My Father’s Horn: The Final Note

(Continued from part 4.)

Over thirty years have passed from the days of God’s Family Band until today. Dad’s horn has been a constant companion in that journey, though I have not always been constant with it. There were times when I set it aside for a season, and other times when I thought how much simpler life could be if I put it behind me forever. Yet every time I have set down the saxophone, I have returned to it. I have kept at it–because I must. It is more than a passion; it is a calling, integral to the way God has designed me.

There are many other stories besides the ones I have told in this brief series, more than I wish to share here. The long and short of it all is, Dad’s horn has shaped me both as a player and as a person.

Thus far, I have talked about the journey my father’s horn has taken me on. Now I would like to tell you a little about the horn itself. I own two other saxophones beside it: a Conn tenor that is even older than my alto and has long been in drastic disrepair, and a Yamaha soprano that I sometimes play. But the alto remains my voice, and I have always owned only the one, Dad’s. I’ve had no need for any other.

Not that I haven’t tried other horns. I’ve sampled a fair cross-section of altos over the years. But the one I learned to play on is the one I play today and the one on which I will someday play my last note, and then, I hope–though I have no children of my own–pass it on to someone else as a legacy, just as Dad passed it on to me.

Of all the saxophones I have played, my father’s horn sounds the most resonant, offers the greatest flexibility of sound, and blows the freest. It is an amazingly open horn. It will take as much air as I can supply and convert it into a sound that fills a room. Not that the Conn 6M is a miracle horn; it has its drawbacks. While I can get around reasonably well above high F, the altissimo is not as responsive as on other saxophones. Manufactured before the introduction of the high F# key, Dad’s sax does not feature uber-high notes as one of its strengths. Also, my repairman tells me that the rolled tone holes–a hallmark of the 6M–are beastly when it comes to getting pads to seat properly. When I have pads replaced, I usually need to visit the shop more than once to get the sax sealing tightly.

But once that job is accomplished, oh, man! Dad’s alto is a dream to play, and I fall in love with it all over again. It has a sound and a response like no other, and it has served me well for over four decades.

Dad was always the greatest fan of my playing. During the last three years of his life, he, like me, had an encounter with Jesus that changed him–not a little, but drastically. The anger that seemed to lurk below the surface disappeared, and while his feistiness remained, it was tempered with humility, even a sweetness, and above all, a peace I had never seen in him before. The ghosts that I think had haunted him from World War II seemed to lose their grip. There is a verse in the Bible that reads, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” (II Cor. 5:17) Whenever I read that verse, I think of Dad.

I was 28 years old when Dad passed away. That was nearly thirty years ago. Several years ago, I wrote a letter to my father. I thanked him for all he had done for me and for our family. I told him how, now that I was older and wise enough not to know as much as I did back in my twenties, I wished I could sit down with him and listen to him tell me about his life–how it was in the Great Depression, and in the War, killing and watching his friends be killed. I told him that he was my hero, and how glad I was, how very glad, for the peace he had found. The transformation that had begun in him when he first encountered the Lord was now complete. When next he and I would meet, Dad would no longer be a white-haired man crippled by a back injury, short-winded from a chronic heart condition and breathing from an oxgyen tank. I envisioned him striding toward me, grinning, his arms outstretched, his face that of a vibrant young man, his eyes filled with a spark that can only be found in one who has looked into the very face of Love and Life, and in its Presence found his home.

On Memorial Day, I took my letter to the small cemetery out in the countryside where Dad is buried. A tiny American flag fluttered by his marker beneath a tall fir tree. It is a beautiful little place, and Dad, who loved trees, would have been pleased with the location. I cleared away a few sprigs of grass that were encroaching on his modest gravestone, and I dusted off its surface. With a piece of Scotch tape, I attached my letter to Dad’s marker.

Then, standing up, I fulfilled one last, important part of the letter. “Thanks for the saxophone, Dad,” I had written. “It was your legacy to me, and I’ve brought it with me. Perhaps, just for a minute, the Lord will roll back eternity and let you get an earful of me playing it just for you.”

Taking the horn, setting its mouthpiece in my mouth, and wrapping my fingers around the golden, pearl-covered keys that I had first seen and admired when I was a little boy, I began to play. With his old Conn alto sax, I played for Dad the song I had performed on the day when I was baptized at Bethel–the song that over the years had become my theme song and was a fitting description of Dad’s own life.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.

A saxophone cannot verbalize those words, but it most certainly can communicate them. That day, I played them with all my heart.

Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come.
‘Twas grace that brought me safe this far, and grace shall lead me home.

The legacy of my father’s horn lives on. I love to play it, and while I am no Kenny Garrett, I continue to practice regularly, and thus to grow as a jazz musician. Today, I realize that Dad’s gift to me of his saxophone was ordained by my heavenly Father–by my father’s Father and mine. I am his son, his man, and his musician. And with gratitude, until a day known only to him when my last song shall end, by his grace, for his pleasure, and in honor of the Master Musician, I will continue to play my Father’s horn.

My Father’s Horn, Part 4

(Continued from part 3.)

Writing this article has opened my eyes to just how immense a legacy my dad left me when he put his alto sax in my hands as a boy. I never intended to pen a lengthy, multi-part personal history, just a brief tribute to Dad and the shaping force his old Conn 6M has been for me. Now, four parts into “My Father’s Horn,” I realize that I could write a book and still not tell the full story. But writing a book was not, and is not, my intention. I see a need to condense, to say much in few words.

Yet I am not sure how to do that. Dad’s horn has been as pervasive an influence in my life as yeast in bread dough. It has been a source of tremendous satisfaction and great frustration; a creative outlet; an intellectual challenge and stimulus; a doorway of faith; a parable portraying truths about God’s kingdom and how He designs individuals; a song of joy, a wail of pain, a voice of my soul; a catalyst for insight, choices, and growth; a blessing to many listeners and, first and foremost, to the player; a gift, a discipline, and most certainly, a calling.

When I was 24 and playing in the Aquinas College Jazz Band, I got a call one evening from a guy named Rick Callier. Would I care to play in a musical that the Bethel Pentecostal Choir was presenting called “The Beautiful Story of Jesus”?

I learned that Rick’s cousin, Kimball Owens, had recommended me to Rick. Kimball was my buddy in the jazz band–a non-stop chatterbox, funny, super-likeable, a fine tenor sax player, and my friend. I knew nothing about either Rick or Bethel, but, while I wasn’t a Christian, I had grown up knowing about Jesus and was glad for an opportunity to offer my talent in His service for an evening.

That event was my introduction to Rick, to Bethel, and to a number of talented black gospel musicians and vocalists: David Jennings, Chico DeBarge, James Abney, Craig Tyson … the list goes on, too many to name. Even more important, playing for the Bethel musical ushered me into the beginning of my walk as a disciple of Jesus.*

Back in the 1980s, white churches in West Michigan didn’t have much use for the saxophone. Not so black churches. I knew nothing about the foibles of religious culture and cared even less about racial distinctions. All I knew was, I had fallen in with some people who loved Jesus, loved music, projected joy, and welcomed me and my horn wholeheartedly. And my heart was open. I had been seeking God for a long time, searching for meaning; searching for something bigger even than the music; searching for Life. And I found it. Or rather, I found Him–because throughout the years, He had already long been seeking me.

Thus it was that a few days after Christmas in December, 1980, I was baptized at Bethel Pentecostal Church. On that day, I had an encounter with God. It was, as best I can describe it, a sense of being overwhelmed by joy and praise. The experience was almost physical in nature and one I have never forgotten.

From there, I played often with the Bethel Pentecostal Choir. As a white kid from a German family, I was a salt grain in a pepper mill, but it didn’t matter. Love of the Lord and of music made ethnic differences something to be appreciated and enjoyed, and a source of insight.

At that time, I also joined the horn section of a gospel group called God’s Family Band. The band was co-led by Rick Callier and David Jennings, with Rick doing the arranging and David working with the vocalists. Both of these guys were incredibly talented. In partnership with a friend named Larry Rhodes, Rick also used the horns in studio sessions for other gospel artists, notably the Grammy-Award-winning group Commissioned. It was under Rick and Larry that I gained experience both as a horn section player and as a studio musician. I’ve never played for more exacting producers. They would do take after take, striving for perfection. Rick and Larry set a benchmark for excellence. Working with producers of their caliber was an eye-opening, rewarding, and hugely valuable experience.

All the while, I continued to study music at Aquinas College and play in the jazz band. My college education equipped me with the tools I needed to grow as a musician. To be honest, though, I wasted my first years in college, and I only really began to learn my horn after I got out of school. As a result, I’m mostly self-educated as a jazz saxophonist.

One influence from my college days to whom I will always feel a debt of gratitude was Mel Dalton. A wonderful Grand Rapids area tenor player, Mel was the closest thing I ever had to a musical mentor. For a brief but memorable semester or two, I use to get together with him on a weekly basis at his home. Mel didn’t exactly teach me how to play jazz; mostly what he did was spend time with me listening to Coltrane records, talking about music, playing with me through solo transcriptions, and encouraging me. Mel modeled what jazz musicianship was about. He was a beautiful player and a warm, wonderful human being, and I wish he was still here today.

At this point, I need to fast-forward. There’s a lot of story I could tell, but it wouldn’t serve my original intent in writing this article. It’s enough to say that my father’s horn has opened up doors of relationships, opportunities, and experiences.

That’s enough for now. I’ll save the rest for part 5, which I think will be the conclusion of “My Father’s Horn.”


* I’m cautious about using the word “Christian” to describe myself. I am a Christian; however, these days the word has become a label freighted with meanings that have nothing to do with what it means to follow Jesus. The word “Christian” has become politicized. It has become a marketing niche. It has come to stand for a subculture that in some ways misrepresents what Jesus and Christianity are truly about. So I prefer to be thought of as simply a disciple of Jesus–a fallible man who seeks to know Him, love Him, and live in a way that reflects his Lordship in my heart.

My Father’s Horn, Part 3

(Continued from part 2.)

For a couple of years after I graduated from high school, I cast about with no certain direction. I worked a series of odds-and-ends jobs, none with any promise, and lived alternately with my parents, in a tiny shotgun house in Eastown, and in a former chicken coop converted into a rental home out in the countryside of Cascade. (Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it! The place was really nice for that time in my life.)

The one constant in my life was music. But in those days, I had largely set aside my horn in favor of my acoustic guitar, which I had taught myself to play. I was hugely into Jethro Tull and wanted nothing more than to be another Ian Anderson. So I was doing my best to develop as a singer/songwriter.

It was the sax, though, that opened the door to some key musical friendships. In those days, I was hanging with my buddies Perry Werchowsky and Scott Smith. It was these guys who in different ways spurred me on to learn more about what I was doing.

The three of us used to get together frequently at Perry’s house and jam, with Perry playing piano, Scott on the guitar, and, of course, me on the alto sax. Perry was studying with veteran jazz keyboardist Eddie Russ, and Scott had begun to take music classes at Grand Rapids Junior College. Scott was constantly talking about the latest musical concepts he was learning in music theory class. Triads, inversions, augmented chords, secondary dominants, cadences … all fascinating to hear about, and frankly, I was starting to feel a bit jealous. I wanted to know about that stuff!

When I told my parents that I thought I might like to study music, they leaped at my mere mention of the idea. A whirlwind of college visits, applications, and financial aid forms ensued, and when the dust finally settled, I found myself sitting in the afternoon jazz band at Aquinas College under the directorship of Dr. Bruce Early.

Bruce put me in the lead alto chair, but he made it plain to me that the arrangement was only temporary. Someone else would be playing first chair, and once that person arrived in a week or two, I would be demoted.

“Right,” I thought. “Just wait till you hear what I can do!” Rehearsals got underway, me playing with all the gusto and confidence that comes from either great talent or monumental ignorance. From the impression Bruce was doing of being utterly unimpressed, I knew I was secretly blowing him away. He just wasn’t letting on.

Then one afternoon as I was assembling my horn for rehearsal, into the room walked another saxophonist named Dan Bryska. I had heard Dan play before; he had sat in on a few Formal Aires gigs in months past. I felt a bit nervous. Here was my replacement, apparently, and I knew he was good.

Dan put together his horn and began to warm up with a series of bebop licks. In fifteen seconds, the guy blew lines through his sax that I had never dreamed of. And like that, my cocky attitude evaporated. Geeze, Dan wasn’t just better than me, he was a lot better. There weren’t even grounds for comparison.

Until now I had been a small fish in a smaller pond, and I had made the mistake of believing the people who told me what a great player I was. Now here was the truth, staring me in the face. I was a novice, so green that I didn’t even know how badly I sucked. But Dan had just given me a clue. It was a humbling experience, but it was good for me. It suggested that if I wanted to become anywhere near as good a player as Dan and some of the other guys in the band, I was going to have to work at it.

In other words, practice. What a novel concept!

But practice what? I wasn’t sure. I had begun to take jazz improvisation lessons with Bruce Early, but my ears just couldn’t wrap themselves around the complexities of even the simplest jazz harmony. A ninth slapped on top of a minor seventh chord didn’t sound pretty to me; it sounded wrong.

I forget how I stumbled upon Jerry Coker’s renowned book Patterns for Jazz, but I’ll never forget the impact it had on me. By then I was two years into music school, and I was slowly developing, but I think I was mostly just a source of frustration for my saxophone instructor. Then along came Coker’s book. I took it to school with me, hit a practice room, and began to work on a pattern that consisted of major triads ascending and descending chromatically.

“Hmmm,” I thought, “I wonder if I can memorize this.” I took up the challenge, persevered at it, and succeeded. And light began to dawn for me. I could do this stuff! If I practiced, I could become good. Maybe even really good.

I was hammering away on my triads one afternoon when the door to my practice room suddenly flung open and my sax instructor, Fred Bunch, rushed in. “YES!” he yelled. “That’s it! That’s it! Keep doing it!!!”

The man had a wild look in his eyes, and I had left my pepper spray at home. But I felt more inspired than nervous. After all those years of misfiring, it looked like I was finally on the right track.

(To be continued.)

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)