I often tell folks that I learned to love music and programming in a public middle school and I’ll be damned if anyone will deprive future generations of kids of similar experiences. This fuels my activities to the current day.
I grew up in Wayne, NJ, a suburb twenty-three miles west of New York City. I began playing the trumpet courtesy of free instrumental music lessons and “band” in the fourth grade. My middle school band director, Dick Lukas, was an acquired taste for many, but I loved him. He challenged us, introduced us to great music, and taught me to play tennis. I took private lessons with Lukas through high school despite him telling my parents to turn my trumpet into a lamp and to make me practice outside. Later on, he became one of my students after he added twenty thousand dollars worth of add-on boards to his Apple IIgs.
The “general music” teacher in junior high, Bob Simpson, introduced me to Tchaikovsky, Varese, and classical music history – including dressing as a monk and burning incense when covering Gregorian chant or turning the lights off as we listened to nuns meet their maker in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. He prepared lessons for subs that were complete classes prerecorded on reel-to-reel tape and his unsubsidized “Outdoor Club” was the first time I rode a horse or went hiking.
Back in the day when live music was ubiquitous, music teachers were – wait for it – musicians! Even mediocre musicians earned their way through college playing club dates. The guy who cut my hair as a kid was a local legend and made a fortune with his wedding band that was booked years in advance. No one was transcribing Joey Zisa‘s alto solos, but he was a headliner at The Manor, the Wayne Manor, and the Brownstone in nearby Paterson.
Being precocious and refusing my guidance counsellor’s advice to take Study Hall in 9th grade allowed me to complete four years of music theory in high school – a rare feet made nearly impossible by the institutional impulse to schedule kids to sit in a cafeteria and do nothing rather than learn something.
I was lucky enough to have two high school band directors who were working jazz musicians – one a gifted Dixieland trombonist and singer, the other a bebop saxophonist and former student of Lenny Tristano. Rocco Patierno and George Hicswa are responsible for my love of jazz. The first jazz concert I ever saw was at my high school, while I was still in eighth grade. It is also the first time I met a jazz musician, in this case Thad freakin Jones who was performing with my soon to be high school’s “stage band.” Rocco’s connection to Thad Jones and others ensured that while most high school bands were playing schlock, our big band played killer charts. While a freshman, our high school stage band won the state competition playing grown ass charts – Thad Jones’ Cherry Juice, Buddy Rich’s Channel One Suite, and the Body and Soul arrangement played by the Kenton band. I remember the ecstatic feeling of the audience screaming in shock during that band’s performance.
By eleventh grade, a combination of student support and teacher desire led my high school to create a daily curricular Jazz Improvisation class, taught by George Hicswa. Mondays and Tuesdays we listened to music and studied jazz theory. Wednesday thru Friday, we played bebop, with occasional forays into Jr. Walker or Pharoah Sanders. I remember being on the phone with friends Sunday nights plotting which records to bring in on Monday to study in Swa’s class. While it would surely get us canceled today for racial appropriation, we wore dashikis and what we called “bebop helmets” for concerts and competitions in which we performed Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, and Lee Morgan compositions when other schools wore white platform shoes, Hawaiian shirts, and played Sonny and Cher or Glen Miller tunes. We were like Sun Ra playing a wedding at The Manor.
I saw Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, and Clark Terry play at local high schools, when such touring bands, earned a living doing so. Roy freakin Haynes also played at my high school while I was a student!
As soon as I could drive, I began attending WIliam Paterson College’s Sunday Jazz Room concerts and snuck into my first Barry Harris masterclass there. Early in twelfth grade, I saw the Frank Strozier Quartet, featuring Harold Mabern (who later became a friend), perform in one of the Saturday concerts. It so blew my mind that I could not sleep that night or think about anything else during school on Monday. As soon as the school bell rang, I hopped into my chocolate brown 1974 Grand Torino Elite and drove to the William Paterson campus, parked illegally, and walked into the music building with my trumpet. To this day, I have no idea what I though I was going to do. I was just drawn to the music.
Literally, a minute or two after walking into the music building and sitting on my case in the corridor, the doors to the main rehearsal room flung open and a bear of a man, pointed to me and yelled, “Is that a trumpet? Get in here!” As I approached the man holding the door, he pointed to an empty music stand and said, “third!” I got out my horn and played the third trumpet book for the rest of the rehearsal. The conductor/professor was Chico Mendoza, host of WBGO’s wildly popular latin jazz radio show and MC of the Village Gate’s infamous Monday night Salsa Meets Jazz concerts.
At the end of an exhilarating rehearsal, I thanked Professor Mendoza for his hospitality at which point he barked, “You’ll be back next week, right?” “I’m not a student here, sir,” I replied. “I don’t care. I need another trumpet player!” So, there I was playing in the college latin jazz band before I was in college. Chico learned of my interest in arranging and paid me out of his own pocket to be the copyist for the charts he was writing, came to my house to give me private lessons, and hired me to play his annual gala concert at the state mental hospital where he was also the music therapy teacher (that’s a wild story for another day).
When the college band needed a tenor player, I recruited Mr. Hicswa, my high school jazz teacher, to join. (A year or two later, Dick Lukas, played in Chico’s band.) That experience in Chico’s WPC band went a long way towards my scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music the following year.
Gratitude + Necessity = Activism
The next spring, I came home from college for the summer only to read in the local newspaper that the music education programs that meant so much to my life were defunded by a vote of 9-0 by the Board of Education in the middle of the night.1 I swung into action, organized opposition to these cuts at a meeting just a few nights later, and got the vote reversed 0-9. School music in Wayne had been saved! (at least for now)2
Sensing the fragility of music funding, I formed a 501(c)(3) non-profit, The Friends of Music of Wayne, an advocacy group to ensure that school music programs would never again be imperiled. The organization engaged in traditional activities like sponsoring visiting artists and recitals, however our secret weapons were a week of school music concerts immediately before local residents voted for or against the school budget. We also sent elementary school kids to perform at senior citizen facilities prior to election day. Since I was 18-19 years-old at the time of the organization’s creation, the moms enlisted to the cause would never trust me with money or allow me to be President of the group I founded. So, I was Vice President through several regimes while doing most of the work.
After several years of successful advocacy and event sponsorship, the collection of moms tired of me badgering them to support jazz, the force that gave my school experience relevance and meaning. They handed me $300 with an implicit message of, “Don’t screw this up!”
You might be wondering what I could possibly do with such a tiny bit of money. Well, we organized Jazz in the Commons at my alma mater, where we put table cloths on the high school cafeteria tables, put a riser at one end of the room, and produced a jazz concert in an ersatz jazz club. The student jazz combo would perform first and then “real” musicians would headline the event. If memory serves, there may have been an earlier Jazz in the Commons featuring a band of William Paterson College musicians working for free. But I had $300!
The first Jazz in the Commons I produced was on a snowy weeknight. In what remains one of the proudest and most surreal moments in my life, I got to introduce the band.
On trumpet… from Mongo Santamaria and Billy Harper’s bands… Eddie Allen
On bass… from Wynton Marsalis’ band… Phil Bowler
On drums… from the bands of Freddie Hubbard, Jackie MacLean, George Coleman, and Benny Golson… Carl Allen
On piano… the pianist of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Woody Shaw, and Betty Carter… Mulgrew Miller
and on alto sax… currently performing with Miles Davis and formerly with the Jazz Messengers… Kenny Garrett
I guess I didn’t waste the $300.
The following year’s concert featured Eddie Allen, Dwayne Broadax, James Williams, Ira Coleman, and a young Vincent Herring. To the best of my knowledge, no photos exist.
A civilized nation, the richest country in history of history, can afford a cello and laptop for every single young person. This should not be so difficult.
- One of the Board members who voted to eliminate school music continued to take similar actions over the next thirty five years as a board member and school superintendent in school districts across the region.
- In addition to starting the Friends of Music, I attended several hundred school board meetings over the next decade and ran (unsuccessfully) for the Board a couple of times.
Veteran educator Gary Stager, Ph.D. is the author of Twenty Things to Do with a Computer – Forward 50, co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom, publisher at Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools thirty years ago and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Gary is also the curator of The Seymour Papert archives at DailyPapert.com. Learn more about Gary here.