My mother mentioned in an e-mail the other day, among other things, that my first ever school band director died last week. I hadn't seen Mr. Beach (first name Jim) since I graduated high school, but back then he was a fairly heavy smoker and known for his fondness for booze, so his passing isn't exactly a galloping shock. He looked fairly advanced in years even when I first met him when I was in fifth grade, and his posture was even then terrible; he had a pronounced hunch in his back and his hair was already completely white. It was thus a surprise to learn that he was actually a year younger than my mother.
Mr. Beach was a fairly strange man, as I recall. As a band director, he was adequate, although this is hard to judge by the fact that he was the elementary and junior high band director, so it wasn't as though he was really tasked with great amounts of musical development on the part of his students. He was fairly encouraging of his more talented charges, but as a direct source of musical wisdom, I don't recall much from him.
However, I could be wrong here as well, since my own temperament later turned out to be strongly classical, and Mr. Beach's was strongly jazz oriented. Being a straight "band director" wasn't really his game, but he was quite good at getting the sound he wanted from the jazz bands under him. The one year that I remember him directing the Senior High Jazz Band was probably the best single musical experience of my high school years; for a high school ensemble from a small town, that band cooked. I can still hear remember our bass trombone player on a haunting arrangement of Gershwin's "Summertime", and I can still remember my own frustration that he would never let me play any of the solos. It wouldn't be until college that I'd realize what he'd surely already known: that I was no jazz musician and had no place in a jazz band other than being a really good section player.
I don't recall why Mr. Beach only had one year to direct the jazz band, but I do recall that there was some kind of incident that led to our school superintendent stepping in for some reason. The details were never explained to us, but to my knowledge, Mr. Beach never stepped in front of a jazz band again. I had already thought poorly of that particular superintendent, who was one of those guys who takes a position if and only if he thinks it can lead to the next position. (In a fitting postscript, four or five years ago I was in one of Buffalo's Media Play locations – before they all closed when the chain went belly-up – and recognized one of the cashiers as none other than that ambitious, arrogant superintendent. I found some kind of cosmic karmic justice at work in that; this guy who had once been highly impressed with his own authority in a small town school system was now, fifteen years later, wearing a uniform shirt and a nametag. In his mind, that had to be a blow.)
I remember something else. We used to have a summer jazz band at that school; we'd rehearse a couple of times and then we'd go out and play at various gigs. We'd play the Cattaraugus County Fair, various dances and festivals in the region, and the like. It always went over well; we'd mostly perform the great big-band classics, and the membership of the band would be augmented by other musicians who lived in the area. Those performances were always hard work, but they were also always a joy. One year at the Catt. Co. Fair, we did Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade", but in an arrangement that had an extended clarinet solo. Mr. Beach's main instrument was the clarinet, and he took that solo himself. To this day that one performance of his – the only time I ever actually heard him perform anything at all – remains one of the most beautiful bits of clarinet playing I've ever heard live, and I've heard a lot (Richard Stoltzman playing the Mozart clarinet concerto, for example). I wonder if Mr. Beach was one of the many musicians who went to school figuring to be a professional performer, and then found himself a teacher when gigs were harder to come by than he'd thought. I also wonder if he never quite made the transition to teaching in his head or in his heart. Certainly on the night I heard him play "Moonlight Serenade", it was as if Mr. Beach had grabbed a part of his life he'd maybe thought lost.
Anyhow, I can't really say that I learned a lot about music from Mr. Beach, but if he hadn't specifically recruited me for band when I was in fifth grade, I possibly would never have learned anything about music at all. Berlioz? Rachmaninov? Wagner? The Chieftains? Howard Shore? They'd all be just names, I suppose. And I certainly wouldn't have gone to college in Iowa, thinking to study music; and then I wouldn't have met a girl a year older than me who played the oboe.
We often judge our teachers by what they teach us, and forget the ones who didn't so much teach us as simply meet us at a crossroads and say, "Go that way. You'll like it." Well, Jim Beach put me on a road, sure enough. So thanks for the nudge down the road, Mr. Beach.
And wherever you are, I hope you're jamming with Benny Goodman.