Here’s a photo taken of my grandfather, Bernie Flanders, on August 15, 1930. He was 17 years old, and he played clarinet and saxophone in this band. My grandfather is standing, fourth from the left. (Click on the photo for a larger image.)
My grandfather played a huge role in the person I became — particularly my love of jazz. Here’s more about that, excerpted from a larger piece I’m working on:
My grandparents have played a big part in my life. My grandfather was a saxophonist and clarinetist when he was younger. He played in a swing band with some guys from the GE plant where he worked. When I was growing up, my grandparents had one of those console stereos that was a piece of furniture. It looked like the bottom part of a hutch when it was closed up. It was painted white, and the speaker section along the front had a curtain covering it. To get to the controls, you opened the top of the console. Inside was a turntable and a receiver. My grandpa had a big collection of swing records â€“ including an entire series of records by Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra. These records were made in the 1950s, when Gray decided to create an archive of classic swing tunes by recreating the arrangements of the famous big bands.
I learned every note on every one of these records. Unlike most kids in the late 70â€™s, who were memorizing the lyrics to â€œDetroit Rock City,â€ I was learning the horn parts to â€œNightmareâ€ and â€œString of Pearlsâ€ and â€œTake The A Train.â€ I also developed a real passion for Nat â€œKingâ€ Cole that continues to this day. My grandfather new most of the soloists from the records â€“ particularly the sax and clarinet players. He and my grandma were also big Lawrence Welk fans, and they both knew the names of every musician and singer and dancer on the show.
My favorite album, and the one I learned the best, was Kenton In Hi-Fi. Kenton made this fantastic recording in 1956 for Capitol Records, and it features many of Stanâ€™s biggest hits â€“ â€œArtistry In Rhythm,â€ â€œEager Beaver,â€ â€œUnison Riff,â€ and â€œArtistry Jumps,â€ to name a few. It also features the very gutsy tenor saxophonist Vido Musso, a ridiculous trumpet section led by Pete Candoli and Maynard Ferguson, and the drumming of the incomparable Mel Lewis. This record swings its ass off from start to finish, and itâ€™s a huge piece of my musical upbringing.
I still love big band music, particularly when it gets cold. Iâ€™m not sure what the correlation is, but as the winter approaches, I pull out all my Ellington and Basie and drift back into the first half of the 20th century. I listen to swing music throughout the year, but the strong pull of nostalgia is only there in the winter.
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Going back to music for a minute: I had a very strange musical upbringing. I listened to Nat Cole and Stan Kenton at a time when most kids were listening to disco and Kiss. As I got older, I stayed on my own course. I got some hand-me-down 8-track tapes when I was maybe seven years old. I canâ€™t remember all of them, but my two favorites were a Kiss greatest hits collection (which I loved because Kiss was my cousin Toddâ€™s favorite band, and thus my favorite band, too) and a collection of performances by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops. I can only recall one song from that collection â€“ and orchestral version of Burt Bacharachâ€™s â€œDo You Know The Way To San Jose?â€ What kind of kid listens to big band, cheese rock, and the Boston Pops? Did no one in family own a radio?
One explanation for my early musical taste is that I spent so much time in the Hagyard Building with my grandparents, who didnâ€™t listen to the radio all that much. Itâ€™s odd that they didnâ€™t, because listening to the radio has been my grandfatherâ€™s main passtime for the past 15 years or so. I donâ€™t remember listening to the radio a lot with my parents, which again is odd because they both worked at a radio station. I think I really started listening to the radio after we moved to New York State. Or at least thatâ€™s when I remember riding in the car a lot with the radio on, catching up on some of the music Iâ€™d missed.
Not counting the Kiss 8-track, I didnâ€™t own my first rock record until I was in high school. I fell in with a crowd that was into prog rock. The first rock tape I remember owning was a copy of Signals by Rush, a Canadian rock band that my friend Jeff calls the â€œbest all-girl band of the 70â€™s.â€ Somewhere around my freshman year, this group of friends turned my on to Yes, Genesis, Rush, King Crimson, the Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Asia, Jethro Tull â€“ all your prog rock favorites. I still love those bands now, although my tastes have broadened considerably since high school.
The first record I ever spent my own money on was Chuck Mangioneâ€™s 1978 album An Evening Of Magic: Live At The Hollywood Bowl. I got the album on cassette (two cassettes, if I remember right) and wore the thing out. In addition to Chuck on flugelhorn and electric piano, the concert featured Chris Vadala on saxes and flutes, Grant Geissman on guitar, Charles Meeks on the bass, James Bradley, Jr. on the drums, and a full orchestra. Vadala tears it up on every track. This album set the stage for my approach to jazz for years to come.
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About the Kenton record: When I was first listening to it as a kid, it never occurred to me that I might one day talk to members of the band. And I donâ€™t mean that I never thought I could reach those heights. I mean it literally never occurred to me that the band existed in the real world, and that some people had jobs that allowed them to talk to musicians.
I probably heard that record for the first time when I was four or five, and I got to know it well a decade later in junior high. Fifteen years after that, I interviewed Maynard Ferguson, one of the trumpeters on Kenton In Hi-Fi, and a legend in his own right. I didnâ€™t ask him about that particular record, although we did talk about Kenton. He was a funny, approachable, articulate man, and he was very generous with his time as a guest on my radio show.
Before I ever thought about interviewing famous musicians, I thought about becoming one. As a young child, I took classical guitar lessons, but I was never very good and I didnâ€™t last long. Right before I went into 7th grade, my cousin-hero Todd sent me his clarinet, which heâ€™d traded in for an electric bass. I started playing clarinet in junior high, switched to saxophone in high school, and decided that being a professional musician was the life for me. As it turned out, though, I got much closer to the top level of performers as an interviewer than I ever did as a performer.
Iâ€™m not really sure when it was that I realized that musicians were actual human beings. Isnâ€™t that strange? When do we cross that line of perception and discover that recorded sound is produced by regular people? How do we do it? I donâ€™t think anyone ever told me that all those records were made by people just like me. I guess one day I just put together all the images Iâ€™d seen on TV with the records Iâ€™d been listening to and made the connection. All these years later, thereâ€™s still an element of magic and awe involved in talking with someone who was on a milestone recording.