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The Best of Jazz, and Jazz as a Pathway to Greatness

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I had the good fortune to attend an excellent public high school. Langley High School in McLean, Va., was so good that the great and the good of Washington, D.C., who had their pick of exclusive private schools, often sent their kids to Langley.

I was a decent trumpet player, and mid-way through my sophomore year I was plucked from the pedestrian Concert Band and took the fourth chair in the trumpet section of the Jazz Lab.

The music teacher was a white-haired, red-faced Boston Irishman named George Horan. He ruled his empire with a cunning mix of fear and encouragement. We wanted to make him happy, because a) he was genuinely delighted when we demonstrated improvement and b) we were afraid of what he’d say if we didn’t demonstrate improvement.

Going from Concert Band to Jazz Lab was like being suddenly promoted from single A baseball to the major leagues. I hid at the end of the section and played my parts as softly as I dared, lest I attract any attention.

Horan was having none of it. “Sully!” he’d bellow. “Lemme hear it from the top.”

My junior year we went to what was then West Berlin on an exchange trip. (The Germans sent a bluegrass band, which sounds like the premise of a Philip Roth novel.)

We played two shows a day for two solid weeks, on television, radio, in a former concentration camp and in a beer hall on the same bill with the Platters. Then we drank beer at Burger King with some of the Platters.

And when we came back we were a tight outfit. We won every competition we entered.

I had braces for what seemed like forever, and playing a brass instrument with braces is not much fun.

Senior year the braces came off and with them went most of my range. 

But my tone was suddenly nice and round and full.

Horan promoted me to the second chair, which handled whatever soloing was called for.

He ordered me to practice endless scales at home.

And he told me to listen to (and play along with) records by Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins — the former for what a trumpet player could get away with without a big range, and the latter for how to start a solo with a restatement of the melody line and then add a few twists. 

Much to my surprise, suddenly I was improvising and it didn’t sound awful.

He recommended some other stuff too — a lot of bluesy material without complicated chord changes.

So I did, because nobody disobeyed George Horan. Here are the records I picked up or borrowed and played to:

• Miles Davis: “Kind of Blue.” This is on everybody’s jazz list but so what. 

• Sonny Rollins: “Saxophone Colossus” (especially “Blue Seven”).

• “The Trumpet Kings Meet Joe Turner” with Roy Eldridge, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie and Harry “Sweets” Edison.

• Joe Turner and Count Basie: “The Bosses” (with Edison on trumpet).

• “The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz,” which in its first incarnation ran the gamut from Robert Johnson to Ornette Coleman.

I occasionally get my trumpet out and I can still play “Ornithology” (not very well).

But I never forgot George Horan and the way he got the best out of me — and then demanded a little bit more.

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