It takes brass

One of the great advantages of old age (if not the only one) is being able to pass judgment on younger generations anywhere, anytime, anyhow.

Of course to be fair, there’s one great flaw in our observations?- namely we’ve no idea if they’re correct. The reason we’ve no idea is best summed up by the Mountaineers Old Boys’ motto: “The older we get, the better we were.”

Still, I think my generalization that more youths of my generation played musical instruments than the youth of today is valid.

Why is that? Well, for one thing, back then the sound technology was primitive. Reel-to-reel tape recorders, the marvels of our day, were about as big and heavy as anvils, but had sound no better than an MP3 player.

Also, traditionally the only way people could hear music was if others made it for them. Just for perspective: My father was 22 before the first radio station broadcast in New York City, and a phonograph and records were expensive, so where did most music have to come from?

And beyond that, playing a musical instrument was something we thought we had to do (or at least had to try). It was like joining Brownies or Cub Scouts or Girl or Boy Scouts.

I think the high school band of my day was bigger than today’s. Plus we had a school orchestra, so overall more students played music officially. This doesn’t include all the kids banging away on git-fiddles in rock bands or folk groups.

But as with darn near everything, bigger has nothing to do with better: Our high school bands of the last couple of decades are far better overall than the bands of my day. And while I’ve no doubt our joining out of a sense of obligation has something to do with that, the addition of a jazz band and a more modern, lively musical selection has definitely ramped up the quality and spirit of performance.

The choice that never was

That I’d join the band was never in question. But what was in question was what instrument I’d play. It wasn’t like I had an unlimited choice. It seemed trumpets were reserved for the studs; drums belonged to the hoods. No 100 percent American boy would play a flute, let alone even consider playing a piccolo.

Woodwinds? Clarinets were a no-go – pretty much a wooden flute to me. Oboes were clarinets with a weird reed. Saxophones were cool, but they seemed too complicated. That left assorted brass. A synonym for tuba would’ve been “hernia.” Baritone and French horns, being upright and all, were just odd. Which is how I ended up playing the trombone.

In reality, I probably got the trombone only because it was assigned to me. At this point, I’ve no idea how or why I got it -?or if there even was a how or why. But got it, I did. And there I was, following in the footsteps of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Jack Teagarden except for one big difference: I was a total floperoo of a musician.

At the time I probably would’ve blamed my atrocious playing on John Philip Sousa for having written all those crappy marches we played, almost endlessly. But now I’d say there were two simpler reasons for my non-musicality. One, I had no talent. And two, I didn’t practice.

I sat in third chair, only because there was no such thing as 50th or 100th chair. Next to me in second chair was my pal Harry Stewart. I’ve no idea who was on first chair, because I couldn’t see that far.

The old cliche says it’s lonely at the top, but that’s not true for bands, since the first chairs get all the solos and applause, as well they should. Third chair is to bands what the Maldives is to nations: Some people may have heard of it, but no one knows what the hell it is.

Ever the fatalist, I accepted my lot in the band with a stoical grace, knowing some folks are meant to be brides, others to be bridesmaids, and still other to clean up after the reception.

A dubious highlight

My trombone career did have one highlight, however, when I played seven nights to a packed house.

That house was our old summer theater, held in the Odd Fellows Hall (now on the site of the Hotel Saranac parking lot). The summer theater was about as bohemian as it got – especially in My Home Town, circa 1960. The actors were all from Gotham and were going to make it big some day (at least that’s the attitude they exuded). The men had long hair; some even had beards. The women had really long hair and wore black skirts and turtlenecks, with black stockings. It seemed they all smoked cigarettes and wore sunglasses at night. They were an island of Greenwich Village surrounded by an ocean of Dogpatch.

I don’t remember how I found out they were looking for young musicians, but as soon as I did, I, along with several of my band mates, ran down there to offer our services. Surprisingly, they were immediately accepted. And even more surprising, we weren’t asked to audition. This took me aback, since while my fellow band members weren’t as incompetent as me, they weren’t anything to write home about, either.

When they told us the musical we’d be in was The Music Man, I was astounded. I mean, “The Music Man” was then in its third smash year on Broadway and had a fabulous score. How could a bunch of incompetent rubes ever do justice to that?

When we showed up for the first rehearsal, we found out how: We were to play in the “before” scene, when the kids in River City are supposed to be incompetent. Suffice it to say, we played our parts perfectly.

But if we had bubkes for musical abilities, how did we manage to come out for the “after” scene in the finale and sound good? Simple -?we didn’t. Instead, the theatre was flooded with music as good as the Broadway show’s because it was the Broadway show’s, coming from a phonograph hidden behind the stage.

And so, due to the genius of Thomas Edison, I was spared any embarrassment over my lousy trombone playing for the second time that night.

The first time I was spared the embarrassment was due to two things other than genius. One was the script, and the other was my lack of pride.