I know that I’m supposed to be writing 2 charts today and putting together my set list for tomorrow night’s gig, but I’ve been thinking about Lenny G this morning, and I’ve got to sort out my feelings. You know how when you are in high school, there is one teacher who is the students’ favorite? In my recent travels around the country, working with high school music programs, I’ve seen this many times. It’s often one of the music teachers because of his passion for music. Sometimes these teachers cross over the line and have sexual affairs with their students. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this too.
When I was young, we went to elementary school K-6, junior high grades 7-9, and high school 10-12. We had a choral director and two band directors. Herb Schoales was the music supervisor for our entire high school district. He conducted the concert band and dance band (what we now call jazz band). His assistant director was a young clarinet player (Lenny G). He was Mr. G to us.
At that time Leonard Bernstein was conducting the New York Philharmonic and was like a god to everyone who played an instrument. We watched his performances and lectures on TV like it was the Second Coming. In fact, in our house we had Sunday dinners in the dining room with my grandparents, where it was unthinkable to ask to be excused from the table until everyone was done eating—except if Bernstein was on TV, then my mother would move her head in the direction of the den, and I was excused. It wasn’t because I loved music or was going to be a musician (I hadn’t told her about that yet), it was that she knew that Lenny B was the Second Coming.
She recognized his passion and so much more. It was like he was inviting us into a higher existence that he inhabited with Beethoven, Mozart and the rest of the musical pantheon. He was our guide. If he touched us, we would enjoy a richer life. I don’t know if my mom ever thought about this. She just had a reverence for Lenny B that I’ve never seen her have for anyone else. It wasn’t just his conducting the NY Phil, she loved his Broadway shows and would tell me how talented he was, that he was the greatest conductor (Toscanini had retired) and the best popular songwriter on Broadway (West Side Story and Candide were his current hits). I suppose she secretly wanted me to follow in his footsteps. My aunt, who was more of a popular music and jazz lover, still idolized George Gershwin, so I had some pretty fierce idols to contend with.
My first contact with Lenny G in high school was innocuous enough, but quickly I came under his spell. For one thing, he not only liked me, but he recognized my talent as being something unusual and special. He had graduated from Manhattan School of Music 10 years before, where he met my trumpet teacher. They remained best friends. I don’t remember ever seeing them together, but Rusty would tell me stories about Lenny and him. And the two of them loved to laugh, and when they did, it was contagious.
I first noticed the similarity between Lenny G and Lenny B when Lenny G would conduct our concert band. He had great stick technique. He looked graceful and in full control of every musician in the room. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. I wanted to conduct like that. His conducting reminded me of Lenny B—not only his stick and body movements, but his hair flying all over the place and the sweat running down his forehead and off the tip of his nose. He was passion personified.
In my junior year, I had a free period in the afternoon. This was at the same time that Lenny G taught Music Theory. Rather than sit in study hall and do my homework, Lenny wrote me a pass, so that I could audit his class. I don’t remember whose idea it was, his or mine. By this time, I was writing arrangements for our dance band, so he knew that I wouldn’t be intimidated being in a class with all seniors.
The class was called Music Theory. We learned how to write Bach-style chorales (which I was already quite proficient at), sight sing (which I could do, even though I had never learned solfeggio beyond Mary Martin singing Do Re Mi in The Sound of Music—coincidentally, years later I wrote an arrangement of that song for her to sing on a TV show, but that’s another story), dictation (I had already started to transcribe, so this was fun and useful), but most importantly, Lenny introduced us to 20th century classical music. It was the first time I heard Stravinsky, Bartok, and atonal music. He told us what to listen for and explained how this music was an extension of the Romantic Era music that we all grew up on and played in band and orchestra. He made this complicated music accessible to us and started my lifelong love and fascination for “modern” music.
Every spring we put on two shows. One was our musical. My freshman year, it was Bye Bye Birdie, and junior year it was The Pajama Game. Lenny was the conductor for both. He was as serious and as passionate as he was when he conducted the overture to La Forza del Destino or a complicated new atonal piece. He made those shows come alive for me and fed into my love for musical theater that continues to this day.
The other show we did each spring was our annual Pop Concert, where the dance band would back up our fellow students singing, dancing, telling jokes, etc. It was an old fashioned variety show. I wrote a pile of arrangements for each show and got valuable experience for my later career as an arranger. We had a talented singer named Bev Linardos. I wonder what ever became of her. My sophomore year, she sang Gypsy In My Soul. We just backed her up with a stock arrangement that clearly was beneath her talent. So, the next year, Lenny wrote her a beautiful arrangement of Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine. 50 years later I still remember that chart. He even wrote 8 bars of harmon mute improvised obligato for me (à la Sweets Edison) behind Bev. I was honored.
On the personal side, the girls in the band had a crush on Lenny. He was married to a beautiful young woman and had a few kids. This didn’t stop him from carrying on an affair with one of the attractive young teachers, who was known in the band room as Miss Body and Hair. When I had lunch a couple of months ago with one of my classmates, she told me that Lenny had come on to her, and how she was so naïve and paralyzed. When I retold this story to our friend, Nancy, at our reunion last month, she said, “Yeah, he was a troubled guy.” Funny, I never saw him that way, but yeah, he must have been.
My senior year, with all the baby boomers hitting high school age, they opened a new high school in our district, and Lenny left us to direct the band. Although I lived within the area that would go to the new school, they let us seniors finish out at Mepham, so that the new school, Kennedy High School (named after our beloved, recently deceased president), only had sophomores and juniors. In the spring, they put on Guys and Dolls. Lenny needed some help in the orchestra, so he had my buddy Joe and me play trumpet and Bob play first reed. It was a marvelous production—so much so, that I’ve always compared it to the movie version, and with the exception of Vivien Blaine (Miss Adelaide), our high school production won out—especially, the staging of Sit Down You’re Rockin’ The Boat, during which I almost peed my pants every show.
I think that was the last time I saw Lenny. A year or two later I heard that he was in a car crash, laid in a coma for a few months and died. I was devastated. He wasn’t even 40 years old. Rusty later told me that Lenny had a new girlfriend. He told his wife that he was going out with Rusty and then got into the accident. Lenny’s wife always blamed Rusty. As Rusty told me, “What was I supposed to do. I couldn’t never say no to Lenny.”
The whole thing still makes me feel sad. Lenny had so much to give. My buddy, Bob, and I will tell each other our Lenny G stories. Sometimes it was Lenny paying Bob a musical compliment, sometimes it was Lenny paying me a compliment, but every time we laugh, and then I wish that I had gotten to be friends with Lenny as an adult and complete my musical education where passion is everything.
Here is my favorite story. Actually, it’s a story Lenny told Bob and me about his college days. In the early 1950s Lenny played tenor sax for a while in a strip club in New York. It was one of those seedy bars where scantily clad girls with pasties over their nipples dance on the bar while a 4 or 5-piece band plays the blues. This one particular night, a middle aged unshaven black man wearing a filthy, rumpled suit, stinking of alcohol stumbled into the club and made a bee line for Lenny. “Hey man, can I play your horn”, he asked. Obviously, this bum was drunk and probably high on something or some things. Lenny reflexively, and in no uncertain terms, told him, “Get the fuck out of here,” whereupon the man replied, “OK, thank you,” turned and left. The trumpet player, sitting next to Lenny leaned over and asked, “Do you know who that was?” “No, who?” “That was Charlie Parker.”
It’s been 50 years since I last saw Lenny, and he remains a constant reminder to me of what music, art and life are really about. Yes, he was flawed and lived a truncated life, but he lived every moment to its maximum—in some cases too much and uncontrollably so. When I saw the movie, Mr. Holland’s Opus, I couldn’t help but think that it should have been Mr. G’s Opus. It wouldn’t have a corny Hollywood ending, but if they could capture even a little bit of Lenny’s spirit, I’d go see it.