A TENOR SAX STORY
Life's not random...we’re all connected
Borrowing a Horn:
One day in the late 1970’s, I was telling Artie Kaplan, an old friend and top New York City music contractor, that I didn’t own a tenor saxophone anymore, and that I could really use one now for gigs. Although I could easily afford to buy my own horn at the time, Artie told me he had two tenors and didn’t need both, so I could borrow one. And ‘borrow’ I did! For about the next ten years I made good use of that horn, playing in Big Bands at the Copacabana and the Red Parrot, subbing in the Broadway hit show “Grease”, co-leading a jazz group with drummer Elliot Zigmund, touring in 1982 in Japan and Europe with Simon and Garfunkel, teaching saxophone and various ensembles at Berklee College of Music, plus doing a number of jazz and GB (general business) gigs around Boston. Then one day, I received a post card from Artie saying it was time for me to return his horn! This was a bit shocking, because I had gotten so used to playing and taking care of this horn - as if it were my own.
Bill Shiner, my sax teacher from the Bronx
About this time, I got a letter from Bill Shiner, my old sax teacher from the Bronx, who taught Stan Getz. I studied with Bill when I was 14. One of Bill’s sax students had seen an article I had written on "Creative Jazz Improvisation" in the Saxophone Journal (1988-89) and showed it to Bill. Bill had written to me to say hello and let me know how much he enjoyed the article. I think he was proud of me! I called him up to reconnect. During our conversation, he told me he was selling a Selmer Mark VI Tenor Saxophone in ‘about new’ condition, at a very low price. He had only played the horn a little bit over the years because he owned another tenor which he used most of the time. He invited me to come to his house in Upstate New York and try out the horn. This was all very well and good except, I couldn’t afford a horn at the time! I owned my alto, and that was it.
One afternoon, during my lunch break at Berklee, I took a walk instead of eating. I was feeling sorry for myself and was nearly in tears. Although I appreciated having my teaching job at the college, I simply wasn’t earning enough, and was tired of just getting by. Returning to my office space, which I shared with a number of other teachers, I was barely there, when a phone call came for me. That was odd! I never got phone calls at the office. After my “Hello”, I heard, “Hi Fred, it’s Harry.” It was Harry Himles, a close drummer friend of mine from Berklee (1961-62). Getting right to the point, he told me that he was finally paying me back the money he owed me and I would be receiving a money order the next morning... As he’s telling me this, I’m wondering ‘what’ he owes me money for, and ‘how much’ he’s sending! Before I could embarrass myself by asking him what this was all about, he reminded me that almost twenty years before, when I was in BS&T, he called me, asking if I could send him money to pay for a leg operation that his young son needed. The medical bills were too much for him to handle and he had no one else to turn to for help. I sent him the amount he needed. On the phone, he was feeling bad for not paying me back after all these years. I quickly told him to let go of the guilt because I didn’t ever remember giving him the money as a ‘loan’. He was my close friend and I never expected the money back. I had plenty of money in those BS&T days so it was no big concern to me. The next morning, I received the money order. It was a little more than the amount needed to buy the tenor sax from Bill! What a gift this was. It came not only at the time I needed it, but when I could really appreciate it the most! ‘All in God’s sweet time’!
Preparing for New York:
Soon after getting the money from Harry, I called to make arrangements to return Artie’s horn in New York City and then visit Bill upstate, to check out the horn he had for sale. I was hoping I would really love the tenor Bill was selling so I wouldn’t have to go through the headache of trying out and comparing tenor saxophones at different music stores in Manhattan. My close friend, Mike Paccione lived upstate New York, not that far from Bill. I called him to see if I could stay at his house during my little ‘returning and buying’ adventure. He said yes, looking forward to seeing me. Last but not least, I wanted to return Artie’s horn in good shape. So I called my repairman, Emilo Lyons, and made an appointment to have him check over and touch up the horn in the morning, before leaving for New York. My plans were now set.
In those days, I wasn’t teaching sax at Berklee and didn’t have my own private office where I could practice my horn. But I had become friendly with Greg Badolato, one of the sax teachers, who let me use his office when he wasn’t there. The night before driving down to New York City, I practiced the tenor in Greg’s office and decided to leave the horn there overnight. I figured I’d make it easy on myself by simply picking up the horn in the morning rather than taking it home with me. The next morning, when I opened the door to Greg’s office, I found the room empty - no piano, no bookshelves and no tenor saxophone! I couldn’t believe it. Of all the days to lose Artie’s horn, it happened on the very day I planned to return it! I reported the loss to Security at Berklee, which, in those days, was very ‘insecure’. Getting more and more crazed by the second, I went upstairs to the Dean of Faculty, who I knew. He ended up being no help either. I remember having a lot of negative, angry thoughts and feelings whirling around my head. I wondered what had happened to the 'goodness' in people, that someone had to steal another's property! This mental turmoil and almost 'out of control' feeling that I couldn't rid myself of went on for about fifteen terrible minutes.
I went downstairs to the Faculty Lounge to call Emilo (the sax repairman) and inform him that I wouldn’t be coming over to have him check the horn, because of what had just happened... As I got to the phone, I noticed that, sitting there, very calmly, next to another teacher, was Greg Badolato! Half defeated, I blurted out to him that the tenor had been stolen. Greg immediately stopped me, saying, “No it hasn’t. The painters moved it into Matt’s office.” No one had alerted me to the fact that Greg’s room was going to be painted that day! Obviously, I was greatly relieved. I also realized that a small miracle had just occurred - Greg ‘happened’ to be there and was able to fill me in about the missing horn. If he hadn't been there, I'm sure I would have had a very trying weekend with myself! I got the horn out of Matt’s office, had Emilo check it over, and headed south to New York.
In New York:
I returned the tenor to Artie, spent some time with him and thanked him for his tremendous generosity. The next day, I visited Bill and, for the first time ever, I met his wife. Bill took me into his music room. Just as I was about to try out the tenor for sale, he said, “Let’s hear what you got to say!” Now, that could be somewhat intimidating, coming from your ex-teacher, who’s a really good player. But I didn’t let it bother me, since I had heard him say that to me and other students before, when studying with him. I played the horn for a little while. It felt good. It had a nice big sound. Then, I remembered that I had brought my Sony Walkman with me. I took the opportunity to ask Bill if I could record him on tenor playing "Slow Boat to China" and "Stardust". I wanted a memory of his playing, especially his ‘sound’. I didn’t know whether he had ever done any recordings in his life. At first, he was pretty reluctant, but he did it for me. He played the melody of each tune and improvised a little... Listening to him that afternoon, with all the Gold Records I won with BS&T and jazz playing experiences, etc; I have to admit, I almost got jealous! And, I don’t get jealous. But here he was, about seventy years old, sounding as wonderful to me as when I heard him as a teenager, studying with him in the Bronx. After playing and talking some music, we went into the kitchen for lunch. His wife came in and said, “Bill, make him a sandwich.” I thought this was pretty funny, because, in the past, my whole relationship with him was taking lessons, not having him serve me food! His wife asked, “So, how does he sound?” Bill: “He’s got some problems” (meaning, he didn’t really love the sound (tone) I was getting). I respected his opinion very much so his comment didn’t bother me that much. Plus, at the time, I wasn't playing a lot of tenor saxophone. Bill told me to take the tenor and try it out for a few days. I did just that. I really liked it and decided to buy it. When I returned to Bill’s place a few days later, he brought me over to the house of a student he wanted me to meet. It was the man who originally showed Bill my "Creative Jazz Improvisation" article in the Saxophone Journal. I thanked him for helping connect Bill and me once more. I paid my old teacher for the horn, and returned to Boston with a tenor of my own!
So, a number of things came full circle. The two tenors (borrowed and for sale) brought into play the 'give and take' of life, connecting friends via a series of ‘not so random’ events.