Photo by Michael Oletta.
(This originally appeared in the
San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission).
It’s July 15th, and it’s jazz pianist/guitarist and vocalist Ron Satterfield’s birthday. Satterfield is preparing for a performance with flutist and long-time collaborator Lori Bell and versatile percussionist Tommy Aros at the cozy lounge just off the lobby of the Handlery Hotel in Hotel Circle. He’s diligently setting up the PA system, adjusting mic levels, securing a confusing cross section of wires and other attachments. The room is filling up nicely prior to the performance while Satterfield concentrates on perfecting the sound system just so. Bell greets us and provides a gentle warning… “Ron is in his operating mode before a performance, getting everything ready. It’s generally, not the best time to try and talk to him.” We repair to the bar, watch as the room fills even more, eager for the performance.
Satterfield’s due diligence with set- up pays off, noticeable when the troupe ( also known as Trio de Janeiro) works their magic. The sound is warm, bright, and fills the room comfortably. Nothing overwhelms the music. On guitar, Satterfield has the instincts and phrasing of seasoned pianist, not a soloist as much as he creates a feeling for accompanying the others. His chord work is delicate, off center, teasing various accents and melodic texture, linking with the sure, deft, and insistent percussion of Aros. Over this percolating combination of rhythm and melody is Lori Bell’s flute work, a combination of virtuoso precision and heartfelt swing—swift, jumping lines ranging from low bluesy swoops to exhilarating escalations in the high registers. With this come Satterfield’s vocals, a seductive combination of pop, jazz and Latin styles, a warm vocal instrument versed in the split-second wit of scat, the vowel stretching wonder of up-tempo vocals. He has mastered his voice, gracefully applied over a variety of styles. Pop tune to torch song, salsa to samba, blues to bosa nova, Satterfield does it all—distinct, swinging, and classy.
Ron Satterfield had a high profile in the bustling San Diego jazz scene in the 1980s when there were many lounges and restaurants that booked jazz regularly, and an impressive roster of local jazz musicians to play the engagements. It was a time when Elario’s, Chuck’s Steak House, the Blue Parrott, the Crossroads, and Our Place were alive with musicians like Peter Sprague, Charles McPherson, Hollis Gentry, Joe Marillo, Kevyn Lettau, Mike Wofford, Jim Plank, Bob Magnuson, and many others, Satterfield not the least of them. It seemed one could find a place to hear live jazz every night of the week and, as often as not, find Satterfield performing in one of the many musical combinations, singing, playing keyboards or guitar, as a utility player, a musician that brightened the stage. During the period I had seen him a dozen times by my estimation and was usually impressed at what he brought to the night’s music. Satterfield was a significant player in an active and rowdy music community, the special ingredient on the bandstand with whomever he was performing, bringing verve, a sense of swing and sway that transform many nights out into concentrated moments of transcendence. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a needed man to have around.
Satterfield was (and still is) prolific across the board, involving himself in a dozens of different combinations of musicians in a far stretch of jazz and jazz-pop styles, torch song to blues, scat to samba, more poppish, radio friendly songs, to New Age. He had an ear for finding the center of a groove, the soul of a chord progression, and the harmonies they underscore and create a host of sprite, inventive takes on whatever he decided to take on. His Allmusic.com page reveals that he’s been featured on 28 album releases from 1986 through 2007 with a stellar string of musicians ranging from Dave Mackay, Lori Bell, Holly Hoffmann, Peter Sprague, and many others, and in four albums as half of the duo called Checkfield, a new age-Windham Hill-ish instrumental and vocal collaboration with John Archer. In his time, he was a busy man with large talents who, oddly, had all but disappeared from the local radar. As the 2000s commenced and the number of venues offering live jazz continued to recede, Satterfield disappeared from the scene as well. There was little jazz to be heard and virtually no Ron Satterfield among the few who could be seen playing live. So, what happened?
An old story—drugs and alcohol—the curse of too many creative men and women who come to suffer. Falling prey to addictive substances, Satterfield was, by his own admission, a mess, a man doomed to an alcoholic death, a man with nowhere to go and no idea of what to do. Satterfield’s is a story of hitting a vulgar bottom, but it it’s also one of how he found help from a source he’d didn’t expect. But first, he had to hit what the recovery community terms “a bottom,” that point at which one has a moment of clarity, that one is truly powerless over drugs and alcohol, a point where they can begin a road back to the mainstream. Back in his East Village apartment on muggy August afternoon, Ron relates a crucial instance with long-time music partner Lori Bell. His voice trembles at times in the recollection.
“My decline was obvious because of my behavior. I feel I’m representing. I want people to know about the Salvation Army and that it’s available. I was a functioning alcoholic for a long time; I kept my drug use at home. It was something for when I got back home after a gig, when it was head phones, and I would snort away, smoke away, drink away, what have you, be it cigarettes, grass, alcohol. It never went with me. Cocaine had become impossible to find.
“Then I met with methself esteem and everything was about perfection. What I didn’t realize until getting sober was how much emphasis there was for approval and justification. Lori picked up on my lack of self worth.
“Back in the day many jazz musicians in were in the habit of overcompensating, that thing of saying, ‘I’m the best, I’m better than you,’ nasty sarcasm that always comes around. I always gravitated more toward female performers because I always got more love; I was terrified of men. Lori is very loyal, supportive to a degree that’s frightening. Once the meth came in, that was the first was the first time I started bringing alcohol with me to the gigs. It was in the car. Poor Lori would have to sit in the passenger seat probably terrified that I was drinking and driving. I had a little wine container that I carried my wine in; I tried 7-Up cans that didn’t work, and I finally came up with a coffee canister to hide my alcohol in; it looks like you’re drinking coffee. Alcohol, though, is really ethyl alcohol and it burns your liver; the first thing the liver wants to do is get it the hell out. It comes out of your pores, your breath, your pee, whatever it takes to get that stuff out of your body. I was bringing alcohol to engagements and I was not eating. I have a video of me doing a concert at Dizzy’s when it was downtown. I was emaciated because I wasn’t eating. I started drinking vodka with orange juice to rationalize that I was getting sustenance. I looked like an Auschwitz victim. Lori’s husband was telling her to be prepared, saying, ‘I don’t think Ron is going to be around much longer.’”
There was a fiasco in Carlsbad that was an instance of clarity for Satterfield, but his transition to a sober and productive life had a few false starts, among them a couple of “geographic cures,” the illusory idea among those struggling with their addiction that if they move to another city or state, they’d leave their problems behind. To coin a phrase, “wherever you go, there you are.” Satterfield sought his late brother’s help, who showed up in San Diego in 2007 to take him to a Kentucky asylum where they thought he could get the help they needed. Soon after he was admitted he realized it was a mistake.
“Every week I would I see the counselor who was ‘treating’ me, so to speak, and it would essentially be them asking me how I was feeling. I would tell them and they would write it down in the record and then say that they thought they should keep me a while longer.”
Realizing this was more a racket than a treatment for his malaise, he found out that he was entitled to a phone call, a privilege he used to call his brother to come back to the asylum and sign him out. Afterward, there were false steps and stumbling attempts to change his direction, more geographic cures and wavering attempts at being a truck driver. But for all his efforts to change his behavior with new locations and new occupations, his addiction was still active, and relapse wasn’t infrequent. In 2011, returning to San Diego from his last location in a car he’d borrowed from the late jazz saxophonist and mentor Joe Marillo, Satterfield received a suggestion that was the beginning of his return to sobriety and music making.
“I came into the Salvation Army program in 2011 because I had reached the place all people in addiction face: choose life or choose the street. I did the typical geographic, which didn’t work out; I went to friends and that didn’t work After losing everything, everything the last person I had a relationship with said, ‘I cannot help you, but I have one recommendation and that is the Salvation Army. I can’t think of any other place you can go and rebuild your life.’ That information was passed on to Joe Marillo, God bless him; I was coming back from Arizona with a car he had loaned me where I tried to build a life. After my final DUI, I realized I might as well come back to San Diego and give Joe back his car. I had no plan, had no idea what would happen, but I could do at least one thing right, which was to give Joe back his car. It was in God’s hands from there.
“On the way down I stopped off in Alpine because I ran out of gas. I had friends there, and a girlfriend from a past relationship said, ‘I have no money to give you, I have nothing to give you, I don’t really want to see you, why don’t you try the Salvation Army?’ Her daughter took pity on me and gave me enough money for gas; she bought me breakfast, and then I made a phone call to Joe. I called Joe and told him, ‘I am here, I’m on my way.’ I told Joe that I had gotten one suggestion about the Salvation Army and that I had no idea what to do with that information. Joe told me to make my way down to San Diego while he made some calls. God bless him, he made some calls. When I got to Joe’s, he said ‘Ron, I have some good news—I contacted a man named Steve Self at the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center. He said he doesn’t know what condition you’re in and you can’t go into the program unless you’re sober, so why don’t you crash here for a couple of days and sober yourself up and then we’ll take you down.’ That was April 21st of 2011, and that’s my sobriety date.
“I wasn’t as bad as I could have been, but I was beaten. But, Joe drove me down here. It turned out that we were so excited about the possibility of this that we got there almost two hours early before they even opened the doors. We had to go get some coffee and stand around and then, all of a sudden, the place starts to come alive and there were people flying up the hallways, down the stairs, and on and on and Joe’s saying, ‘Wow! These people are energetic!’ When I met with Steve Self, Joe took off, and the rest is history.
“I had no idea that this even existed. All this time help was available and I had no idea. Like everybody else I thought the Salvation Army was a place for homeless people, and they ha thrift stores, and they come out at Christmas with the Santa Clause suits, ring the bell, and ask for donations. This is a full-fledged six-month program. It has counseling, it has AA meetings, sponsorship, it has relapse prevention classes; the list of services is so wide, it goes on and on, and it was exactly what I needed. When you’re as far gone as I was, as much as you would like to go to family and friends for help, they cannot possibly understand your behavior and desperation, so coming to a professional environment with people who have the experience… what I got here was love and support, which I desperately needed.
“I was so filled with guilt and shame. This place is about life and rebuilding; they give you tools. I came here from the standpoint of desperation; it was a simple choice, the street or a program. It was exciting to realize that this was available. And this is free. They will feed you, they will clothe you. You need to have an open mind coming in here. Sometimes you have to go on a waiting list because there’s room for 100 people, but I lucked out.”
His two-year residence at the Salvation Army gave Satterfield the structure and order that he lacked during his seemingly endless battle with drugs and alcohol. Admitting that he was out of answers and weary of what awaited him if he didn’t try something different, he gave himself over to the program the recovery unit, making use of their many services of counseling, classes in relapse prevention, work therapy duties, 12-Step meetings, and, most tellingly, becoming part of the Center’s worship team. Spirituality and a reliance on God (or a Higher Power, as many 12-steppers prefer to say) is strongly emphasized in this path of recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, an element many new to recovery struggle with. Ron, however, had no qualms turning his life over to a power greater than himself. His struggle was something else.
“I never had a problem with the Lord; I never had a problem with religion. I’ve had a problem with organized religion, evangelists seeking financial contributions so they could have Lear jets, but I was brought up Presbyterian so I was pretty wide open. Religion for me was a personal experience. What I did have a problem with when I came into the program was that we were required to sing. It is devotion at seven in the morning, and then devotion later in the day. On Sundays and Wednesdays, they have other programs going on. It’s all about the Lord. The primary function is God and it’s very open; it’s not in your face, it’s to put you in touch with your higher power, your ‘wise advocate,’ however you want to address your Higher Power. What got strange for me was singing. My first experience was singing about God, and Jesus was kind of strange for me. I was so shut down that I didn’t want to sing. After a while, I would sneak down to the chapel, even though my hands were still shaking, and play the piano a little bit. I had to play the piano. Of course, somebody heard me and they realized that ‘this guy is a little more accomplished than our average rock band guy.’”
As a once-thriving jazz musician, Satterfield had reservations about playing music that praised and beseeched God exclusively, but in short order he was game enough to get beyond his prejudices and investigate the songbook used for the religious services. This was the beginning of his return.
“The resident manager at the time led the worship team and he was also a musician. He had a time of it. He was trying to work with me and I was so shut down. As time went on, I became more comfortable with the environment. We used to sit and talk over coffee and he asked me what I thought of worship music. At the time I was very opinionated, coming from a jazz background, and I said, ‘Well this ain’t Miles Davis, it’s not Bill Evans, what is this?’ And he asked what background I had, and I said ‘folk.’ And he said, ‘That’s perfect, that is where this all came from.’ The original worship music was people sitting around with guitars, singing about God, and now it’s grown into a contemporary thing. It’s amazing. All he had to say was folk music and that opened the door. I got beyond my reservations about the requirements of the program and started listening.
“That was when my musicianship and experience kicked in and I realized ‘oh my’ from a melodic and harmonic stand point that this is very well-crafted. I stopped listening to the lyrics and just listened to the music. I went to the piano and started playing the songs and got a completely different perspective on this. As fate would have it, the resident manager and music director got a new assignment, and he came to me. I was drafted; he asked me how I would feel about taking his place? I told him I was not up to that kind of responsibility, but I thought about it and wound up saying okay, but under one condition: if you let me get together with Major Dina Graciani and work with her one on one. She is now the head of San Diego Salvation Army, but at the time her husband, Major Henry Graciani, was. She is one of the most gifted singers I’ve ever worked with, a pure soprano. But there was one problem. My predecessor arranged all the songs in the key he was comfortable in, and Major Dina was singing in a key she wasn’t comfortable with. I thought this was unacceptable and told her we needed to change the book so she could sing in the keys that are natural for her range. She asked if we could do that. And I said yes, we could. Singing harmony became easier for me, I created the book with her. We started writing arrangements. Everything changed.”
Satterfield became more involved with the Salvation Army’s program, working full-time at one of their stores in San Diego County as cashier, receiver, and general retail duties, as well as organizing and directing the facility’s musical program for the weekly worship service. He reorganized the ‘The Book,’ the body of songs used for the services, giving them new arrangements, which allowed, as he explains, to do wonderful collaborations with Major Dina. He became close to both Majors Dina and Henry Graciani, a couple he came to trust for direction, advice, and wise counseling. He was becoming increasingly comfortable with his natural skill set as a musician once again, but there was a personality conflict he had with one of the workers at the store he worked in. The friction didn’t sit well with him, although, unknown to him, that would soon change.
“I was still working at the retail store, but I was having difficulty with the main person, the person who runs all the things in the store. I’d been talking to Major Henry about the experience. He said, ‘You’re going to be even stronger. Give it time.’ Lori [Bell] brought me in for a performance, my first live outing. She thought it might be fun to get together with [pianist] Dave MacKay, because he was getting older and it would terrific to play with him again. She was doing the Fourth Friday series at the La Jolla Community Center, so she booked the engagement. I invited Major Dina and Major Henry, telling Lori that I would like them to see the performance. I didn’t think they’d say yes, because what we’d been performing isn’t worship music, but they surprised me and said they would love to be at the performance. So they came down and were in the audience. Major Dina came back afterward and said, ‘I had no idea. How do you do that? I only know you from the worship music, but this… this is who you are.’ A little later Major Henry takes me aside. The show was over; everyone was milling around and he and I walked down a hallway. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘You have a gift. This is what you’re meant to do. I want you to do something for me. I want you to take a risk. I want you to leave the store you’re working in. Go back to your roots. I think you’re ready.’”
Fortune smiled on Satterfield, it turns out. Shortly after quitting his job at the Salvation Army store to focus on returning to being a working musician, he began receiving royalty checks. Unknown to him, his partner John Archer from the Checkfield days had converted their albums to “library format,” a digital conversion that allows for easier distribution of material. “The music is still out there,” he said, noting that there was a Japanese company that had a television show, which discovered Checkfield’s music. “They used the music, like 20 seconds here, a minute there, a two-minute dub on something else, and they paid. I started to receive quarterly royalties at about the same time I quit the store unconditionally. That went on for two years! That was extraordinary.” With the aid of Major Henry, Satterfield shored up his financial resources, continued his weekly duties directing the music for the Sunday worship services and ventured out into the world around him again, collaborating with the ever-creative and inspiring Lori Bell.
In fruitful collaboration with Bell, Satterfield hardly seems the shot-out shell of a man he described himself as, but is rather the picture of a confident, buoyant performer, a person with rhythm and wit and a contagious enthusiasm for the jazz music he performs. A look at the scheduled appearances with Lori on her website [loribellflute.com] shows many dates, already played and forthcoming, which highlights a musician intimate again with his muse and finds himself once more in the mainstream of life.
The jazz audience in town should do itself a favor to seek out Satterfield’s work with Bell around San Diego. Evidenced by the many live performance videos that have been posted on YouTube, one may well, in a live performance, behold enthralling arrangements of James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” or Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want,” two songs that are part of Trio de Janeiro’s set list. Syncopated, highlighting sterling solos, and a harmonies that offer a suggestion of just the right amount of complexity, Aros furnishes engrossing percussive accents. Bell carries the melody, leans in for sweet fills and short comments, and riffing echoes of Satterfield’s vocal lines, proffering a glorious bit of spontaneous composition with a solo or two, all of which underscores, showcases, and provides a frame work for Satterfield’s swinging vocals. One hears bits of influences in his style—strains of James Taylor, Kenny Loggings, Mel Tormé, and others, Satterfield has absorbed his influences, made them his own, and created his own, natural, swinging expression. His voice has a warm texture, malleable in the way it can be clear and precise in diction and then slide up and down the scale. The notes the chord progressions provide, animating the lyrics of bliss, yearning, and loneliness, with deftly applied emphasis on unexpected syllables, the percussive impact of consonants, and the soft, suggestive urgings of vowels. He finds the music tone in the sound of the words; he sings them to cohere with the pace and texture of the performance. More than a singer, Satterfield’s voice, on occasion, acquires a rare distinction: the transcendent quality of becoming a lead instrument.
I also suggest that jazz aficionados stay current with the local music calendars and seize the chance to attend a concert if they come across a listing featuring both Bell and Satterfield. Available also on YouTube are Bell and Satterfield in collaboration with pianist Dave Mackay and, elsewhere, with keyboardist Mike Garson. There is a stirring, Latin informed version of “Motherless Child” that highlights the rich, succinct lyricism of Mackay’s piano work, the left-handed chord work, and the hand accents and chord modulations performing miracles under the efforts of Bell. His solo, of course, is a wonderful combination of verve restraint. Also on YouTube is a wonderful reading of “Stella by Starlight,” highlighting pianist Mike Garson, formerly with David Bowie and Stanley Clark, along with Bell and Satterfield. It’s one of those renditions of a classic that makes it seem that one is not so much watching a musical performance as much as taking a journey. Here, Garson glides and persuasively guides the rhythm along, while Bell negotiates an obstacle course of rhythm and chords, segueing to a wonderful bit by Satterfield. He first offers a short guitar solo and then begins to sing, rhythmically matching his piano—suggestive guitar words to the flow of clipped language, creating harmonies one didn’t expect to emerge from a man with just a voice and guitar. And Garson, a musician for whom both impressive classical and jazz techniques are second nature, reveals a light touch on the keys, precise but not pristine on the fast runs, clean yet emotionally fulfilling.
What occurs to this writer is that at five years clean and sober, Ron Satterfield has found that the road he’s travelling is narrower than when he first began his journey into recovery. What may have seemed like a profession he couldn’t return to for fear of relapse and degradation worse than that he’d experienced previously is now an exciting and rewarding chance to recover his musical gifts and bring his art to the audiences of San Diego and, perhaps, the world beyond our zip code and time zone. Witnessing Satterfield live, it seems that one can only agree with what Major Henry told him: that he was ready to return to live performance, a day at a time, and a gig at a time. Ron Satterfield is a gifted and humble man, grateful to the good people at the Salvation Army and in the broader recovery community in helping him find his footing, find his sanity, find his voice again, a voice he brings to the audiences of San Diego. The gift he has recovered becomes his gift to all of us.