It was the last day of school. We must have had band or orchestra practice that day, ‘cause after classes were out, I went to the band room to get my flute. That’s when Mr. Daniel (the band director) collared me, and hauled me into his office.
“Close the door,” he said.
Like any eighth grader, my first thought was, Oh mercy! What did I do? My second was I didn’t do it! Followed quickly with, maybe if it tell him I had to, ‘cause Johnny Crawford made me, he’d go easy on me.
But it wasn’t like that at all. He asked me if I thought I might be serious about music. I thought for a moment, and opined that I might be, but I didn’t know if I could make a living playing music. I had played my first “pay gig” that past Christmas, and knew that for two hours rehearsal with the organist, and another two with the choir, and two hours in the actual service, twenty five dollars wasn’t much.
“Well,” he said. “You are a flute player. There are about thirty orchestras in the world that pay enough to make a living. Each orchestra has two full-time flute players. That means in order to get a job playing flute you have to be one of the sixty best flute players in the world. You do not have the drive to excel. Here, take this school saxophone home for the summer, and here is a card for a man who gives lessons. You need to learn to double.”
You could have knocked me over with a feather, I was so surprised. But I did as he suggested. By the end of August, I knew that saxophone was the instrument for me. But I also knew that I was getting good enough on flute that it was beginning to be fun, instead of just work. So I continued with lessons on both. Mr. Watson was able to teach me a little flute, but at the same time as I realized I loved playing saxophone, I progressed to the point that he said he couldn’t teach me any more on flute. So he put me in touch with one of the Baltimore Symphony musicians, who gave private lessons. I studied flute with Bonnie Lake for the next four years. Henry Watson moved back to Maine the following spring, and I studied saxophone with Bob Spangler until I graduated from high school.
In my junior year in high school, I got together with a few friends, and we formed my first big band. We played “stocks” that we bought from Ted’s Music Store for fifty cents each, and Combo-Orks Books. The Combo-Orks books were arrangements (mostly by people like Johnny Warrington and Jack Mason) that could be played by any combination of instruments. Each book was actually three books in one; a C part, a B flat part, and an E Flat part. Each book had from eight to twelve songs in it, with ways to repeat the song for two or three choruses. They cost two dollars for each set of three books. Ronnie Jones and I were playing a few other jobs, and saved all our music pay to buy up as many of those books as we could. We also bought five stand fronts to use for the sax section. I remember the five fronts cost us a grand total of twenty five dollars.
That band played several dances in some of the local high schools, and a couple of Baltimore Harbor Cruise dances on the SS Port Welcome. When we graduated from high school, we all went our separate directions, and the band broke up.
I went into the Navy shortly after that, and spent four years as a Navy musician. It was while I was in the Navy, at the Navy School of Music in fact, that I had my first rude awakening. It seemed to me that nearly everyone there was a better musician than I, and played circles around me. That was truly humbling. I had gone into the Navy thinking I was pretty good, but by the time I got out of the School of Music, I knew I was only slightly better than mediocre on flute, and nowhere near that good on tenor sax. Three years with the Band of The Commander In Chief, Atlantic Fleet did very little to improve my sax playing, but I got pretty good on flute, and darned good on piccolo. I like to add humorously, that getting to be good on piccolo was despite my best intentions. After three years of stomping down the street, and performing on demand, often twice a day, and frequently seven days a week, I was “burned out”. Upon release from active duty, I packed up my instruments and didn’t touch them for six months.
But eventually, I got hungry, and took a job playing tenor sax, and a little bit of flute and clarinet for exotic dancers at Club Les Gals, in Baltimore. We played two shows a night and three shows on Saturday. Each show was two hours long. It was there that I learned how to blow all night long, with a sound as big as your back yard, without hurting myself.
Blaze Starr was a part-owner of Club Les Gals, and frequently came by for shows. She also did some dancing there on occasion. Whenever she danced, she bought the band a round of drinks between shows and remembered at least one passage played by each person, and complimented him on it. She didn’t have to do any of those things; she was just nice that way. I saw her about twenty five years later. She had a kiosk in Carrolltowne Mall, and was selling jewelry she had made. Of course, upon seeing her, I immediately knew who she was; she was a famous person. But I was surprised when she remembered me. That lady had class.
Fast forward to the present: I am still playing, often five or six nights a week. I hold the lead tenor sax chair with the Never Too Late Big Band, and the baritone sax chairs with Rich Rice’s Blues in the Night Orchestra, the Essex Powerhouse Band, and the Chesapeake Concert Band. I also am on substitute lists for Blue Moon Orchestra, Baltimore County Senior Swing Band and Toby’s Dinner Theater. During the community theater season, I play in the pit orchestras for Infinity Productions, Liberty Showcase Theater, Glyndon Area Players, Heritage Players, and many other community theater productions in and around Baltimore.
And I blame it all on Dick Daniel. Dick died in July 2011. There isn’t a week that goes by without my thinking of him. If he hadn’t said to me, “You need to learn to double,” my life would have been very different.