My first music teaching job after graduating from McGill, was in Manitoba. I inherited a healthy band program from my friend Kenny Gold who had recommended me as a bilingual music teacher. I made the move out west and worked my butt off to keep the program growing. 

My predecessor had started a jazz combo which I continued. We had a lovely group of kids that took it pretty seriously. In the combo were three kids whose parents were musicians. 

Pete and Joe were brothers. Joe played alto sax and flute, although he didn’t play flute in the combo. His brother Pete played drums and piano. Both boys were very adept at their instruments and I could not teach them anything technical as they had already surpassed my knowledge. What I was able to teach them was style, humour and attitude and pointed them towards the right things to listen to. Their parents played in the Winnipeg Symphony and both brothers had had extensive private training. Both boys went on after school to playing, writing and recording original music. Joe had his own studio. For a while as well. 

Clayton was a tenor saxophonist and had a lovely tone. A big sound. He was not a very good reader, but made up for it with a great ear and his ability to imitate his tenor heroes. His dad was a jazz bass player, so Clayton heard lots of that style of music. I never told him what to play, though I did suggest he try to copy solos from pros. His playing on St. Thomas (Sonny Rollins calypso tune) was particularly beyond his years.

Another set of brothers, Bruce and Richard played trumpet and bass clarinet respectively. Bruce was a hard worker and was able to extend his range pretty high à la Maynard Ferguson. Their dad was a “band booster” and drove kids all over the place and was able to get us playing opportunities outside of school. 

Our pianist was Leanne. She never improvised, but was a very good reader, so was able to play jazz voicings that were written out for her. Her mum and dad also were very supportive. 

Our bass player was Ricky. He was a tall, quiet, steady ginger who was a very steady bottom for our horns. At the Brandon Jazz Festival the band was billeted in a dormitory. When I did my rounds checking on kids, some of the rooms were pretty rowdy, and mildly naughty things were going on, Ricky was reading the bible……

The combo kept getting better and better. Joe graduated, but returned to school for rehearsals. We went to Jazz festivals and at one of them we won a gold medal in our category. We were thrilled to bits as you can imagine. This win meant we were invited to a national competition held that year in Calgary. It was a big honour, and we started to fund raise even before we got the go ahead from “the suits”.

After all the plans were put into place we had a band meeting before a rehearsal so I could complete our application form. I needed the birthdays of all the kids. Ricky had just had a birthday and as I wrote the info on the form, I realized it bumped us up into a higher category (18 -22). I told the kids, and arguments started. Some of the kids wanted me to lie about his age. I said that it was tempting, but what kind of a role model would I be if I lied? I managed to convince them that the goal was to play and do our best, and who cares if we don’t get a medal, we already proved ourselves. I also said that getting a medal if we know we cheated would not be an honour.

In Calgary, the kids saw and heard excellent music, attended workshops with pros and fraternized with jazz music nerds from all around the country. It was fun and interesting.

Our performance went very well. All the kids were at their very best. Joe, Clayton and Bruce played particularly inspired and with a new fire. They played with nothing to lose, up against really good college kids against whom we felt we had no chance.

On awards night, we sat through some really great music interspersed with each categories results. As each category was read and the honourees lauded,  we saw products of great well-funded programs reaping their well-deserved awards. When our category came up, we all crossed our fingers and when we heard the words “Silver goes to St. Norbert Collegiate” we all were on cloud nine. I had tears, pretty sure they all did. It was such a great feeling.

The evening continued and individual awards were presented. Clayton won Yamaha award for “outstanding soloist” Bruce also won a similar award for one of his solos.

I think we went out for a treat afterward, and we talked it over. Everyone was ecstatic at our placing. I asked if anyone regretted not lying, and everyone said “no”. 

I was proud of those kids, they were like a little family.

Sometimes Silver is better than Gold.

P.S. we were invited to play the Montreal Jazz Festival, but most of the kids were not able to go. So, in order to attend, we changed the combo lineup and I got to play with Pete and Joe who had been accepted to McGill and two other musicians who went on to successful music careers. 

After Calgary,  I decided I had done a good job, but I wanted new challenges and to be back in Montreal, so I resigned and enrolled in the Masters program at McGill.

Not the combo, but Senior Band from 1987 or 8

One thought on “Better Than Gold

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