Sax Man

I started piano lessons when I was eight. They lasted for two years before my parents, exasperated over my unwillingness to practice, let me quit. I never thought much about playing music again until the spring of fifth grade, when band sign-ups began. I suddenly announced that I wanted to play, probably because some friend of mine had signed up. I had no idea what instrument, however, so when the tenor saxophone was suggested to me, I decided that would be fine. And on a June day 40 years ago, I showed up for my first lessons.

Because I’d taken piano, I knew how to read music, theoretically. And I must have liked to play, because I didn’t drop out at the end of the summer, as some kids did. Starting in the fall, I went to sixth-grade band practice a couple of times a week after school. It was fun, although I had trouble getting along with the director. She was an extremely young teacher—on her first job that fall, if I had to guess now—and she was a loose cannon. One day in rehearsal, she said something to me, or about me, that incensed my mother when I reported it at home. I don’t remember what she said (although I’d probably brought it on myself by smarting off), but Mom actually called her to complain.

My problems with directors would recur, but not for a while. In junior high, the band director was a local legend. Allan F. Barnard had directed the high-school bands in my father’s time, and he also directed the city band. He looked like Colonel Sanders, but he had presence, commanding any room he walked into. Although he was a kind and gentle man, he directed with a seriousness that made me want to please him. If I ever had the chance to be any good, it was going to be with him.

I was not very good, however. In addition to daily band practice, I took private lessons, but as before, I didn’t like to practice them. And the other guy who played tenor sax, my old friend Scott, was always better than me. I liked to kid him that I was second chair and he was next to last, but it bugged me a little, too.

Then I went to high school. There are people with whom we mesh and with whom we don’t, and the high-school band director and I did not get along at all. I thought he was the biggest phony I’d ever met. What looked to others like displays of artistic temperament looked to me like idiotic tantrums over nothing. Because I played for fun and was not driven to seek perfection, he considered me a fuckup, and a loudmouth, too. (On the latter, he was probably right.) We clashed repeatedly over matters musical and not, and in the spring of 1975 I announced I wasn’t coming back in the fall. I eventually regretted the decision to quit, inasmuch as I had lots of friends in the bands and I missed lots of experiences with them. But I had never had a worse relationship with any other teacher, and getting out was the only thing that made sense at the time. I touched my horn maybe twice after I gave it up, and my parents eventually sold it.

Over 35 years later, I do not miss playing music. Listening to music made by people who know what they’re doing is a far better thing than making subpar music myself. Fortunately, there are no recordings of my shitty solo saxophone versions of “Men of Harlech” or “American Patrol,” which I seem to remember playing that first summer. Instead, please enjoy this version of “Stairway to Heaven,” performed by a German quartet playing bass saxophones.

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