Cleveland High Jazz 1977

Cleveland Jazz 1977I’ve had the good fortune to today to reconnect with a long-lost friend through Facebook. It’s hard to describe my feelings; he and I were so close and shared so many memories. I’m sure I’ll write more as time goes on after we get a chance to meet up and talk. But, today, he was kind enough to send me this photo. It was 1977 and the Cleveland High Jazz Band had won first place in a jazz competition up in Kirksville MO at the University. (present day Truman Univ.) This photo is back in St. Louis, I think at SLU high. Honestly, that year, our senior year, we were like rock stars. We played out countless times the spring of that year; I’ve lost track of all the places we performed.

So, that’s the two of us in the bottom-right of the photo, both playing French Horns. French Horns you ask? What are two horns doing in a jazz band? Well, it was because my dear friend Don simply wanted to be in the Jazz band. I drooled with envy over the thought, but would have never had the nerve to do anything about it. Don simply asked the band director and then announced to me that he was in. “He” was in, not “we” were in. He was in because he asked. Well, back in those days I was painfully shy and rarely willing to ask for anything. But, now…well, there was no way my best friend was going without me. We were a team. I walked into the director’s office and…asked. The answer was yes.

For any of you band-score aficionados wondering where we got our charts for two horns in a jazz band, our brilliant band leader wrote them all out by hand. He loved the idea of being different. No other high-school jazz band at that competition had a horn, much less two of them.

It was, quite simply, the best times of my life. The camaraderie that we experienced as we traveled around St. Louis, setting up, performing, tearing down, getting out of class…it was indescribable.

One Cool Cat Checks Out

MF Horn1MF Horn2Maynard Ferguson died Thursday night at the age of 78 (Aug. 23, 2006). I’ve read several good obituaries tonight and I encourage anyone to read them. (Here’s a list.) I’m just going to tell you my story of Maynard and me.

The year was 1972; I was in 8th grade at Woodward Elementary and I had been playing trumpet for about one year. In those days it was predetermined that I would go off to Cleveland High School which was a mile up the road. That’s what my dad did, that’s what I would do. Well, during this era up at Cleveland there was a band director named Ed Levinski and he had developed a group of young trumpet players that were simply fantastic. (Many of them went on to become pros. Jim Manley, Frank Goessler, Steve Heitmann) Well, our family was friends with the Goessler’s and one night my dad said we’re going up to see a show at Cleveland. A trumpet player named Maynard Ferguson. Of course I’d never heard of him, but I was thrilled to be getting a look at the high school and I was planning on joining the band when I got there.

What a thrill that night was. The excitement on stage was overwhelming. I’d been open to many musical forms, but this kind of energy I assumed was the sole property of the rock bands. It was convincing. At the end of the show he invited all the boy wonder trumpet players up on stage with him. (Later I’d learn that they’d spent the whole day with him.) The song was Hey Jude and at the end of the song, both Maynard’s and the young trumpet players came out into the audience to improvise a very energetic, rock-style ending.

A year passed. I’m now in high school and sure enough Maynard is coming back. Let me tell you, I was excited. It turns out that he did this a lot. He traveled the country going to high schools, holding classes during the day and performing at night. It turns out that my story from the previous year could be told by countless others. Anyway, the day finally came as I sat waiting in the band room for the band’s arrival.

Then, he walked in.

Strutting and smiling and wearing a full-length multi-colored mink coat. That is one cool cat. This little south-sider had just met Hollywood and I thought it was just the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Right behind Maynard was his first trumpet player, likewise wearing a full-length mink coat. I thought to myself, “sure…I would too.”

There would be a total of four times I had the pleasure of seeing and meeting Maynard Ferguson thanks to his commitment to young musicians’ education. I would get to spend the day with him and his trumpet section three of those years. I would have the honor to perform for him while he sat and listened to our little band carefully and give us helpful criticism.

As one of the obits I read tonight said, people will talk about how he should be remembered for his high notes or his energy on stage or covering of the pop-rock hits…but what he really should be remembered for is how many thousands of young lives he touched. How many young musicians he was nice to up to the point where we actually felt as if we knew him personally. I know I’m not alone tonight in feeling like I’ve lost an old friend.

Paraphrasing his manager: “Move over Gabriel, the first trumpet player’s here.”

The pictures at the top are of two of my most cherished memories: two record albums I listened to over and over again.

Party Convergence

Tonight we went to the Fox Theatre to watch and hear Emily participate in a special production put on by the Fox Associates. This one was the second annual. The schools get together with a couple of big corporate sponsors and put on a big show which includes all the music programs from all the city schools. It was really, really good. Just the challenge of getting all these different groups on and off the different stages seemed awesome. And let me tell you, anyone who thinks you can’t bring religion into the public schools hasn’t been to many musical presentations. I’ve been to lots of them and many times, tonight included, there are sacred pieces presented and no one from the ACLU jumped out of hallways to stop it.

Many times at these events I choke back tears. Why? I’m not sure. I know that it reminds me of some very pleasant memories of childhood. From seventh grade on through high-school I performed in school bands. I loved every minute of it. One of the bands tonight play “Theme from Shaft.” In my day, everyone played that song and when I heard it tonight, well…it was great.

While reflecting on all of this tonight, I was reminded of a story. A couple of years ago, we were at a party somewhere, I think for my sister’s birthday. I got to talking to a guy and we soon realized there was some kind of strange convergence happening here. He was a high-school music director but had always wanted to be a Chef. I was a Chef who had always wanted to be a school music director. And, both his wife and mine owned their own secretarial service doing mostly medical transcription. Weird.

But as we talked more, he started telling me about the horrors of being a music director. The parents, the school board, the politics etc. He had learned to hate it and was taking an early retirement. What he’d wished he’d done was become a Chef! Ah, there’s a job he could enjoy.

Oh yeah? “Let me tell you about being a Chef,” I said. The long hours, the losers you work with all the time, the owners, the petty politics etc.

He said to me finally, “Yeah, but it is exciting, I’ll bet.” I answered, “Yes it is.”

I said to him, “But you know you’ve changed and enriched young people’s lives.” He said, “Yeah, I did.”