who didn't take Christian morality seriously!)

The big plus that first year was logic, which I took in the spring. Each day, I felt my mind expanding and becoming stronger. This continued in the fall when I discovered Rand's writings on theory of knowledge (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology) and Leonard Peikoff's essay "The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy." I was discovering the abstract ideas that lay at the foundation of my newfound moral and political views--and the methodology that would help me to discover and nail down insights of my own.

The real action, however, was in my music activities. My playing ability soon became apparent to Frank Piersol and Gary Boehm, the band directors. Frank asked me to play Sammy Nestico's "Reflective Mood" with the Symphonic Band at the fall concert and again on the band's spring tour. For most of the year, however, I sat second chair to the previous (and still reigning) "King of the Mountain." (He was also the one he beat me for first chair/first in All State Band my junior year of high school.) I also played in the pit orchestra for the spring festival production of "Camelot."

It was Gary Boehm who told me that spring about the new music degree program starting the next fall. He encouraged me to add the music major for a double, rather than dropping the math major entirely. Gary became my faculty advisor and helped me enter the Honors Program and work out a plan for early graduation.

The summer after my freshman year was a major step forward for me as a professional musician. My parents were heavily leaning on me to work construction or whatever I could find to replace the money spent my first year at Iowa State. I was appalled at the thought of doing what I now regarded as "mindless" physical labor and felt hopelessly trapped. Then, seemingly out of the blue, I got a call from Teddy Phillips, leader of a group called the Mexicali Brass. He asked if I could fly to Chicago right away and join his group for the summer. Without missing a beat, I accepted--and off I went!

The job consisted mostly of a number of one-nighters with a lot of travel in between. Our longest hop was from Topeka, Kansas to Bluefield, West Virginia! Also included were several one-to-two-week location jobs and several state and county fair dates. The money was OK, $150 a week, but we had to pay our food and hotel costs out of it.

Teddy was a leftover from the Big Band era; he had married Colleen Lovett, a gorgeous blonde 22 years his junior. The "book" was a strange conglomeration. There were 30-year-old schmaltzy big band arrangements (played by less than half the proper instrumentation), some rather bland arrangements by his wife of current pop tunes, and a few Mexicali Brass arrangements "borrowed" from the record company who did a series of "take-off" albums based on Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass group.

One of the trumpet players, Steve Wright, was a graduate student at the University of Iowa and later had a big band in Minneapolis that did some recording. Steve sported a mustache-like affectation under his lower lip, and he was referred to by various professional and academic colleagues as "Little Doc" (in light of his cultivated resemblance to Doc Severinson of NBC's "Tonight Show" orchestra). The drummer, Terry Waddell, later became a fairly busy arranger in Nashville, during the same period that I lived there. Terry arranged and conducted for Eddy Arnold and was drummer on Danny Davis' group, the Nashville Brass, for several years. These are the only two of Teddy Phillips' sidemen that I ever heard from again after that summer.

Another very significant part of that job was meeting the woman who later became my first wife. Teddy and Colleen had two young boys who traveled on the road with their parents, and they needed childcare. The first job that summer was a two-week engagement in Lincoln, Nebraska, and the young woman they hired to baby-sit ended up going out on the road with them for most of the summer after that. At the time, she was pregnant with the son whom I adopted when she and I married in 1970. We got along pretty well that first summer and corresponded for a while after I went back to school in the fall.

 My sophomore year of college was a very turbulent period for me. The final, painful break with my high school girlfriend, after a year of mutual faithlessness. Abortive attempts to establish romantic relationships with seemingly "rational," Objectivist-type women. A killing load of courses and activities for the music department, rewarded for my trouble by a bout with mononucleosis and a string of Bs and Cs in advanced math and logic courses. Harassment and intimidation from college professors because of my political and philosophical views.

On the other hand, some very important decisions were made and doors opened for me that year. I discovered Rand's writings on epistemology and esthetics and realized that not just pursuing but understanding truth and beauty would have to be a central part of my life. I began my studies in music theory and composition with Dr. Gary White, and he proceeded to nurture my interests and challenge my ideas in various areas (and still does, to this day). I bailed out of the conservative movement and became a "Radical for Capitalism." I began writing scathing letters to the editor of the student newspaper, and I helped form a Students of Objectivism group that met regularly to listen to Rand's and Branden's recorded lectures and to discuss ideas.

Sometime during my sophomore year, I came to the realization that I was accumulating college credits so quickly that I would graduate after only three years. That wouldn't have been so bad, except for the Vietnam War. The draft boards were not very friendly to the idea of allowing students more than four years of college before tapping them for their service "obligation," which would have meant no graduate school for me. So I concocted a scheme, with the assistance of Mr. Boehm, my music advisor, to slow down just a little bit and take my last course "in absentia," at the University of Iowa, while also plunging into my first year of graduate school. This, I thought, would get me at least halfway through my master's degree before I had to deal with the draft. This was a very fateful decision, but the details of how it worked out will have to wait for another time.

[To be continued...someday...perhaps...]