Saturday Single No. 560

In the spring of 1964, when I was ten and in fifth grade, a kindly, older gentleman came to Lincoln Elementary School and asked if anyone wanted to learn to play a band instrument. I was interested, and when I met with that gentleman, he looked at my teeth – which would never need braces – and suggested that I might want to play a brass instrument. He suggested trumpet.

Not long after that, my folks took me on a Friday evening to Weber’s Jewelry & Music, a store on the further downtown reaches of St. Cloud’s St. Germain Street, and we looked at horns. My folks opted to buy me a cornet. It had the same fingering and same scale as a trumpet, but with a slightly different construction, which made it shorter but taller than a trumpet. It also may have made it slightly cheaper; I’m not sure.

My folks laid out $165 for my cornet, which – considering the things that it brought me over the years – was a small investment for a very large return. Actually, it wasn’t such a small investment. Although $165 might not seem like much now, an online inflation calculator tells me that spending $165 in 1964 was like spending a little more than $1,300 today. Nevertheless, the return over the years has been huge.

The kindly gentleman turned out to be Erwin Hertz, the band conductor at St. Cloud Tech High School, and during sixth grade, he stopped by Lincoln School once a week to give me (and the other Lincoln students who’d chosen to play band instruments) lessons, and once a week, as well, we all went over to Tech to be members of a district-wide sixth grade band.

I played my cornet – playing parts written for trumpet, which was in practical terms, the same thing – in band from sixth grade through my sophomore year of high school. I also played in the district’s orchestra program, starting with summer orchestra after eighth grade and continuing during the school year for all three years of high school. I was pretty good, with a good ear, but I didn’t practice near enough, so when I headed to college, I learned after one quarter in band that, like a minor league pitcher moved up to the bigs, I wasn’t good enough anymore.

But that was okay. Those seven years of playing in those large groups had been enough. And along the way, I’d gotten some gifts I’d not at all anticipated. One of them was the music of Al Hirt. His only Top Ten hit, “Java,” went to No. 4 in Billboard in early 1964 and was No. 1 for four weeks on the magazine’s easy listening chart. My appreciation for “Java” led my sister to give me Hirt’s Honey In The Horn for my eleventh birthday in September 1964, when my work on the cornet was only a few months old.

And that album is one of formative albums of my musical life. Among its tracks were the first tunes I remember hearing from what we now call the Great American Songbook: Gershwin & Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started” and Bart Howard’s “Fly Me To The Moon,” along with other tunes like Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” Ray Charles’ “Talkin’ Bout That River,” Boudleaux Bryant’s “Theme From A Dream” and more. The next Hirt album I got – That Honey Horn Sound from 1965 – brought me, among others, Rogers & Hart’s “You Took Advantage Of Me,” Chip Taylor’s “Long Walk Home,” Tchaikovsky’s “None But The Lonely Heart” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust.”

From there, I dug into the rest of that mythical songbook and then into film scores, learning songs that kept me largely out of step with what my peers were listening to during the mid- to late 1960s. I didn’t always like being out of step at the time, but now – looking back fifty years – I wouldn’t change it.

Playing my horn also brought me a sense of melody that I think informs my songwriting to this day, and it brought me something I didn’t quite understand at first, even as I embraced it: I realized as I listened to Hirt’s records (and others’), that as a melody played, I knew how to finger it on my horn. It wasn’t perfect pitch, but it was close, a gift of relative pitch that I also use to this day.

So all of that is what my 1964 Conn cornet brought me. Now it has the chance to bring its gifts to another student. I took my horn – unplayed for many years – over to St. Cloud Tech yesterday and gave it to the band conductor there, a man named Gary Zwack. He said – confirming something my sister told me last week – that Tech, like almost all high schools in the state, often has students who want to play but who cannot afford an instrument. One of those students will now have a cornet to play.

When I arrived at Tech, Gary took me on a tour of the building. Renovations and additions made portions of the campus unfamiliar, but some doorways and corridors were recognizable. I carried my horn with me through the hallways, as I had done hundreds of times so long ago, and then I left it in the band office, giving its case a final pat and thanking it silently for the gifts it brought me.

And here’s one of those tunes I first heard long ago from the horn of Al Hirt. It’s Tchaikovsky’s “None But The Lonely Heart” from Hirt’s 1965 album That Honey Horn Sound, and it’s today’s Saturday Single.

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