Beatrice Schwartz, my maternal grandmother, graduated from Hunter College in New York City in 1919 with a bachelor’s degree in Greek and Latin. She spent her career as a teacher of the Pittman shorthand method at Walton High School in the Bronx.
Grandma was a lover of languages, literature, and the arts, a world traveler, and a crossword puzzle whiz, making fast work of The New York Times crossword puzzles, usually in (*gasp*) ink. As a careful and very practical woman, Grandma’s brazen choice of pen to conquer the puzzles was an uncharacteristic leap of faith.
I don’t remember how the subject arose, but when I declared to her after college that I wanted to study music and maybe become a musician, her reply was, “You really should have something else to fall back on.” Leaps of faith weren’t her thing.
Nor were they mine.
As our undergraduate days waned and the prospect of post-graduation life loomed larger on the horizon, my Dad suggested to my brother, Mark, and me that we meet with Professor R. Douglas Greer, his special education colleague at Teachers College, Columbia University. Doug had been a working jazz bassist before trading in his peripatetic touring life for academia. He successfully made the cross over from musician to university professor. Mark and I were definitely intrigued.
Doug met with us and recommended we check out the graduate program in music therapy at the School of Music at Florida State University, one of the largest music conservatories in the country. Doug received his master’s degree at FSU and was mentored there by Dr. Clifford Madsen who had established himself as one of the most renowned researchers in the field of music therapy. At FSU, Doug suggested, we could combine our love of music with our undergraduate majors in psychology.
During our senior year of college, Mark and I met Dr. Madsen during a visit he had made to New York City. He was charismatic, smart, and, according to Doug, a beloved member of the music faculty. He encouraged us to give the music therapy program at FSU a try. And we did. Dr. Madsen is now in his 58th year at FSU!
After our first semester or two, it quickly became apparent that Mark and I preferred a track that combined education and performance. We switched out of music therapy and into music education.
For the first time in my academic life, I studied nothing but music. I took courses in music history, theory, instrumental techniques, conducting, composition, and arranging. I took weekly trumpet lessons, performed with the jazz ensemble and started an outside jazz group with Mark that played gigs in and around Tallahassee.
In 1980, I won a Student Recording Award from Downbeat magazine (Mark won this same award in 1981) and several months later, was selected to perform at the International Trumpet Guild Conference at Ohio State University as one of four national finalists in its Jazz Improvisation Competition. I was starting to feel like performing professionally, albeit a grand leap of faith for me, might actually be a possibility.
When I was in high school in the early 1970s in Paramus, NJ, becoming a touring musician in a big band totally captured my imagination. My high school band director, Frank Ryerson, was a bona fide star of the big band era as the lead trumpet player with Vaughn Monroe (Google him) and as the composer and arranger of Monroe’s smash hit song, “Dance, Ballerina, Dance,” (YouTube it). The air in the room changed when Frank regaled me and my high school band buddies with stories of touring the country with a famous big band.
In the fall of 1980, six years after I had graduated from high school, an ad posted on the bulletin board at the new music building at FSU grabbed my attention. The legendary jazz trumpeter, Clark Terry, was recruiting young musicians for his big band and an upcoming tour of Europe and the US. This band would be comprised entirely of college and graduate students.
Giving young musicians an opportunity to play professionally was something Clark was famous for. Although he didn’t graduate from high school, Clark was awarded 16 honorary doctorates during his long and illustrious career. Education was his hallmark and mission.
If I was accepted into the band, the timing would be perfect. The tour was slated to begin in February of 1981 and I had scheduled an early January date to defend my master’s thesis. This would be my first real calculated leap of faith as a young adult.
Several weeks after submitting my audition packet, I received a letter from Clark’s manager informing me that I was accepted into the band!
This notification was bittersweet for me. Mark had also auditioned and was chosen as the first alternate saxophonist. If one of the sax players turned down their invitation, Mark would go. Unfortunately, they all signed on to tour and Mark stayed in Tallahassee to complete his master’s degree at FSU.
Touring with a professional big band and traveling to ten European countries in six weeks (including Iceland and Sicily) gave me a crash course in how to be a touring musician. We were treated to sold-out audiences at the most magnificent performance halls, including several opera houses and medieval castles. We performed on television in France and Italy and on public radio in Holland.
The biggest surprise for me was the respect and affection European audiences had not only for Clark, but for his music and all of us in the band. Europeans revered jazz, an entirely American invention.
During the tour, I became proficient at converting francs to lire to pesos and back again. I was able to fall sleep stretched out across two aisle seats on a bus, and I could navigate large cities and tiny remote villages on my own even though I didn’t speak the native languages or understand local customs. By the way, unless you don’t mind getting your hand slapped, never touch the fruit at an open air Parisian produce market. Fruit selection is the vendor’s job, ci vouz plait.
Over the past 34 years, ArtsPower National Touring Theatre has sent over 1,000 young actors and stage managers on-tour across America.
Seeing parts of the country never experienced before – and getting paid to do it – is thrilling to any performer just starting out. ArtsPower’s actors will make memories, and hopefully, good friends that will last a lifetime.
Blind leaps of faith are risky. In her own protective way many years ago, it could be that Grandma advocated for that safety net to lessen her fear (and mine) of my potential failure.
Or maybe Grandma knew all along that one calculated leap of faith, with a safety net, can change the course of a life, leading to the next leap and then the next, until you find yourself in places you’d only dreamt about.
By Gary Blackman