Dave had a new, almost permanent feature by this time. A toothy smile that he had developed somewhere between now and the time I last saw him when he packed his meager belongings, most of it musical gear, into his humble car and made the three day road trip from Racine, Wisconsin to what would be his new home, Los Angeles. The same City of Angels that many starry-eyed kids find their way to only to ultimately become disheartened and return when their dreams of stardom, or at the very least self-sufficiency, wane to the point where they no longer believe. We were standing at the very end of the Santa Monica pier on a warm August evening – just a few blocks from here, and a place that I revisit on a regular basis – in part to reinforce what I heard that day. We walked under the famous arch and past the oft-photographed Ferris wheel until we reached the end of the pier.
The inky blue Pacific stretched in front of us onward to an endless horizon where the cool, flaming sunset was sending its last shimmers of pastel across a calming tide until they lapped into the moorings of the pier itself under our feet. Darkening silhouettes walked the misty beach, some together, some alone. Dave turned and faced back toward the beach and we both admired the colors of the setting sun softening the buildings along the shore with the deep, lapis Pacific extended endlessly behind us. We leaned back against the railing. Then through a wide grin Dave declared with an arm gesture much like that of people who guide airplanes to their gates “It’s all that way!” What Dave meant was, given that we were facing East and standing on the very tip of a long pier jutting out into the Pacific, the entire country was geographically in front of us.
I remember the first time I heard him play. I had returned to my native Milwaukee from Madison where I had attended law school. While I played regularly around Madison, I had been away from Milwaukee for so many years that I didn’t really have any steady gigs in town. I started going out and sitting in at jazz and blues jams to try to meet some of the active local musicians. I also of course got out to see local bands and at that time the many national contemporary jazz bands that came through town. It was at one of these gigs that I first heard Dave Kochanski play. He was the keyboardist in a local band that had scored the enviable position of opening for nationally renowned bass virtuoso Brian Bromberg. The band was called “Aurora” and I was immediately impressed at the sophistication of the original material they featured in that short set. I was downright astonished to hear that the shy, circumspect and boyish keyboardist with the wire-rimmed glasses wrote that material. He appeared to be in his teens to me.
A number of months later I got a call out of the blue asking if I’d like to audition for the sax chair of a local contemporary jazz band. I didn’t immediately make the connection but when I arrived at the audition, which took place in the drummer’s father’s basement off of the same exit as the A&W in Racine, Wisconsin, I recognized the young man behind the wall of keyboards who at first didn’t really even look me in the eye. He seemed greatly involved in what appeared to be mildly compulsive adjustments of his extensive gear. I got set up for the audition. We played through several of Dave’s songs and some other cover songs. Dave was very unassuming and I got the feeling that he really had very little idea of just how good he was; an admirable and rare quality among musicians. I got the gig and over the next four or so years that feeling was confirmed. Dave penned song after song, all of which were beyond his years in sophistication.
Dave and I became friends over those years and not only played together but got out to watch a lot of bands. Dave was very vocal about the bands he admired, most prominently The Rippingtons and Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band. He studied the compositions, sounds and arrangement style of The Rippingtons very closely and at first you could hear those influences in his own compositions. In one very comical moment I swiped the sounds out of The Rippingtons keyboardist’s gear by getting close to the stage, inserting a memory card into his gear and performing the set of operations repeatedly shown to me by Dave, then removing the card.
On that very night of light larceny I met another guy who would become a good friend, saxophonist Jeff Kashiwa. He and I began talking about our mutual interest in the EWI and he asked me whether I had done any repair work on mine. Playing that early EWI pretty much required you to be a repairman. I indicated that I had and in fact at the time maintained a very large website dedicated to the instrument. By virtue of that Jeff and I kept in contact and over the next year became pretty good friends.
Whenever I called Dave he seemed to be doing the same thing. He was holed up in the back bedroom of his parent’s house practicing his keyboard, programming and writing skills. This was clearly what Dave wanted to do with his life and in fact he would occasionally speak meekly of the possibility of being a full-time musician. He didn’t seem to realize though, just how possible that was. No amount of me telling Dave how good he was seemed to convince him. He and I began working on several recording projects including a four-song demo of Aurora material.
The next year we once again went out to see The Rippingtons. At my bidding Dave had made a cassette tape of a number of his songs and performances. I gave the cassette to Jeff who promised he’d listen to it. Within a couple days Jeff had called me back indicating that he thought Dave would work, and work a lot in Los Angeles. Jeff himself was working up his own solo group and was well networked around Los Angeles and nationally due to the fact that he was in the number-one jazz group at the time, The Rippingtons. I took this information to Dave and revisited a conversation we had had many times. I told him that his time had come; it was time to take that dream he told me about and take it to Los Angeles. He did and I remember during our last meeting in Wisconsin how nervous he was about it.
Dave is now in his eigth year as the musical director of American Idols Tour. He has worked with Jeff Kashiwa, was the keyboardist of The Rippingtons, wrote, played and recorded with a who’s who of the music industry including David Foster and a stand as Britney Spears’ musical director, writing and producing three songs for her alone. To say Dave succeeded is an understatement. On that first trip I stayed on the floor of Dave’s one-room apartment in a non-descript section of Los Angeles. In 2006 when I was in L.A. to demonstrate the EWI at NAMM, the world’s largest musical equipment tradeshow, I went and visited Dave at his Sherman Oaks home.
I have returned to the pier many, many times over the years, including this afternoon. It has been a place of celebration and a place of solace. One time in particular I walked through the thickness of great disappointment on a sunny, gray February day in 2010 to the end of the pier. Life had once again thrown me a curve ball that left me foundering in the darkest sea. Like every other time I stood facing the ocean for a long time and contemplated its vastness – overwhelmingly big and overwhelmingly deep. Then I turned my back to the ocean’s cold and leaned against the wood railing. Should that rail break I would indeed fall thirty or so feet into an icy, deep and sometimes violent sea. The railing held fast and I watched as the thin, languid sunlight paled against the white buildings on shore, igniting them in a golden glow. And then I heard, as if for the first time, Dave’s words uttered on this very spot some 16 years ago “it’s all that way” and decided, finally, that he was indeed right – it is all that way.
In front of us lies our future. In front of us lie our lives. Behind us the joys and disappointments of our past form a giant, deep and vast sea; lovely to watch, swim or surf – I’ll even dive in and see what’s under the surface for a while; but ultimately it’s all the other way.
By Clay Konnor
Pastel artwork on this post: Clay Elliott “The Color of Love” (Santa Monica Pier)