Dexter Payne's new CD, Pra Vocè ("For You"), delights listeners with the swing-powered sounds of Brazilian choro and baião. But the Colorado clarinetist's sound started with a more Manhattan muse: Clarabell the Clown, from Howdy-Doody.
"He played clarinet by ear," Payne explains. "He stuck the clarinet in his ear, and someone in the band played beautiful clarinet."
Clarabell's joke went over Payne's head as a pre-schooler; but the music spoke to his soul. And gave Payne his first life goal: to play his Dad's old clarinet.
It took a while. When his family moved from New York to Colorado, Payne's father asked the kids to sing folk songs in the car to counter their altitude sickness. Dexter's family sang the melodies. But he thought melody was kid's stuff.
"I kind of got bored with it," Payne says.
To amuse himself, he worked out the harmonies on a harmonica his grandmother had given him. Then, he noticed his ukulele's chord-master, a small box that created chords by compressing the uke's strings at the push of a button.
I could do that by hand, Dexter deduced. So, he did.
But all he wanted was that old clarinet. Until he got his hands on it, in third grade.
"Someone had sat on it," he guesses, "because it was crooked. To that, I attribute my desire to play the saxophone."
If you're noticing a pattern of Dexter Payne traveling from Point A to Point B along a more interesting, curved road, you may be right.
The saxophone-playing Payne was inducted a new Dixieland band by his school's athletic coach. The coach didn't know music, but he had access to "these little books" for his prodigies. Under his direction, Payne played his first gig, at age 11. The event: The Gates Rubber Company Ladies' Auxiliary Luncheon.
His next career step occurred during a performance of a Broadway musical in high school. The score was well-orchestrated. The band was well-rehearsed. But on show night, their well-prepared performance was upended.
"The singer forgot the lyrics and jumped ahead four verses," Payne recalls. "The (conductor's) baton fell on the stand."
Payne had his Aha! moment in the pause between that dropped baton and potential chaos. It was a bit of a Buddhist Be-Here-Now-meets-Broadway thing.
"Just in a flash, I knew where she (the singer) was," Payne says. "I started playing along where she was and the others joined in."
In that moment, Payne the performer was born.
He made it through a year of college, before a professor advised him to hit the road. He became a swing musician, a country-blues musician and part of the 1970s Boulder, Colorado music scene.
(On a side note, music and movie fans? 1970s Boulder sounds perfect for a period music movie, if anyone's interested. Rocky Mountain. World-class musicians. Elephant bell-bottom jeans? Just a thought.).
"The Boulder music scene in 1970 was just crazy. Steven Stills lived in Gold Hill," a one-road, former mining town above the city. "Within a year, I got a job in a local music store called The Music Store and learned to fix horns," Payne says.
He also met his musical and romantic partner, singer Judy Roderick.
His life was on track. Which means? It was time for another curve.
In 1974, a band Payne went on a "one-way tour" with a band that dissolved after a gig in Montana.
"I'll stay the winter," Payne thought. He stayed for 18 years.
Life in Montana was affordable and arts-friendly. He could be a musician without holding down a day job. And he was making money touring.
Payne and Roderick's western swing band, The Big Sky Mudflaps, played on The Today Show and A Prairie Home Companion.
The band was a mix of professional musicians and dedicated amateurs. That mix lent it a passionate energy, Payne believes.
"I was totally engaged," Payne says.
The Big Sky Mudflaps still exist today. "Once a Mudflap, always a Mudflap," Payne says. Although these days, he's an honorary member.
Payne returned to Boulder after a tragic life curve: Roderick had died from complications of diabetes in 1992.
He joined a touring trio with an old friend, Don (BBQ Bob) DeBacker on guitar and a drummer named Troubled Tom for three years. But the drummer's name wasn't the only troubled thing about that band.
"Things started going south, figuratively," Payne says. "And things kept coming up that made me think about heading south, literally. I was 39 years old before I ever left the country."
He joined a movie crew for a project in Mexico. When the movie didn't materialize, he kept moving.
His original plan was to leave the States for a few months.
"But two and half years later, I was halfway through the trip," Payne says.
Street musician. Musician on a live band for a local TV show...
The musical pieces were coming together.
Payne discovered The Brazilian musical form called chorinho while playing on the street in Brazil. The word translates as, "little lament," in English. The style, born in Rio de Janeiro, had parallels in New Orleans Jazz, he notes.
Chorinho was the southern hemisphere's version of Dixieland and bluegrass. And clarinet played a large role in it.
"Oh, yeh!" Payne remembers saying.
In chorinho, "the harmony is kind of implied on the melody," he explains. The music's mix of European harmonies and African rhythms appealed to him as well.
You can picture a winding river of sound connecting Payne's childhood harmonica harmony searches through his high school musical Aha!, western swing and jazz to his current interest in chorinho.
But to enjoy his new disc, all you have to do is listen.
All the tracks on Pra Vocé but one are traditional tunes, played by the Dexter Payne Quartet + 1. The CD's original track, "No Wolf at the Door", was co-written by Payne and the late Brazilian multi-instrumentalist and composer Gaudencio Thiago de Mello.
Watch Dexter Payne talking about the bad-ass nature of beauty in music here.
Listen to a cut from Pra Vocé here.