You’ve been gone a long time now, but your memory is for a blessing in so many ways, which might be about the most for which any of us can hope. It has been my blessing.
I not-so-long-ago spoke with your granddaughter, Amy, whose birth I remember. I would have been in my early teens when you and Harriet were blessed with your first grandchild and there was great excitement at your house on Bristol Avenue in Westchester, just minutes west of Chicago.
She’s doing fine. You’d be proud of her. She’s made much of her way in life by representing working people through labor unions. From our too-brief telephone conversation, I could sense that she was well aligned on her family’s political spectrum.
When we spoke, Amy told me how she’d turned down an early opportunity to earn a Master’s degree to accept an internship with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. She said her mother was not pleased, but Harriet, who I remember as having worked as a seamstress, as had my grandmother, was delighted.
I remember when I got my first union card from Chicago Local 10 of the American Federation of Musicians, at about the time it merged with 208, the Black local. I was pleased to have my ticket, as it allowed me to pursue good jobs for fair pay and decent working conditions; you were border-line ecstatic. It was a coming-of-age moment and you were like the proud Uncle at the bar mitzvah I’ve yet to have.
You might remember our house on 18th Avenue. It was kind of a B-flat, brick split-level on a postage-stamp sized lot in a blue-collar neighborhood. It was where you came to give my sister Jo her weekly marimba lessons. You gave music lessons at Frank and Sylvia Triner’s music store on Roosevelt Road (as well as at schools all over Chicago), but there was no marimba there, so you schlepped your leather briefcase, crammed with manuscript papers, scores, sticks, mallets, a sandwich (tuna salad, wasn’t it?) snacks, and a plaid-patterned Thermos of black coffee the block or two to our house.
From a child’s perspective, that three- or four-block stretch of Roosevelt Road on the West Side was a complete world. You must remember. My dad’s True Value hardware store was there. It was a real hardware store with a wood-plank floor where he sold nails by the pound, cut glass, mixed paint, and threaded pipe for the trades. There was a Ben Franklin, where I would buy my mother a lace handkerchief for Mother’s Day and could add to my baseball card collection, secretly chewing the gum that my mother forbade me to chew. Uncle Joe had his medical practice there. Mr. Wolff, who drove a snazzy red T-Bird, had his photography studio just off the corner of Roosevelt and 17th. There was a pizza parlor and a Chinese restaurant, a coin-operated laundry, and a Rexall drug store. And there was Vondrasek’s hobby shop, the smells of airplane glue and Testors enamel filling the shop in a heady swirl; Mimi’s sandwich shop and soda fountain; Hildebrand Sporting Goods sold guns, brightly colored Rapala fishing lures with menacing treble hooks, and baseball gear, including a Wilson’s Roy Campanella catcher’s mitt I so coveted; Barthell’s dry cleaners, where they blocked men’s hats and did alterations; and the three-chair barber shop with a myna bird whose wolf whistles would redden the faces of passing girls as the customers leaned forward in their chairs for a better look, and where I’d thumb through Argosy magazine, awaiting the butch cut I sported. There was a small corner grocery store where the fresh, in-season produce was placed into brown paper sacks, their prices written in grease pencil, and the meat came wrapped in white paper, sealed with a piece of paper tape. Wisconsin Farms was a deli and fresh dairy with off-street parking. It was there that I would lunch on smoked whitefish and dill pickles, sometimes with a chocolate Yoo-Hoo, and it was there that I redeemed the soda bottles I’d have scavenged in the neighborhood’s alleys for 2¢ each. There was the savings-and-loan, whose philandering president had been a Notre Dame football star, that gave me a Brownie camera when I opened a passbook savings account with a $10 deposit.
And there was Triner’s, my favorite store, where Sylvia (we shared a birthday and celebrated them together with a chocolate soda at Mimi’s; she turned 61 the day I turned 16) gave private lessons on the Hammond organ and Frank taught piano and they rewarded their students with gold stars. There were six or seven teaching and practice rooms in the back of the store; when they were filled, there was a pleasantly noisy cacophony made by trumpets and flutes and clarinets and violins and it sounded like a beehive. There were racks of sheet music with cover pictures of Doris Day and Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Rosemary Clooney, and there were bins of LP records and 45s and displays of shiny brass and silver and ebony band instruments, violins, and violas. A sparkling silver Ludwig drum kit sat on a pedestal in the center of the store and Zildjian cymbals—sizzles and rides, crash and hi-hats—hung on painted pegboard behind the cash register. I could listen to records there through clunky headphones like the ones worn by radio announcers and deejays. I’d pretend I was Wally Philips or Dick Biondi as I listened to “Purple People Eater” or “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” or “Chantilly Lace.” Sometimes, I’d find a song I liked on a record and then buy the sheet music for 15 cents and I’d take it home for my mother to play on the Starck spinet piano her parents had given her as a wedding present. Can you believe it? I still have that piano.
Jo had a three-and-a-half octave Musser marimba, its rosewood tone bars suspended over dulled aluminum resonators, and you would sit next to it on the piano bench (I still have that, too, its needlepoint seat having been crafted by my grandmother) giving my sister a half-hour of instruction that usually lasted an hour. I would stay in the kitchen and bang along on a couple of pots with wooden spoons.
My first lesson from you came when I had been assigned to play a drum in the kindergarten pageant at Lindop Elementary School. The drum was a deep, marching-style tenor snare with a painted wood shell and a calfskin head. My mother wanted me to learn how to hold the sticks and play something appropriate for the pageant.
With its sling adjusted to fit me (sort of), the bottom of the drum reached my ankles. You showed me how to hold the sticks in the traditional style and actually wrote out on a piece of pale green staff paper a four-note military tattoo (you might have called it a “ruffle”). At age five, I couldn’t read anything more basic than “See Spot run,” but I mimicked what you played while I stared at the music paper: Flam, stroke, stroke, roll; Flam, stroke, stroke, roll.
Not only could I play a drum, I could read music!
I was your youngest student and within a few weeks of that rather auspicious kindergarten debut, I was taking weekly lessons. Jo had her lesson, with me accompanying her from the kitchen, and then I would have mine.
Dad built a practice pad for me out of scrap wood and a thick square of rubber (it hangs above my office desk) and from Triner’s I got a pair of Ludwig 2B sticks (those I don’t have).
That practice pad was my life for a year or so before I got my first snare drum, a Ludwig model whose “sparkling gold” finish was the percussive definition of kitsch. Guess what? I still have it.
Soon after I had my first complete kit, built slowly piece-by-piece over time, my parents suffered some kind of financial set-back (they never really talked about such things) and we moved to a small, third-floor walk-up apartment on Roosevelt Road, the traffic passing noisily below. You continued to give Jo her marimba lessons, with our new downstairs neighbors erupting into joyous celebration when, after weeks of trying, she finally got through a difficult passage of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5. (The mere mention of my grandmother’s goulash always triggers that melody.)
Drums were not allowed to be played in the apartment building and I begrudgingly returned to the practice pad. You solved the problem as only Sam Dean would: The Kluzak boy was one of your students and Tommy played his drums in the basement of his parents’ funeral home, which was right on my way home from school, and you had arranged for me to practice there. For the next couple of years I would go the funeral home, check out the dead people laid-out in each of the four viewing rooms, and go to the basement and play as loudly as I wanted among the stored caskets.
“You can’t wake the dead,” George Kluzak would say, laughing as only a mortician could.
I remained your student—off and on—for almost fifteen years.
You were the kind of teacher whose methods, sadly, have gone out of style. You never mollycoddled me (today—would you believe it?—they give out participation trophies) but you coaxed, coerced, cajoled, threatened, yelled, screamed, threw things (sticks and mallets), stormed out of the room, then stormed back in with a renewed sense of purpose. There were times I wanted to cry, but I never would. I’d fight back the tears. You’d light a cigarette, take a deep drag and, exhaling two thick assertive streams of blue-gray smoke through your nostrils, say, “Are you ready?” Then you’d swat the music paper with a drumstick and say, “Again. From the top.” On several occasions you quit as my teacher, claiming that if I wasn’t going to put in the effort to learn then you sure as hell weren’t going to waste your time or my parents’ money.
On those occasions I cried…just never in front of you.
You see, Sam, you were the best teacher I ever had and like all great teachers you had a profound sense for knowing what a student could accomplish and you simply wouldn’t settle for anything less. Your sense of fairness would never have allowed it.
It’s not the way things are done today, but you were building my self-esteem by helping me to be good at something. There were no gold stars for showing up. Trophies went to winners.
I don’t even have to close my eyes to picture you—you with the dark sharkskin trousers, pointy-toed Italian slip-ons, knit shirts and cardigan sweaters. (Your sartorial style was passed down to me when you recommended I buy my tuxedos and band clothes from Smokey Joe’s on Maxwell Street—there was no other place that could outfit an entire band with matching sequined tux jackets off the rack.)
When I first knew you, you towered over me. Of course, your physical stature lessened as mine increased, but you were always an imposing figure. I’m guessing you were around five-foot-eight, and you were very thin. You were dark-skinned, had slicked-back black hair and a long, hawkish nose. I remember your teeth, of which you seemed to have several more than most people; they were nicotine-stained from the ever-present Pall Malls that dangled from your lips. You were incredibly articulate, your words delivered in brisk staccato bursts that seemed fittingly percussive, your tongue charging violently against the backs of those teeth.
I still have the red, three-post, two-pocket binder that I neatly labeled the Sam Dean Book of Drumming. It’s dog-eared and full of hand-written patterns and figures and exercises, with scrawled notes and instructions. There are such notations above a practice routine as “as written”; next to it, the “as played” instructions. You taught me all the basics of swing, blues, bossa nova, the rhumba, the waltz, and the cha-cha-cha; hand-drawn illustrations showed brush patterns, the left hand swishing in a looping, clock-wise circle while the right hand dodged the circle in any number of rhythmic patterns.
With only the rudimentary basics, I started playing with Frank Triner—at your suggestion—as a nine-year-old kid (“Little Jimmy at the drums” read the marquees) and as I grew older I began working in various rock ‘n’ roll bands, small acoustic combos for dances, proms and parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs, graduations and club dates. From week to week, I’d have to give you complete rundowns of every gig I played, demonstrating the rock rhythms I was learning from my friends armed with cheap Silvertone guitars and Vox tube amplifiers and, at your insistence, even singing my chorus parts on “Gloria” (G-L-O-R-I-A) and “Louie, Louie” (A-Lew-ee Lew-I, oh no, Me gotta go, Aye-yi-yi-yi). Talk about embarrassing!
And then I got my first gig playing with a big band. In rock, the drummer must be loud and powerful, but mostly loud; in jazz combos, the drummer’s job is to be rhythmically insistent and display great finesse. The big band thing calls for driving power and finesse. I brought the charts to my lesson and I started playing them for you.
By then I was taking my lessons at your house on Bristol Avenue in Westchester, just a mile or two from my early childhood home. You had a basement studio, paneled in knotty pine with black-and-white photographs hung rather haphazardly around the cramped space. There was that wonderful charcoal caricature of you behind a drum set, your nose drawn like that of an Arab sultan. There were a couple of drum sets (one belonging to your youngest son, Hal, whose life’s story turned so sad), a marimba, a xylophone, a vibraphone, conga drums, timbales, Chinese temple blocks (my favorite), and a closet filled with various hand-held percussion instruments—a batterie of tambourines and cowbells, triangles and finger cymbals, whistles and bongos and castanets (“Everything but the kitchen sink,” you’d say)—all of which I learned to play there.
Do you remember this, Sam?
Anyway, I played through the first chart, or started to, when you stopped me and asked, “What are you afraid of?”
It was less a question than an observation.
“You’re playing like you’re afraid.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look. You’re behind the wheel of a 14-piece band and you’re in charge. That’s the drummer’s job and you’re playing namby-pamby like you’re in a little trio. Play! Drive the band!”
I started from the top.
“No! No! No! Play it like you mean it! Be in charge!”
I tried again.
“No! What? Afraid you’ll make a mistake, and everyone will hear it?”
Sam, you then taught me the most important thing I’ve ever learned in my life; a lesson I’ve tried to apply to everything I’ve attempted since.
“If you make a little mistake and nobody notices, so what, right? No one’s the wiser. But what have you learned? Nothing, not a damned thing. You just play along making the same little mistakes over and over and over because they don’t matter, because you think nobody’s heard them. Play like you mean it. Be in charge. Make every note count. And when you make a mistake, make it a big mistake and you’ll never make it again. That’s how you learn.”
The last time you quit me was bittersweet. You told me and my parents that you had nothing more to teach me which, on the face of it, was a lie. You sent me, the reluctant graduate of the Sam Dean School of Drumming, off to Northwestern University to study with the erudite and exacting Terry Applebaum, and fall under the influence of Gordon Peters and Al Payson—symphonic percussionists with college degrees who’d written scholarly treatises about prehistoric xylophones and inter-tribal drum communications. From then on, I spent my Saturdays in Evanston, with regular stops at Frank’s Drum Shop and Rose Records on South Wabash Avenue along the way, and then a couple of summers, adding theory and ear-training and arranging to my studies. Then I headed off to Interlochen Arts Academy for my last two years of high school to study with Rick Kvistad, whose teaching skills and performance talents were clearly leading him on his way to becoming a percussion legend, and to play with an orchestra every day of the week, along with colleagues Peter Erskine and Clark Chaffee—friends to this day. There, I also played with chamber groups and percussion ensembles and in any number of spontaneous groupings.
On holiday breaks I returned to Bristol Avenue and you and I would go down to your studio and I’d show off.
Do you remember coming to the Oak Park-River Forest Auditorium and, a night or two later, coming to Chicago Orchestra Hall to hear me play with the Interlochen orchestra again? We played a concert program that included Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. I had played the xylophone, orchestra bells and triangle parts and you told me how proud you were of me. That really meant a lot, Sam. It really, really did. My parents were proud as well, but they didn’t understand what it took to play those parts, to get to that place.
Only you did.
I went to a few of the concerts of “legit” music you gave with community orchestras around Chicago during my college years. (I’m convinced you became a Shriner just so you could play in the Medinah orchestra. And how appropriate it was for you to join the Masonry, essentially a labor union whose discipline is based on the teachings of King Solomon.) Those were great concerts drawing on the symphonic repertoire, played for free by great musicians in some pretty sketchy, inner-city neighborhoods.
“Playing music is an act of giving, an act of love,” you’d say.
You’d drive us to those gigs, and we’d smoke cigarettes and stop for corned beef sandwiches piled high on rye bread, topped with chopped liver and onions, and drink cream sodas, and then I’d help you set up—everything in its due and proper place, like a line cook prepping his station for dinner service. And after the concerts, we’d go back to your house and we would go downstairs and you’d show me how you had played that xylophone passage, or the snare drum part, or how you “primed” the tam-tam so the attack would sound right on the beat.
“You never shake maracas. You hold them in front of you, parallel to the floor and then tap them with your index fingers. They’ll cut through a full orchestra. A triangle needs to be struck away from the break, it lets the sound out.”
You were always teaching.
Then we’d go upstairs to have coffee and poppy-seed or cheese kolacky at the kitchen table with Harriet, and we’d all smoke cigarettes and talk about politics and unions and civil rights and the persisting horrors of anti-Semitism.
I don’t remember there being a record player in your house, and I can’t recall your ever talking about other musicians or any drummers you might have admired. You worked nights as what you called a “jobbing musician,” meaning that you could do it all: nightclubs, concerts, weddings, parties, clubs, jingles. You probably didn’t have the time to hear much music that you weren’t making.
By the time I last saw you I had quit playing and was making my way as a jazz writer and critic in Los Angeles. We talked about music, of course, and I remember mentioning the great jazz drummer Shelly Manne and how I had come to know him and how much I admired his playing.
“He was always my favorite,” you told me.
“I taught you to play brushes just like him. He was the best.”
I might argue with you, Sam. You were the best.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
Kolacky (Bohemian Cookies)
4 cups flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 lb. Crisco
1 small can Pet milk
1 egg, well beaten
2-1/4 tsp. yeast
Combine yeast, egg & milk. Let stand for 10 minutes.
Combine flour, salt & Crisco; work like pie dough.
Add yeast mixture to dough.
Roll in damp cloth & refrigerate.
Roll out into thin sheets; cut into cookies.
Place on ungreased sheet pan.
Top with a scant tsp. of your choice of fruit mixes (Solo brand).
Bake at 400 deg. 20-30 minutes.