I very seldom stray from the fond memories of wine, but bear with me, as I am today. “Woulda, coulda, shoulda” is an expression that I heard bandied about in my youth and now as I am older and can reflect, the expression is much more meaningful and poignant. To my readers that follow my writings they know that I have a group of characters that I have given nom de plumes and I do this, to maintain their sense of anonymity. My old music teacher from my Junior High School passed away and he really touched a lot more lives than one can imagine. I saw references to some historic films like “Goodbye Mr. Chips” and “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and I can understand why those films were selected. I grew up in a middle-class area of Detroit and back then the city was still more “white” and segregated. I had experienced already at that youthful age teachers of assorted ethnic and racial backgrounds, but they were all part of a homogenous scene that was the norm. Then I and others in my school encountered the new music teacher and he wore turtlenecks instead of neckties and he had an “Afro.” He was also “cool” in a very sublime manner, it wasn’t an affectation. That was back when music was part of the curriculum of education and this teacher made students want to learn how to play an instrument. I learned how to play the alto saxophone and I guess I was decent enough, because I went from second chair, second alto sax to first chair, first alto sax and that was quite an accomplishment, because the saxophone was the instrument of choice for this teacher. Though I was totally amazed, because he could play every instrument in the band and if a student was having problems, he would actually take their instrument and play the movement for them to make them see how it should be done. We would have the classic vanilla type of school music to perform, but this teacher would sometimes dip into his own pocket and buy sheet music for the band of music that was “hot” or not considered appropriate. He would even have the assorted parts of the band stand to play certain movements, just like we were part of the big swing orchestras of the Forties and the Fifties. I can also remember vividly hearing him yell “B-flat saxophones” when I knew it was me that missed that note.
After I had left the Junior High, I would get messages eventually that he would like me to come and play with the band when I was in high school, and by that time I was playing tenor saxophone, but he needed a baritone sax, which I did not have, but he allowed me to play his when he needed that distinctive sound. It was because of this teacher that forced my Father to find a Selmer saxophone for me, and it was a basket case sitting in the attic of a former jazz musician that he knew, and we got it totally refurbished for much less than what a Selmer would cost new, and I was a cool dude. I never even had to do an audition for my High School band, because of my grades from this teacher, was recognized as more important than the audition. I am getting rather teary-eyed as I write this, as I realize that as time went on, I had lost touch, though I had heard that he was in charge of the entire music department for the city, by the time that he retired. After his retirement, he did not sit idle, he and a large group of also retired musicians created a big bad that would perform and just charge enough to cover the rental of the hall where the concert took place and the group was even named after him. When the alumni of the Junior High began having reunions, this teacher showed up with his saxophone, from the very first reunion which was rather impromptu at a bar, and he asked if he could sit in with the musicians that were playing at that bar. He also brought his saxophone to some of the other reunions and played with his former students, some unlike me, became either professional or semi-professional musicians and those were some nights to remember.
“Woulda, coulda, shoulda” is my lament with the fast-past world of today, I would find out about his performances with his big band at halls or even the famous Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the longest continuous jazz nightclub in the country. I was hoping to find one of my matchbooks from there, but as is the case, when you need it, it is not easy to find. Baker’s was host to such luminaries of music as Dave Brubeck, Gerry Mulligan, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Sarah Vaughn, Joe Williams, Maynard Ferguson, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, Nat “King” Cole, Rick Margitza and my teacher. It was also a “Would, coulda, shoulda,” moment for his funeral, as there was no viewing the night before the funeral, and the day of the funeral I had a prior commitment that I could not alter. I know that some of the alumni that he touched did attend, but I still feel sad that I wasn’t there, as I know that I would have heard through all of the eulogies, discussions and music “B-flat saxophones” and it would have been oh-so proper.