Since the birding is a bit slow, I thought I would enlighten you a bit more of my personal history. Don’t worry, I will have some more birding posts soon.
This post is the first in a series, describing my approximate 50 years as a saxophonist, 40 years professionally. I don’t know how many parts I will need as I probably will try to cover everything I did over the years. However, I think it will be fun for me as well as you, my readers, and I have thrown in some old pictures. I have no idea how it will go. I am just going to start typing and see what comes out.
I guess it all began when I was about five or six years old, when it was discovered that I had a strong aptitude for music. I was always singing something. My mother said that my favorite song was “Old Shanty Town”. I guess I probably picked it up from the radio. But you know how mothers are. They tend to exaggerate quite a bit. Personally, I wouldn’t know. I don’t know if I could read at that age. Maybe I just hummed.
My first grade teachers marveled at my voice, always inviting me to sing with at any school programs that would arise. My music teacher, probably when I was about seven years old, who I only remember as Mrs. Hahn, started a bunch of us to use the “Tonette”. It was a little plastic, tubular shaped thing with holes that you covered or uncovered while blowing through one end. Kinda like the old “Sweet Potato”, if you remember them. That was my first experience with any music “instrument”.
I think it was when I nine years old, I decided I wanted a real music instrument to play. I didn’t know which one I wanted, whether it would be brass or woodwind. So my parents took me downtown to Berman’s music store. The owner showed me several different instruments; trumpets, clarinets, etc. Finally my eyes landed on the saxophone. I looked at all of those fancy keys, and I was in awe. It was a Buscher Alto Sax. I wanted one of those. Thus, a star was born. 🙂
The man at the music store said that he could give me private lessons. So we made plans for that and we drove home. There, I couldn’t wait for a lesson. I tinkered with it a bit myself, and was able immediately play a sour version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. The neighbors probably heard that and thought, ” what are we in for now?”
Well, it didn’t turn out too bad for them. My parents made me practice thirty minutes everyday. At the time, there were times that I didn’t want to practice, buy they kept after me. Eventually, I think the neighbors started to enjoy it. I got pretty good, and my folks wanted to show me off to everybody that came to the house. Even traveling salesmen were subjected to my mother’s insistence that they hear me play.
Muskegon, Michigan, High School Big Red Marching Band – that’s me in the dark uniform.
I entered junior high school I guess when I was about 12 or13 and was able to get into the school band. But I had my eye on the senior high school band. The Marching Big Reds. But I had to wait for that. However, when I was in the ninth grade, when technically I was still in junior high, I was asked to join the big high school band. I was about 15 years of age at the time. One-hundred and eight members strong, it was one of the best in the state, and a blast to be marching with them in the football games.
The Muskegon High School Big Red marching band was under the directorship of Mr. William Stewart, Jr. A strict disciplinarian. I was always scared of him. I don’t think he smiled much. Under him, though, the members were alway winning state marching and concert competitions. Our chests were proudly covered with blue ribbons.
Meanwhile, yours truly, was working towards other ambitions, such as playing professionally as a dance band musician. Mr. Stewart definitely did not like dance band musicians.
Drummer Ken Twining
I guess I was fourteen when a drummer in the high school band decided to start up a ‘dance band’, Ken Twining and his Orchestra. It was small, just a drummer, trumpet, sax (me), piano and bass. We played our first gig at a school dance and got five dollars each. I also sang for the first time professionally. I stood at the mike and crooned “Because of You”. My knees were knocking all the time.
About a year or so later, I broke away to do some free lance work. I worked with any band that needed me. I was doing a lot of night club work at the time and doing quite well financially. At 15 or 16, I couldn’t buy a drink. But I was still playing in the Muskegon High School Big Red band, too. One day Mr. Stewart called a night rehearsal in preparation for a school trip to Chicago, where the band was going to play at the Hotel Sheraton for some fancy affair.
Morrie Bectel and his Orchestra. Bob Zeller 2nd from left in front row.
Well, heck, I had a paying gig at Ted’s Night Club in Muskegon Heights. I was playing with a newly formed big 9-piece band, “Morrie Bectel and his Orchestra. I opted to not attend rehearsal. The next morning Mr. Stewart informed me that “we no longer need your services, Mr. Zeller”. I was kicked out of the high school band. He also added that ‘I would never be a soloist anyway’. Yeah, right.
At this point, I might point out that Mr. Stewart had heard me play professionally on a previous occasion. I was playing with the Charlie Bird Orchestra for the school prom, when he and the assistant band director, Alex Posvistak walked into the gym. He completely ignored me, but later pointed out that he didn’t like the dance band tone that I used in school.
Check back soon for Part II of this exciting epic, and hear my Ann say, “What? Are you gonna blow that thing again tonight??”
Actually, I will wait and see how this is received with my readers, whether to go on with Part II.