An Alto Saxophone: How It Consumed Ten Years of My Life
It is possible to love music and at the same time be a total incompetent when it came to performing it. It all started with voice after I joined the choir at Saint Henry School. I did not know, but soon found out that I sounded like a crow when singing the great Latin hymns of the Catholic liturgy. At least, it kept me from becoming an altar boy and having to wake up at 5:00 am to help officiate at the 6:00 am Mass, and memorize a ton of Latin in the process.
Both of my parents wished that their parents had let them play musical instruments. So they asked me what I would like to play. I quickly answered that I wanted a trombone. Mom and Dad took me to a music store at Prospect and Ontario in downtown Cleveland. The salesman agreed with my them that I did not have the right teeth for either a trombone or a trumpet, but that an alto saxophone was “very nice.”
Well, “very nice” translated into a whole new set of responsibilities, such as joining the band in high school and practicing for 30-60 minutes every day. All four years in high school, I played the sax in concerts and marched in formation during halftime at Chanel High’s games football games. It’s kind of hard to march in formations when there are only twenty or so members of the band, but we were game.
The only problem was that I didn’t much like playing the sax. There is something mucky about what happens to your saliva as it accumulates on the underside of a reed. Plus, I was pre-asthmatic, which probably should have disqualified me from any wind instruments. My parents, however, were determined to recover their $100+ dollar investment in the instrument by forcing me to play against my will.
Although I took my sax to college and even joined the Dartmouth College band, I saw that I was in with a group that was so much advanced over me in musical ability that I was only too happy to retire the sax and forego any further practice after only a couple of sessions. (Yay!)
This particular Hungarian has a warm place in his heart for the Highlands of Scotland. I have visited them several times beginning in 1976. In recent years, it has, like many things, become too expensive.
Another person who felt the same way was Francesco Barsanti (1690-1775), an Italian composer, flautist, and oboist who fell in love with the Highlands and lived most of his life in Britain.
Today, as I was returning home from the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax, I was listening to KUSC-FM and heard a piece called “Lochaber” by Barsanti, as played by a San Francisco-based group called Voices of Music, which calls itself America’s premier early music ensemble. I was enchanted and was delighted to catch the entire piece. Here it is, as performed by the Voices of Music:
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. During my drives around the city, I keep my car radio tuned to KUSC-FM at 91.5, where the music is all classical all the time. If you would like to sample their programming, I recommend you go to their website and listen to their programming, which you can do from anyplace on earth. They have an international audience and have introduced me over the years to many of my favorite pieces.
I Thought It Would Be a Neat Idea, But What Did I Know?
One of the problems of being the firstborn son of poor parents is that you are elected to fulfill their unfulfilled wishes for their own lives. When I was nine years old, they decided that I should play a musical instrument. That sounded fine to me; it’s just that I didn’t realize the extent to which the hook was baited.
For some reason, I wanted to play a trombone. At the music store, my mother and father got the salesman to point out that my teeth weren’t right for playing the trombone. They both suggested I play the saxophone instead. I didn’t even know what a saxophone was. So I foolishly said, okay. Before I could say “Help: Get me out of here!” I had a music teacher downtown who would teach me the ways of the alto saxophone.
What follows resembles an episode of Leave It to Beaver. Each Saturday morning, I had to take the 56A bus downtown to Prospect and Ontario, from where I trudged with my instrument case to East 3rd Street where Mr. Jack Upson tried to make a musician out of me. The lessons were okay, I suppose, but the daily practice sessions were, quite simply, horrible. When I wanted to go outside to play, I was sternly reminded that I had roped my family into buying me a saxophone, which they couldn’t afford; and I had damned well sit down for an hour and practice. My mom’s favorite song was “Londonderry Air,” which she knew as “Danny Boy.” Just to make things totally untenable, my little brother Dan would show up for the song and grin while I tootled away while staring daggers at him.
At Chanel High School, I joined the Firebirds marching band. Just imagine what it was like to take the field at halftime and do formations with only twenty-odd instruments. All anyone in the stands ever heard was the booming of the drums.
This nonsense continued until I went away to college. Although I showed up for several Dartmouth band practices, I immediately saw that I was among people who knew how to play their instruments and who loved performing. I quietly left the band before the first football game and never picked up my saxophone again. After all, in Hanover, New Hampshire, there was no one to make me practice—and several classmates who would have tarred and feathered me if I had.
Where is the real artistic genius of America to be found? Sad to say, it’s not literature. It’s not painting or sculpture. Near as I can say, what the United States will be most remembered for is music—not only jazz, blues, soul, bluegrass, rockabilly, zydeco, gospel, country & western, but much of rock & roll as well. Names like Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, John Coltrane, and a host of others will answer the question: What has America produced that will stand the test of time?
As a self-proclaimed intellectual, I am aware that such a title cuts no mustard in the U S of A. Far from it. It’s almost a term of opprobrium.
Mississippi John Hurt (1892-1966)—A Favorite of Mine
Curiously, in such a racist country as ours, it’s the only place that comfortably cuts through the racial divide.Black artists copied from the whites, though not nearly as much as white artists copied from African-Americans.
Of course, there is no Nobel Prize for music. It registers in the heart—and, typically American, at the Box Office.