When he was in grade school, Ron Helman thought playing the horn would be simple. The son of a saxophone player, whose two brothers are classically trained pianists, Helman grew up around music. He started on the piano at age 7 and continued to play through college; but it was the trumpet that intrigued him.
“I started picking up the horn in grade school,” said Helman, a professional flugelhorn player who lives with his wife, Diane Dorsey, in Los Olivos.
“I didn’t know what they were called but they only had three buttons and I thought it was going to be easy,” Helman said of his attraction to the trumpet when he was about 12. “It turned out to be very difficult.”
Because he had been playing classical piano for a few years at that point, Helman could read music.
“I learned how to play a little trumpet line,” he said. “This was just one note at a time. It was like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’”
Helman, 66, sat at a small table on the outside porch of the Corner House Cafe in Los Olivos. With a generous smile on his face, the physically fit musician gazed at the boutiques and wine-tasting shops across the street on a warm November day.
Helman moved to the Central Coast several months ago from Tesuque, New Mexico, just outside of Santa Fe, where he lived for 21 years. Although he was happy there, Helman said he and his wife were ready for a change.
They found a “cute little” cottage on the Internet with a Danish-style design. A few weeks later, they packed their belongings and drove west with their two cats, Blubie and Sunny.
“Although I really loved New Mexico, I said, ‘If we get this place let’s move to California,’” recalled Helman, who currently performs at The Bear and Star on Friday nights as a duo, either with a guitarist or a piano player.
How does a jazz musician get a paid gig at a Fess Parker family venue after living in Los Olivos for only a few months?
Simple: Helman asked.
“I walked right into Fess Parker and said, ‘I want to play here,’” he explained. “Amanda Parker got it. She said, ‘I hear you.’ I gave her ‘It Never Entered My Mind,’ my most recent CD. We had a meeting in the back on the lawn. She said, ‘I like what you do.’”
So she booked him for the Fess Parker Winery & Vineyard summer concert series. It was a sellout crowd. Soon, Helman was invited to play at The Bear and Star’s intimate Friday Night Jazz sessions in the fall.
Enjoying the music
Helman, who grew up during the 1950s and ’60s, credits his dad for instilling a strong work ethic.
“My father had a tremendous passion around music and playing the tenor sax,” Helman said, noting his dad delivered soda for a living. “He was a hardworking labor person during the day and had this sort of … more tired look. Then, at night, he’d shower and put on this suit and Mennen aftershave and he would hug us before going out.
“I remember he looked so happy and thinking his music was just pure joy,” Helman continued. “The contrast was so amazing.”
That contrast, of his father looking tired from selling Dr. Brown’s soda out of his truck during the day and then stepping out the door in the evening with his saxophone and self-esteem intact, made a big impression. Not only did Helman decide to become a musician, but he was determined to work hard at his craft.
“Even today,” Helman said, “when I have that reservation of making a cold-call or getting a gig, I think of my father and how he would show a tremendous amount of courage … because he had a family — he had mouths to feed.”
Helman attributes his ability to knock on doors and look for work to his upbringing.
“It’s that father thing,” he said. “‘I sell soda and potato chips, and I want a job!’”
Knowing the limitations
Helman’s parents believed the pathway to success was through college.
“If you want to play music,” Helman said, mimicking his father, “you become a music teacher and you play gigs after being a teacher in your day job.”
Not surprisingly, Helman attended college, where he studied music.
“I think my parents were absolutely spot-on,” he said, noting the distinction between a world-class musician, athlete, physician or any professional, and those who may be among the top 10 percent within their vocations.
“I’m not a natural at playing the trumpet,” Helman said. “I had to find my way in order to express the music.”
Today, Helman attributes much of his attraction to the trumpet to “Kind of Blue,” the seminal album by Miles Davis.
“When I heard Miles play with such spiritedness, and with fewer notes, it inspired me,” he said. “What Miles was able to do with his sound and how he phrased things was very palatable. Miles eliminated barriers.”
Helman faced his own barriers growing up, the son of a New Jersey “soda man” who moonlighted as a musician. In fact, Helman has had several careers of his own. In addition to being a professional musician, he spent two decades in New York teaching movement in the drama department at Juilliard. Later, he enjoyed a prolific career as a personal trainer, working with acclaimed actors and musicians, including Al Pacino and Sting. Helman helped both men get in shape, and he taught them how to use their bodies to better express themselves on stage. His background as a gymnast and modern dancer helped Helman land such clients.
“I was an acrobat and dancer and theater person,” Helman said, explaining his hiatus from playing music. “I stopped playing the horn for 20 years. It was when I moved to Santa Fe that I gave myself permission to play the horn again.”
Loving the work
Although he described himself as a “goody two-shoes” while growing up, Helman credits New Jersey with instilling a toughness and gritty determination to succeed, no matter what obstacles get in the way.
“There’s a Jersey thing of my generation that you just don’t take crap,” he said. “You fall down, you have to get back up.”
Helman returns to his father as an example of how to survive the hard knocks of life.
“He showed up — period,” Helman said. “He showed up and he brought food into the house. He showed up to love my mother, which he did. He just kind of got up in the morning … it didn’t matter how he felt.
“It’s like the Jersey guy thing,” Helman continued. “You show up … and you don’t give up.”
With three CDs to his credit, Helman’s determination to keep playing the horn professionally rings true.
“I loved jazz music so much that I was going to do what it took to play,” said Helman, noting he learned to play every nuance of the albums he listened to as a young man. “I could do every solo perfectly. Once you can do that, you have entered the realm of sounding ‘good.’ From there, you find your own voice and it gives you confidence.
“I don’t play that many notes, but what I can do is touch the human heart,” he continued. “I can touch the audience’s heart because I have found my own.”
Now that he and his wife have discovered Los Olivos, Helman said California is a natural fit for a “Jersey Shore kid.”
“The idea of moving from coast to coast was very appealing,” he said of their decision to move west. “The quaintness of the town, somehow … in a complicated world, this is a refuge for some peace.”