“He’s playing free right now. Avant-Garde. You just play anything that comes to your mind.”
As John Coltrane wailed on my portable turntable, Lee Matalon looked up at me and smiled. Before we got into our interview, we talked Jazz music over a Red Stripe beer. I brought over the Coltrane self-titled record and a 78 of Louis Armstrong.
Like breaking out a fine whiskey for a special occasion, Matalon would appreciate this tremendous historical document. He sat, eyes closed, listening with great reverence. It was almost like a monk meditating. He wasn’t just listening to Louie, he was absorbing it. When a great line or solo was played, he looked up with a big smile on his face.
There can’t be a Luke Skywalker without a Yoda. There is no Karate Kid without Mr. Miyagi. In fiction and reality, the story of the master and the student is ingrained in our national psyche.
In our community, a select few have had a tremendous impact on shaping future generations. Even fewer in the Valley have had quite the impact Lee has had. Originally from the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, he has been teaching in the Valley since 1974, starting at Paraclete High School, where he still teaches today.
In 1979, he began at Antelope Valley College. To say Matalon is a musical institution in the AV would be an understatement. Just as we began our interview, he received a text from former student Dalton Hagler. A saxophonist, Hagler has gone on to play with Kenny Rogers, The Temptations, The Four Tops and has worked for Disney parks in Orlando, Fla.
The following is the interview:
Jesse Davidson: I think no matter how successful you become, if a teacher has a great impact on you, that teacher-student relationship is always there.
Lee Matalon: He still says ‘Give me a lesson’ when we talk. Just now he said, “I love you.”
JD: You’ve really changed people’s lives in this Valley.
LM: I did?
JD: Yeah! I’m friends with a lot of them. You’ve had a real positive impact on this Valley. What is it like for you to hear these success stories of former students?
LM: Now I hear these stories, as I get older, it makes me really happy to know that. What makes me happy is to know some of these people are still into music because it’s so good for their soul. That’s why I don’t want to give it up. Another thing is that I’m teaching students whose parents I’ve taught how to play. It’s one of those things.
You probably know more about me than I know about me!
JD: When you are playing or soloing, are you thinking about something or not thinking about anything?
LM: I love slow ballads. When I play a ballad, I put my heart into it. I try to play them like I’m a singer that is singing the song. Sometimes, I get so deep, I get tears in my eyes.
LM: For example, one of my favorite tunes is “Maria” from “West Side Story.” Every time I play that tune, there are tears in my eyes and it just comes out. As a matter of fact, there is one lady at the College who worked there. When we did the Motown tribute show there, I played “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong. She came up to me and said, “Gee, you put tears in my eyes.” I told her, “That’s because I had tears in my eyes.” Now when I play Jazz, I try to play lines that make sense. I don’t believe in all these fast notes. I believe in making a melody and to tell a story. It’s not what you say but how you say it. That works with everything in life.
JD: Herbie Hancock was talking about that recently in a Masterclass. It can’t all be about craft. That if music was devoid of heart, it didn’t mean anything.
LM: That’s right. Otherwise, you’re a machine.