My Father’s Horn: A Grown Son Reflects on a Priceless Musical Legacy

Most of my music posts share technical exercises or theoretical information. This post is different. I want to share with you something very personal. It is the story of the saxophone that I play: my beloved Conn 6M Ladyface.

When I was a small boy living with my family in Niles, Michigan, my dad kept his alto sax in its original black case up against the wall by his bed. He had bought the horn back when he was a young man, and was learning to play it until service in WWII interrupted his musical aspirations and a bout of tuberculosis finished them off entirely. He met my mother in the TB sanatorium, where she worked as a nurse. Dates followed, letters, a ring, marriage, and then me.

My parents moved from Chicago to Niles when I was a year old. The sax sat quietly in its case, all but forgotten. Once in a great while, though, Dad would take that case and open it up, and it was on one such occasion that I got my first glimpse of the horn. There it lay, cradled in the case’s rich, purple velvet lining: a shining complexity of rods, springs, pearl buttons, pads, and palm keys, all neatly arranged on that deeply golden, sensuously curving body. It was beautiful, fascinating, and to me, impossibly complicated. How could anybody take something so bewilderingly engineered and make music with it?

Ever after that first glimpse of my father’s horn, I wanted to see more of it. From its aureate luster, to the resonant sound of its bell pads thumping against the tone holes, to its mysterious, brittle reeds, that saxophone captivated me. I was far too young to play it, but it was already beginning to play me.

In the summer after my sixth grade year, my family–which had grown to include my brothers Pat, Terry, and Brian, and my sister, Diane–moved to Grand Rapids. Junior high school loomed on the horizon. No longer would I be attending a private Catholic school; the Forest Hills public school system awaited me in the fall, including its band program.

Band? I was going to be in band?

Yes, that was the plan. In September, when I climbed aboard the school bus for the first day of school, that black case containing my father’s horn was in my hands. Private lessons with my band director, Richard Streng, commenced soon after. And I took to my dad’s alto sax as naturally as if I had been born for it–which, of course, was the case.

The first note I learned to play was A. The second was D. After that came G, and then, I think, C; after that, I don’t recall the order. What I do remember is stopping between each note and carefully inspecting my fingers to make sure they were positioned properly. It seems amazing that the fluidity with which I get around on my instrument today got its start with such painstaking deliberateness. But I didn’t mind. I was learning to play music, learning to play my dad’s saxophone, and I was absolutely thrilled. I could do this! No one needed to tell me to practice; I couldn’t wait to get in my daily time on the sax.

Mr. Streng seemed to enjoy my private lessons with him as much as I did. He recognized in me a genuine desire to excel. I came to my lessons prepared and ready to play, so he consistently had something he could work with. I still remember his baritone voice after every lesson: “Bob, as always, it has been a pleasure.”

From Mr. Streng, I learned a life lesson every bit as important as those first music lessons, and that was the power of praise. Never underestimate what a good word can accomplish in a person’s heart. A child’s heart, a young adult’s heart, a heart of many years’ experience … it doesn’t matter. Praise empowers; praise instills vision; praise nurtures an inner voice that says, “Yes, I can!”

(To be continued)

Emile De Cosmo and the Byzantine Scale

If anyone embodies the improvisational and technical aspects of jazz education, it is Emile De Cosmo. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know Emile since the time he contacted me about an article I had written about jazz contrafacts, and I can tell you, the man is deeply knowledgeable, and as excited to share his insights into jazz theory and technique building today as he was back in my college days, when I first bought one of books in his Polytonal Rhythm Series.

Our initial conversation, back in early February, resulted in my adding another of his books, The Diatonic Cycle–a tour de force of the twelve major scales and their relative harmonic minor scales–to my practice library. Last week, after chatting with Emile on the phone, I purchased yet another book coauthored by him and his wife, Laura. A compendium of articles that Emile and Laura wrote for Jazz Player magazine, The Path to Jazz Improvisation is a treasury of insights into the vast array of scales and modes that are available to jazz improvisers today. At $14.95, the book truly is a steal–and no, Emile didn’t give me a free copy so I’d write him a glowing review*. I ponied up the money just like anyone else, and I’m glad I did. I know a fair amount about jazz theory, but there always seems to be something new to learn, and Emile and Laura’s book is proving to be a good source.

I’m thinking right now about the chapter I’ve been reading on the Byzantine scale. In his foreword to the book, David Gibson, editor of Jazz Player, writes, “When I read his chapter on the Byzantine Scale I almost fell off my chair. I had never thought about jazz in those terms. I suddenly realized that jazz improvisation has roots which go back much further than the jazz master of the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.”

Of course my curiosity was piqued by Gibson’s words. The Byzantine scale? I’d heard of it before, but never explored it. I think I had some vague idea that I had it already tucked in my pocket as some mode of the harmonic minor scale. And indeed, the Byzantine scale is related to the harmonic minor, but it is a scale unto itself, and a darned interesting one.

Probably the easiest way to conceive of the Byzantine scale is, as Emile describes, to superimpose two major seventh chords a half-step apart. For example, if you dovetail CM7 and DbM7 and then arrange the chord tones in successive order, you get the following: C, Db, E, F, G, Ab, B, C.

Another way to think of this is to approach every tone in a major seventh chord with its chromatic lower neighbor–e.g. for the DbM7 chord (Db, F, Ab, C), you would precede the Db with C, F with E, Ab with G, and C with B.

The De Cosmos recommend using the Byzantine scale with major seventh and dominant seventh chords that share the same root as the scale. In other words, you’d use a C Byzantine scale over a C7b9 or a CM7. At least one other application quickly suggests itself to me as I look at the structure of the scale, and that is to pair it with an altered dominant that is based on the second degree of the scale. For instance, by playing a C Byzantine scale over a Db7#9, you get both the flatted and natural sevenths (B and C), allowing the latter to function as a passing tone between the flat seventh and the root of the chord.

I have to say, though, that it may be a while before I dig into the Byzantine scale in earnest. Right now I’m focusing on the diminished whole tone scale, with some forays into both the augmented and diminished scales. Those pack challenges enough. But I think I can see a new area of woodshedding on the horizon. Emile and Laura’s book should prove a valuable resource, and you’ll hear more about it from time to time. I have yet to write about Emile’s concept, the polytonal order of keys, or POOK, for short.

But that’s for another post. As for this one, well…the day is beautiful, and Lisa and I have plans to visit Meijer Gardens. It’s time to get rolling. Happy practicing!


*Emile did, however, send me a POOK T-shirt and a CD of he and Laura playing tunes that he had written. I don’t mind telling you that the De Cosmos can blow!