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Lennie and Me - How I became a saxophone player?

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This is an excerpt of the Interview: Lennie Niehaus (LN) by JazzWax (JW)   JW: What was your first instrument? LN: The violin. My dad was my teacher. He was born in Russia and had attended the St. Petersburg Conservatory with Jascha Heifetz. It was a strict place. If a kid played a wrong note, they would hit him over the knuckles with a ruler. JW: Was your dad a good teacher? LN: My dad was a great violinist but had no patience for kids who didn’t get it immediately. With the violin, you hold your thumb arching backward so your fingers can reach all the strings and you can play fast. My thumb would creep over the instrument’s neck. My father kept telling me to keep my thumb down. One day he hit my thumb and the violin fell and cracked. That was it for violin lessons [ laughs ]. JW: In school, what did you play? LN: In grade school, my music teacher urged me to play the oboe because the orchestra needed one. It was still the Depression. I told my teacher that I didn’t think my family could afford one. So the teacher gave me an oboe that belonged to the school. I started to play the instrument little by little. I was a ferocious practicer. Violin lessons had taught me about playing and helped me learn other instruments quickly. JW: How did you become interested in jazz? LN: By listening to the big bands. I liked Harry James, and when I heard tenor saxophonist Corky Corcoran play The Mole in 1942, I wanted to play the tenor saxophone. My father was in shock. He said, “The saxophone! You play either the piano or violin, not the saxophone. You’ll wind up playing in a house of prostitution” [ laughs ] Actually he was right. I did play in small funky clubs later. JW: Did you buy a tenor? LN: I tried. I worked in a restaurant at a local Grant's, which was like Woolworth's. I'd collect the dishes and put them on a dumbwaiter that I raised to get the dishes washed. I made a few bucks that way. When I thought I had saved enough, I went to the music store and asked about a tenor sax. The man said it was $125. So I asked the price of the Martin alto saxophone that was there, too. He said $75. So I bought it and became an alto player. I have a special relationship with Lennie Niehaus. I have played through all his three Jazz Etude books: <A HREF="http://ws.amazon.com/widgets/q?ServiceVersion=20070822&MarketPlace=US&ID=V20070822%2FUS%2Fsaxontheweb%2F8001%2F4eac6730-b12f-4bc4-896f-bb9f3aece784&Operation=NoScript">Amazon.com Widgets</A> The saxophone quartet, Sax4fun where I play has bought several Lennie Niehaus' jazz compositions arranged for the saxophone (SATB) quartet. These are in a way etudes, but very melodic and brilliantly harmonized. They vary from easier one to very demanding like Lennie's jazz etude books above. We have found then very educational, and have performed them publicly, too. As a youngster I knew nothing of Mr. Niehaus although I should have. I played harmonica and Hohner Melodica (both soprano and alto) as a kid. A neighborhood boy had a clarinet, but never learned to play it. At fourteen I made enough money in my summer job to buy it off from him. I joined my high school (HKYL) band and a student driven folk music ensemble. Pekka, my classmate and the leader of the folk music band, was a gifted violinist. He wanted to start a jazz band in the school and bought a brand new alto saxophone. I certainly wanted to join the fun. At fifteen I made enough money in a summer job to buy a used Toneking tenor saxophone. Sometimes that Czech-made horn was more a hinder than help. I still own it, although it is no more playable. But the rest is history...

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