Sax book author marches with AAMB
NY Daily News editor Michael Segell joins band at Indy 500
an old saying in journalism—at least as old as the telephone,
anyway—that you can’t report a story from your office.
The same holds true for gathering research for a book. So when I started
researching a chapter in my book that traced the saxophone from its
arrival in America in the 1850’s through its use in military and
concert bands, minstrel shows, vaudeville and dance bands—up until
the moment, that is, when it began to flower as a jazz instrument in
the 1920’s—I was at a loss as to how to capture the spirit
of those innocent days in an interesting, lively and anecdotal fashion.
The saxophone was originally
conceived of as a military instrument but I knew the Marine Band wasn’t
about to let me sit in with its players, and I knew no one who played
in the kind of quaint old band that thrived in virtually every small
town in America (although now I do in Bill Kisinger). So how could I
hook the reader on a chapter that was largely about history?
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment of the epiphany, but at some
point I remembered that the college marching band was a direct outgrowth
of the military and wind bands I was interested in. So I sent an email
to Dave Leppla pleading my case. I was writing a history of the saxophone,
I told him—sort of an eccentric but reverential social history
of this zany, often controversial, instrument—and I wondered if
there were a way I could get inside the band in a meaningful way. It
would be particularly fun, and great to write about, if I could be in
one those complex formations on a football field where the band, as
Bill Kisinger says, suddenly looks like “a plate of worms”
and then miraculously reconfigures itself—in the shape of the
letter ‘P,’ for instance.
Even through the impersonal medium of electronic mail I was able to
perceive Doc’s horror at my suggestion. Those rank-breaking formations,
he explained, were extremely difficult and precise—which was his
polite way of saying he would probably lose his job if some old guy
with a saxophone began marching in the wrong direction or (perhaps this
was the origin of the phrase) to a different drummer. But he was intrigued
by my request and suggested that the Indy 500 parade and race-day performance
would be a low-key way for me to experience band culture.
Truthfully, I was surprised he agreed to let me in. But I was thrilled
and delighted, too. This would be a wonderful anecdote in the book,
very Plimptonesque. (For those of you too young to know, George Plimpton
is a writer who did a series of articles that involved his playing in
actual pro sports games—as a goalie in the NHL, for instance,
or quarterback in the NFL.) I told everyone I knew about my next adventure
in reporting—I’d already snookered some of jazz’s
great saxophonists into giving me a lesson—and this was to be
the coolest thing yet. Plus, the Indy 500!
That was in February. But as the week before the event wound down I
became filled with dread. I’ve only been playing the sax for two
years and can barely read music. When I finally found a lyre to attach
to my tenor (after heating it up in my basement so it didn’t project
at a right angle) I discovered that my 52-year-old eyes could make out
the notes of the tunes Dave sent along only with a pair of binoculars.
I bought a pair of geezer magnifiers and practiced marching around in
my office while playing. How do people read music while they’re
moving? I was beginning to think this was a bad joke I had played on
Fortunately, all of this was to take place in the American heartland,
where Midwestern generosity and kindness can soothe the most fullblown
of panic attacks. Bill Kisinger met me at the airport and from that
moment until I returned home I was treated like a royal visitor from
an exotic country.
So how was it? Frankly, I was a little surprised how serious most bandsmen
and –women are. I’ve never looked particularly good in a
hat and, being as vain as the next guy, felt a little odd wearing my
captain’s hat and “bird.” As I was walking to the
bus, hatless, a bandsman advised me that I was not to appear outdoors
without the thing firmly planted on my head. “Seriously,”
he added, just to make sure I knew he wasn’t joking.
As for marching and playing, it turned out to be even harder than it
seemed in my office. During the parade, I realized that I would have
to pick my spots, play when I could, and concentrate on staying in step
so as not to make my comrades look silly. Within a mile or so I managed
to get down the dipsy doodles and swagger steps that seem to be the
band’s trademarks. I followed Dave’s advice to drink a lot
of water, most of which ended up in my uniform as sweat. As Ryan, our
section leader told me, you freeze in the wools when it’s colder
than fifty degrees and fry when it’s above. That day it wasn’t
too bad—a mild 65.
I’d have to say the highlight was the racetrack performance, playing
“God Bless America,” “Taps” and the other patriotic
tunes. The advantage for me was that we were standing still so I could
pick out some of the notes. I got a real sense of what it was like to
play with two hundred other instruments. It’s a wonderful feeling.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t relieved when it was
all over, though. I’d managed not to blow out a knee on the steep
incline of the track, nor rip my mouth apart while doing a swagger step
or even blow my horn while everyone else was quiet. For the most part,
I think I managed not to embarrass myself—or the band—which
was my overriding goal.
I’m not sure anyone else who was there would agree with that.
Whatever. I got a great story, which I’ve already written up in
Chapter Four. You’ll just have to wait a while to read all about
Meanwhile, Hail Purdue!
Editor’s Note: Students, faculty and staff had a marvelous
time interacting with Michael over the three-day Indy 500 outing. He
regaled us with stories about Adolph Sax, the first man arrogant enough
to name an instrument after himself, and delighted us with the enthusiastic
way he tackled a marching band assignment that was not easy. It was
particularly touching when he looked out at the crowd at the Saturday
awards banquet and said: “It’s wonderful and gratifying
to come out here and realize anew that the fantastic values and patriotism
which each one of you embodies it still at the heart and soul of this
county.” The working title of Michael’s book is “How
the Saxophone Changed the World.” It will be published by Farrar,
Straus & Giroux in late 2004 or 2005.Our web site will carry news
of its release!