We were sitting on a high wall under a concrete walkway that led to the main building of my high school. To the best of my recollection, it was springtime of our junior year – 1991. We were talking, in very serious tones, about the nature of improvisation, and were trying to work out a definition, after which we could surely attack the thing with bared teeth. Our result: “Improvisation is the spontaneous creation of a melody.” Not bad for 16 going on 17, but I still didn’t have the faintest idea of how to do it.
The other boy on the wall with me that day was Coleman Mellett. At that time, he was simply the best musician I had ever known. Self-effacing, handsome, kind, generous and ingratiatingly goofy under a mop of unruly curls, he was the kind of friend that I felt lucky to have. We understood music the best we could, and we talked unabashedly about what it meant to us. I wasn’t on his level, but we still played jazz together and he took me to shows large and small. With him and his girlfriend, we sat (in seats!) at Wolftrap and watched a frail, diminutive Ella Fitzgerald shuffle onstage to sing “a-tisket, a-tasket.” I think about that now, and I’m amazed that I was present.
After high school, we kept in touch, then lost touch, then kept in touch again. He was excelling at university, then continuing into professional life as an honest-to-God working guitarist. Pre-internet, I followed his career via fleeting phone conversations, or updates through the grapevine. It seemed distant – his career, I mean. I didn’t have a clue about what professional musicians did until I became one much later.
Chuck Mangione, a legendary figure in late-20th century Jazz, spoke at Coley’s funeral. Through copious tears, he told of the 15 minute audition wherein he hired my friend on the spot, which surprised me not in the least. He finished by saying “Coleman was the son I never had,” and played “Amazing Grace” on his famous flugelhorn.
When Coley and I spoke around 2000 about him winning the job in Mangione’s band, I honestly didn’t know what to say. It was an immense accomplishment, I knew, but one for which I had no reference point, so I congratulated him and listened as he spoke. He was still in a daze about the whole thing. He told me that he would look around at Mangione, and Chris Vadala on sax and think about how he had, in a way, come full circle. Vadala was a fixture at my high school when we were there, teaching all the saxophone students (including myself) and occasionally coaching the jazz bands and combos. He was an early mentor and taught me lessons about the intersection of music, work ethic, and reality that stick with me to this day. Thinking on it now, it was an embarrassment of riches to have such an accomplished professional dragging my clueless teenage self through preparations for All-Diocesan Honor Band auditions. My nephew studied under his tutelage at the University of Maryland, by which time, Vadala was a household name for my family.
Chris Vadala died last month, apparently after a long battle with cancer. I never got to see he and Coley play together, and my search for possible recordings of the two with Mangione’s band have yielded no results. But I have come across his 2008 disc, Out of the Shadows, on which his effortless playing is fully on display. I only had sporadic contact with Mr. Vadala (I couldn’t call him anything else) after bumping into him at a conference of the now defunct (and apparently reborn under a different name) association of Jazz Educators – probably springtime 2004. My college big band played my arrangement of a Paquito D’Rivera tune and he was an adjudicator. His comment tape was mostly him busting my balls for switching from saxophone to guitar, which of course, was no help to my college big band.
This week marked the 10th anniversary of Coley’s death. His sudden passing hit me hard, and marked the beginning of a period of sometimes intense upheaval both personally and professionally. For a long time – and of no benefit to myself, I understand now – I compared where I was in my life to where he was at the end of his (he was about 4 – 1/2 months older than me). Regardless of circumstances, I crept along in his shadow, which I had made myself by shining such a bright light on him and his life. This, of course, sullied my accomplishments and prevented me from taking honest steps along a path constructed of my unique developments and experiences.
I’m not sure when all that changed; probably slowly. This week, I was able to observe the anniversary from a more detached position – respectful as opposed to reverent – like observing a distant planet, still visible, that I had passed on my travels. Coinciding with this milestone in his memory, the Coleman Mellett Music and Film Project has started releasing completed and remastered recordings of an album’s worth of material that he left behind, and a documentary is forthcoming. Here’s the first one, entitled “Life Goes On.”
I can’t precicely describe the feeling of hearing his voice again. It’s a little like sitting on a wall in springtime, talking about music and experiencing terror, elation, and impatience as we sought to feel it in our hands, and see what we could make of it.