Top 50 JAzz Blog

Thursday, July 1, 2010

A Cylindrical Paper Cup Filled with Booze-by Steve Provizer

John Coffey
Way back in the Lost Hang post, I said I'd fill in the details about my trumpet lessons with John Coffey. Here goes.

My first trumpet teacher came to the house. A big jolly man, he reached down, patted his butt and said to me, "Now, you can tell your jughead friends this, but don't tell your mother. When you play, you gotta press down like you're fartin'. See what I mean?"

After this, my parents got the name of John Coffey and off I went. The MTA (then MBTA, then T) stop near Coffey's studio was "Symphony." The smell of urine, decades of grime and bums laid out on the benches told you that no one expected the chi-chi crowd going to Symphony was gonna get there by subway.

Coffey's studio was on the second floor of a building on Huntington Ave., right across the street from Symphony Hall. On the first floor was a clothing store that sold yellow shoes, wide brimmed hats and pleated pants. I don't think the boys in the BSO were frequent shoppers; maybe the guys who played around the corner at Wally's.

Coffey looked like one of the presidents you couldn't identify. He was robust a la Grover Cleveland, had a shock of white hair, trombone-player jowls, Tommy Dorsey glasses and a voice that combined the sweetness of the southerner with the growl of the lifelong smoker. His studio was vast, with a large entry room, a small "warmup" room on one end, and an unseen office at the other. Every room had shelving squeezed into every available space and squeezed into the shelving were instruments for sale. Lining the walls were hundreds of photographs of John with Koussevitsky (for whom he played), with Jack Benny (for whom he played and to whom he passed his violin from the pit in vaudeville); John with every mythical creature that a knowing 12 year old could imagine. In the middle of the space was a small room for lessons. 

Coffey's trombone sat on a stand, an ancient encrustation of congealed saliva covering his mouthpiece; the wooden floor beneath stained by decades of emptied spit-valves. The lessons were supposed to be half an hour. In fact, we were usually interrupted at least 4 times. I was glad. I stunk and every minute of the lesson, I was embarrassed by my ineptitude. Usually the interruption was a musician who was in the neighborhood and just wanted to say hi or check out a horn. Occasionally something more august, like the entire trombone section of the BBC Orchestra, would come in. On those occasions, John would light up a smoke, reach under his seat, pull out a bottle and fill the little paper cups at the water fountain with a snort for the boys.

My fate, it seems, was sealed. Don't misunderstand me. I'm on record as being anti-nostalgia (except w. Fats Navarro), so I propose the preceding as a cautionary tale. Parents: Don't hyper-investigate the musical influences in your kid's life. And kids-whatever you do, don't go home and tell your parents how cool your lesson was. You'll never get back there again. Your lifetime earnings may go up, but your life will be poorer.


Anonymous said...

I remember well when my parents bought an old upright piano when I was 6 years old and my teacher was as old as the piano. She only lasted one year and probably died of poor taste. Next came the clarinet, when I was 9 and I had a wonderful teacher, Wilder E. Schmaltz! He was great and taught me well as I was inspired by him, rather than the instrument. He died suddenly and I was left with the clarinet, which got me through Marching Band. It wasn’t until I discovered Jazz at around 13 when I tossed the clarinet and took up tenor sax. My first heroes were Zoot Sims, Wardell Gray and Harold Land. I finally found my instrument only to also find that I didn’t have the ability to play! That’s when I took up photography and drawing, but only of Jazz musicians!!
Tom Curry
Jazz from The Top (Zumix Radio)

Steve Provizer said...

Jeez-you were hard on teachers. What a name-Prof. Schmaltz. Bet he loved the vibrato.