A Week With Ned Corman: Day One

Paleo Retiree writes:

When I was a 14 year old student in Penfield, New York, my school’s music teacher and bandleader died unexpectedly midway through the year. The young hotshot who was brought in to fill the post faced numerous challenges: a grieving town, skeptical students, and parents who were quarreling amongst themselves about whether to prioritize sports or music. But he also had a lot to work with. Penfield is on the outskirts of Rochester, N.Y., a city made prosperous by Eastman Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb, and the area had one of the richer music scenes among American small cities. Rochester is the home of the well-regarded Eastman School of Music; it sponsored a surprisingly fizzy live-music world; and the Penfield school district itself had a long tradition of commitment to culture.

Ned Corman was the name of that new teacher and bandleader, and he not only won over the town and its schools, he became a major cultural figure in the Rochester area generally. A topflight professional musician who continued working as a sideman in numerous outfits even as he taught fulltime, Ned wasn’t like much we middle-class kids had seen up close before. He was more colorful than any other teacher, for one thing. But he was no mere hippie: wisecracking and sharp but also encouraging and kind, he made working hard, swinging hard, getting better and pitching in together seem like the best use you could make of your adolescent energy and talents. He shook up the squareness and uptightness many of us had been raised with; he showed that discipline and wildness didn’t have to be at war; and that neither did fun and learning. He opened brains and ears, he suggested new ways to learn and live, and he became an inspirational teacher and figure to several generations of kids. When he wasn’t lending his own talents to whip-smart local bands or to firing local kids up, he became a major local activist and catalyst, promoting a deeper, richer musical culture in the Rochester area.

I ran into Ned during a recent visit to Penfield. As we sat and reminisced, it occurred to me that a q&a with Ned should interest a lot of people. The thousands who have known Ned deserve to know a lot more about him, for one thing. And those to whom he’s new will enjoy hearing about a heroic life in the trenches of the arts. Our view of the arts life is distorted by an overfocus on superstars, after all. What of the equally-talented hard-working pros who are the real backbone and lifeblood of the arts? Aren’t they really the people who keep our cultural life vital, on its feet and growing? We don’t know nearly enough about them.

Ned agreed to be interviewed, and he and I spent a number of hours on the phone. If I may say so myself, the result isn’t just a tribute to a beloved artist and teacher. It also provides a lot of fresh looks at a fascinating era (the regimented 1950s as they evolved into the zany ‘70s and beyond), as well as a fistful of evocative snapshots of a culturally fascinating and impressive little corner of the country. Social history to the max, y’all. And Ned’s a great character I’m certain you’ll enjoy meeting.

I hope everyone who’s intrigued and tickled by this interview will read “Now’s the Time,” Ned’s recently-published autobiography, which he wrote with Rob Enslin; at this page you can purchase the book as a hardcover or a paperback, or download it as a free PDF. “Now’s the Time” is a smart and lovely read that adds a huge amount to what Ned and I were only able to sketch in here.

Many thanks to Ned for consenting to the interview and for pitching in generously and patiently. Thanks as well to Ned and Rob for giving me permission to use many visuals from their book. Ned is now 76 and retired. He and his wife Linda, a wonderful painter, continue to be based in Penfield. As you read the interview, imagine Ned’s voice, the voice of a heartland farmboy who grew up to become a be-bopping jazzman.

***

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Ned wielding his baritone sax in the 1970s. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

Paleo Retiree: Where were you born?

Ned Corman: I was an only child, born on a farm in Central Pennsylvania, a few miles east of a town called Bellefonte. Bellefonte is about 10 miles north of State College, where Penn State is.

PR: I never pictured you as a farm boy.

NC: It was a dairy farm, roughly 250 acres. We milked 18 head of Holstein. We had some cash crops too. Dad was the third generation of the family to farm. I had a bona fide farm upbringing, with all those assets and liabilities.

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The family farm in 1953. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: What were the hours like?

NC: The responsibility of being a farm child was pitching in and helping get things done. We milked twice a day, at six in the morning and four in the afternoon.

PR: What kind of a family was it?

NC: Dad left school after eighth grade because his dad needed him on the farm to help. Mother had a high school education.

PR: Any music in either family?

NC: Of the nine siblings in Mother’s family, seven were musicians. As was her dad and mother. Nana played pump organ at the local Lutheran church until she was in her 80s. Dad was not a musician, although one of his sisters played piano. Nobody went to college, except one of my mother’s older sisters. Everyone else was in the farming world.

PR: German and Dutch?

NC: Corman generations earlier were “von,” with a K and a double N. So we came from somewhere in Germany.

PR: What did you grow up in the house enjoying, music-wise?

NC: We had a Victrola that played 78s. Some of the first 78s I heard were Artie Shaw, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman.

PR: Was there much radio-listening in the family?

NC: We always used to listen to KDKA from Pittsburgh. It was a legendary station. A fellow named Paul Leval, who was a Sousa musician and was also tied in somehow with the New York Philharmonic, had a weekly broadcast with the Band of America. A lot of transcriptions, and the popular light music of the day.

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Ned’s parents in 1935. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: Were you attracted to music right away?

NC: Not at first. Mother and Dad gave me piano lessons when I was six or seven. I wasn’t drawn to it at all, and after six months or so we decided it wasn’t a good idea.

PR: Was there any local music around Bellefonte?

NC: There was. The American Legion in Bellefonte had a band program, paid for by slot machines — slots were legal in Pennsylvania. A World War II military musician named Olin Butt directed the program. It was a full-time gig. Olin gave lessons to anybody who came along, and he built up a really remarkable program in a short period of time.

PR: Is that how you got involved with music-making?

NC: Yes. My cousin Bob had joined the American Legion band, and I thought it was neat because he had a nice uniform and everybody made a fuss over him. So I persuaded Mother and Dad to take me to Olin Butt, and that’s how I got started. I had no interest in jazz at all at that point. It was just playin’ in the American Legion concert band.

PR: What kind of music did the band play?

NC: A lot of marches, a lot of transcriptions. Olin was a master teacher. The two years that I played, the band was national champion in its category, and there was a long tradition of state champs also. But his musical tastes were fairly plebeian.

PR: What kind of other musical resources were around in your community?

NC: There was a high school band. And it was fairly remarkable too. The town of Bellefonte was at most 5000 people, and the high school band was 50 or 75 people, as was the American Legion band. They were good-size concert bands. And in addition to the junior band that Olin led, there was an intermediate and a beginners band. So throughout the town there were probably 250-300 kids who were involved in music.

PR: How about church music?

NC: The churches had choirs. I sang in one. Dad was religious and went to the Reform Church. Mother was involved in a Lutheran church in a small town down the road called Zion, which had a population of around 250 but had three well-attended churches. As country choirs went, the Lutheran church choir was a good one.

PR: Sounds like a pretty rich musical environment for a country town.

NC: Anybody that wanted to be involved in music could be.

PR: How did you settle on instruments for yourself?

NC: When Dad and I went to have our meeting with Olin, he said, “What would you like to play?” I said, “I’d really like to be a drummer.”

PR: Because who doesn’t want to be a drummer?

NC: Right. Olin said, “We’ve got enough of those.” I said, “How about trumpet?” He said, nope. I said, “There’s a trombone hanging around over there.” He said, “Nahhhhh, we got too many of them too.” “Well, whatever would you like me to do?” I said. He said, “We could always use another clarinet.” So playing the clarinet seemed like a good idea. My uncle Russ wasn’t using his own clarinet any longer, so we went to him, and that was my beginning instrument.

PR: Were your parents encouraging?

NC: I can’t remember ever wanting to do anything that they didn’t support.

PR: That’s great. Did they have many resources?

NC: We were poor. I wore one pair of shoes to church, and when I couldn’t wear them there any more, I wore them to school. When I couldn’t wear them to school any longer, I wore them in the barn. We weren’t dirt poor, but we didn’t buy food to speak of. We grew what we ate. Anything we wanted from the store we would barter for, mostly eggs. There just wasn’t money to spare.

PR: What sort of future did your parents envision for you?

NC: They wanted me to have a good life. Going to college was not something that was on their radar. I was pretty good with numbers, so I got some encouragement to be an accountant, because that was a way you didn’t have to get your hands dirty to make a living.

PR: How did your early attempts with the clarinet work out?

NC: When I finished my first lesson, Olin was very encouraging. But then he said, “You’ve got a problem.” I said, “What’s the problem?” And he said, “There’s a bunch of keys down there you aren’t going to be able to reach when you have your right hand on top and your left hand on the bottom.” I was mortified.

PR: I bet you were.

NC: I thought, “This is not going to happen to me again.” So I got invested in playing every lesson perfectly for a long time after that. By the end of the first year I’d made a lot of progress.

PR: How did you get started playing in an ensemble?

NC: In addition to the concert bands, the American Legion sponsored a dance band. It was in the old Guy Lombardo instrumentation — four saxophones, three trumpets and three trombones, and a rhythm section. A chair was going to open in that band, and Olin asked if I wanted to learn to play the saxophone to join that band. Which I did. That opened the door for me into the world of popular music and jazz.

PR: How old were you at that point?

NC: Eleven or twelve.

PR: You were that young and were invited to join the dance band?

NC: Yep. And that made me a professional musician. The band made a sizable amount of money for that part of the country. All the sidemen made three dollars. Which wasn’t in itself a lot, but for people to pay a hundred dollars or so to hire a dance band was a pretty significant business transaction.

PR: Where would the band play?

NC: We’d play parties at the American Legion one weekend, and a party for the high school, or the “teen canteen,” as it was called, the other weekend.

PR: You were helping people dance, and you were making a little money.

NC: Yup. And watching adults get drunk.

PR: That’s a good education too.

NC: It definitely broadened my horizons.

PR: When did you feel that you had musical talent of your own, and that it was really starting to kick in?

NC: It happened early because I was so embarrassed by my first lesson. Within weeks I was practicing a couple hours a day. Music’s a wonderful experience because if you work at it you get better. That circular positive reinforcement is an awful lot of what’s missing in general education. The music stuff is its own reward but the psychological stuff is great too.

PR: What was Olin’s teaching like?

NC: As a band director he was incredibly militaristic. One time I got to rehearsal late, and you just didn’t get there late for anything Olin Butt was involved with. That situation embarrassed the daylights out of me, and ever since I’ve always paranoid about being on time.

PR: It really marked you.

NC: Most people who are musicians have that same sense. You just can’t be late for things. There’s no latitude for it. I’m sure the rock and rollers and stars have a different take. But I’ve never worked with anybody that was casual about schedules. You have to be on time. The whole thing can’t go forward if you aren’t there.

PR: How did Olin want to steer you?

NC: You went from lesson sheets he’d written out himself and then into standard clarinet instruction books. He was a traditional instructor in that regard.

PR: What was the repertoire in the dance band like?

NC: There was a guy who wrote for those sorts of groups named Art Dedrick. They were arrangements of music that was popular. In the ‘40s, a tune might be on the pop charts for six months or so.

PR: So they became standards for a while.

NC: Yup. Dedrick and other guys who worked that side of the business would write something and get it published and in short order it would be available at the local music store, where Olin bought it for us.

PR: What were some of the song titles?

NC: There was a tune called “Harlem Nocturne” which has an alto saxophone solo. I got to play that, so of course I really loved “Harlem Nocturne.” There was a tune called “Celery Stalks at Midnight.”

PR: Did you play any of the bop of the era?

NC: Olin could have been a racist. When I got to Eastman School I just didn’t know anything about Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk or any of those people at all. The clarinet players I knew were all white — Woody Herman, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. But I was tearing up the clarinet, so he also offered me the saxophone spot.

PR: Was it hard to make the change from clarinet to sax?

NC: No. The fingering is fairly similar. It’s harder to go from saxophone to clarinet because the embouchure changes.

PR: Was the band stable for many years?

NC: Olin got into a pissing contest with some of the parents’ groups around the time I was 12 or 13, and he quit the gig and started a small combo, a six or seven piece band. He got tired of doing that after a couple of years. So several of us that were the leading forces of that band then formed our own outfit, the Skyliners, and we worked together through high school. It was a group of players who stayed together for six years or so.

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The Skyliners in 1952. Ned on sax with a smile on his face. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: Were you known around town as the hotshot young musician?

NC: Yup.

PR: Did it get you a lot of girls?

NC: I always thought it should have been that way but it never was. I had a high school girlfriend, but to characterize me as a swinger in high school would be, at best, an overstatement. I was known as a musician. I had the respect of many in the local music world.

PR: Looking back, would you say you were a born performer?

NC: I was always nervous as a performer. I played on the school basketball team and had a tough coach who liked to beat up on kids, though not physically. And he always called me Nervous Ned. I learned later that Jim was an opera lover.

PR: Was having both the nerves yet also the enjoyment tough?

NC: The positive reinforcement outweighed the liabilities. And I loved the attention. And there’s something that happens in your fingers and your body when you’re playing music that’s different than when you do anything else. It’s not a sexual experience, but it gets visceral.

PR: Being in the zone?

NC: That’s a phrase I identify with. A guy named Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called “Flow” a number of years ago.

PR: A good book.

NC: There were times playing when it was a true out-of-body experience — a wonderful, wonderful thing.

PR: Was it more fun for you to play as part of the band or more fun to take off on a solo?

NC: They both worked. What you do as a soloist has a different level of visibility, and the kind of attention you get is different. Still, when I was growing up, I always saw myself as being another Artie Shaw.

PR: Where was academics in the midst of all this?

NC: I graduated in the top third of my class, but I don’t remember ever studying. I must have but I don’t remember it.

PR: What were you thinking about your future?

NC: There came a time when I was a junior when Dad said, “You ought to figure out what you want to do after high school. If you want to, we can have the arrangement I had with my dad. I can retire and you can run the farm and I’ll help you make the whole thing go.” He was effectively giving me the farm. I said that I really loved being on the farm and milking the cows was good fun, but I couldn’t see doing it my whole life. I was having a good time playing the clarinet and saxophone and said, “Maybe I should think about going to music school.”

PR: How’d you wind up at Eastman School of Music specifically?

NC: When I was a junior I played in an all-state band that was led by Frederick Fennell, who was on faculty at Eastman School, where he had founded the Eastman Wind Ensemble. Mr. Fennell had a wonderful network of composers and was able to get people to write music for next to nothing. Early on he developed a close relationship with Mercury Records, which recorded the Wind Ensemble right away.

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The Eastman Wind Ensemble in the 1950s. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: Was Fennell a gifted conductor too?

NC: If you didn’t have fun playing music with Fred Fennell you should just die. He was a really inspirational conductor — so much so that he was ridiculed for his vivacity. Anyway, I played again for him in an all-state band as a senior. And I went up to him and said “I had a good time playing last year, I’m having a good time playing this year, would you listen to me play for ten minutes?” And he said yes. So he listened to me play for ten minutes, and he was impressed, I think.

PR: You were starting to think of college.

NC: Getting ready for college in ‘54-‘55 was different than it is today. I graduated in ‘55, but by the fall of ‘54, I hadn’t even started to narrow down where I wanted to go to college, let alone apply.

PR: Was it entirely Fennell’s influence that steered you to Eastman?

NC: I had also stayed in touch with Olin Butt over the years. Olin said to me, “I just learned that a guy named Stan Hasty is going to be on board at Eastman, and as far as I can learn, he’s the best guy for anybody to study with.” So now it was clear that I wanted to go to Eastman School. I played an audition at Eastman School in May, and then I was put on a waiting list. I spent most of the summer on tenterhooks. But sometime in August we got a letter saying, “Get on up here if you want to.” So I started at Eastman in fall of ‘55.

PR: Tell me a bit more about Stan Hasty.

NC: Stan Hasty had played principal clarinet in Washington, in Indianapolis, in Cleveland and in Pittsburgh by the time he was 35. He had taught along the way, and he was a magnificent pedagogue. I never heard anybody who’d studied with Stan who didn’t say Stan was the best teacher of the clarinet.

PR: So there you are, at a high-powered school in a genuine city. That’s got to have been a big change.

NC: A huge adjustment. As I said, Bellefonte is a town of about 5,000.

PR: Had you spent much time in cities by that point?

NC: I had no real big-city experience under my belt at all when I got to Eastman School. It was a terribly rude adjustment. I was a hotshot in Bellefonte, a classic big fish in a small pond. At Eastman I was a small fish in a big pond.

PR: That’s an adjustment for sure. What’s another example of the kinds of adjustments you had to make?

NC: Here I was at Eastman, and Fennell had been suitably impressed, and so he made me first clarinet in the junior orchestra. There were no other freshman clarinet players in the orchestra. I had never played in a symphony orchestra in my life. I had no idea what the hell the repertoire was, I had no idea what the hell was going on. At the first orchestra concert there was a clarinet cadenza in a Ravel piece called “Le Coq d’Or.” I butchered the solo. And because of that, until I was a senior, I was on Fennell’s shit list.

PR: So it was trial by fire in many ways for you.

NC: I got laid low all over the place. And I was homesick to boot.

PR: What kind of jazz were the students into?

NC: I had no idea what bebop was — that was another adjustment. But bebop was the jazz voice of the jazzers at Eastman School at the time.

PR: Were they studying it?

NC: There was no jazz program at Eastman School. Anything that went on in the jazz idiom was underground. Jazz was not sanctioned.

PR: There was no institutional support for jazz at all?

NC: None at all. There was a big band, but it was a student-run big band. Jazz just didn’t exist so far as the school or faculty was concerned.

PR: Why? Was it snobbery?

NC: Well, jazz was just a second-class citizen in those days. There were no jazz-training programs anywhere in the country. The first school-sponsored jazz ensemble didn’t happen until about 1967. At Eastman itself, a formal jazz curriculum didn’t start until the early ‘70s.

PR: Now that you say that, I remember the moment. It was big local news in Rochester. So you were immersed for four years in classical music and training.

NC: Scholastically yes. What I learned about the jazz idiom I learned from schoolmates and other folks in town.

PR: It all must have been overwhelming.

NC: Being as confused as I was when I got here as a freshman, I was nevertheless in the presence of all this incredible music and musicians. And they were musicians who practiced. I mean, I practiced hard, but people at Eastman School were nuts, for Christ’s sake. When I was a high school student, I would sometimes practice three or four hours a day. But when I got to Eastman School, there were piano players who practiced eight hours a day, and who did it every day.

PR: How did their wrists and elbows survive?

NC: I don’t think anyone knew about carpal tunnel syndrome in those days.

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Stan Hasty in 1955. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: Did you take to classical studies right away?

NC: I did. I was working with Stan Hasty, and as I said he was a great teacher. I got drawn into his influence and sphere immediately. Stan and I became very good friends and we remained friends. Stan just died a year and a half ago. I used to say to him, “As good as clarinet teacher as you were, you were an even better psychiatrist, because nobody could figure out what to do with me better than you did.”

PR: It’s nice to run into somebody like that.

NC: In my freshman year, I probably had thirty clarinet lessons scheduled with Stan. If I took half of them it was a lot, and the ones that weren’t lessons, Stan and I went and drank coffee. Either I was playing particularly poorly and he couldn’t deal with it any more, or I think he may have been particularly hung over and it was paining him to listen. So I’d just say, “Let’s go get coffee.” That’s how our friendship began and developed.

PR: How did these coffee sessions help in a pedagogical sense?

NC: I just know that we went and talked, and this was somebody I admired, and he treated me with a lot of respect.

PR: What’s an example?

NC: I remember one morning when I think Stan was hung over and I said, “Let’s get coffee.” My lessons that year were on Friday, and Philharmonic concerts were on Thursday night. I got Stan to talk about the Philharmonic concert the previous night. It was one of the most informative conversations I ever had, because the anecdote simply was that he and June were having a party after the concert, and when he was about the leave the house two hours before concert time, his wife June said, “The dishwasher’s broken.” So he takes the dishwasher apart, and he’s got grime and grease all over his hands when he gets to the theater, and he’s late, and there’s a message to come by the conductor’s dressing-room, that the maestro wants to talk. So Stan gets himself dressed — he doesn’t have time to warm up, he still has grease on his hands. He goes up and talks to the conductor, and the conductor says, “Oh, by the way, here in this Mozart symphony, instead of playing these four measures, leave them out.” That was as dramatic as anything I’d ever heard. I mean, what a jerk. The lesson for me that day was, if I aspire to something that’s so high as this great art of music, and I’m going to end up before a performance being told by the conductor that I’m going to be leaving out some measures of music, that’s not exactly the way I’d like to live my life.

PR: That must have shaken your ambition to become a classical performer.

NC: Right.

PR: I sometimes think of music — what with the practice and the perfectionism — as being a little like writing, quite solitary. But in fact so much of it consists of being able to work with other people.

NC: Yup. Unless you’re a solo artist, you’re part of an ensemble, and you better be able to get along with your fellow players.

PR: Still, you put in a lot of time studying classical. What were the classical studies at Eastman like in those days?

NC: In the standard curriculum, you had to do at least two years of theory — if you didn’t complete the second year satisfactorily, then you had to take a third year. You also had to have rudimentary piano chops.

PR: Did they try to give you a passable college education on top of the specialized music stuff?

NC: You had to have at least some part of a liberal arts degree. There was Phys Ed, and there were language arts classes. There were a number of Eastman School students who took courses at the University of Rochester. I did not.

PR: Did you show up at Eastman thinking, “I want to have a life as a performer”? “A composer”? Did you have teaching in mind when you started there?

NC: I saw myself as another generation’s Woody Herman or Artie Shaw or Benny Goodman. But as part of the orientation process at Eastman, Mother and Dad and I got together with the Dean of Students. She suggested strongly that I be a music education major and a performance minor. The logic was simply, if you’re not able to make it as a player you can always fall back on your teaching gig.

PR: So that became your track?

NC: Yep — I was in music education. In sophomore year, you began to learn to play all of the other band and orchestral instruments, so that when you graduated you had at least a level of proficiency in all the instruments you were likely to be called upon to teach.

PR: How’d you get started with actual music teaching?

NC: I had a car my Dad had bought me. The band director at one of the local high schools learned that I had the car, and he called me up and he said, “I’ve got a number of students who, if they could have lessons at their houses, would take private lessons. Would you be willing to run around to their houses and give them lessons?” This was my first real taste of being a bona fide teacher, where somebody put real money in my hands for having taught.

PR: Was that the only teaching you did during your college years?

NC: No. The city of Rochester had an outstanding music program in those days. Part of that program was a very large class lesson program that the city school district sponsored on Saturdays. I taught in those programs throughout college as well.

PR: Did you take to teaching right away?

NC: I enjoyed the interaction with the kids. There were some kids that were really interested and some kids that weren’t, which is what you deal with any time you’re in a class situation: You have a variety of interests and a variety of levels. I’d get frustrated with the kids who didn’t practice. But on balance I was very glad to do it.

PR: What was your involvement with jazz like?

NC: There was the unofficial big band. I didn’t play in that my first couple of years, but I did the last two. And there was a lot of jazz activity in Rochester in those days.

PR: What was the jazz scene like in Rochester in the ‘50s?

NC: It wasn’t on a level with New York’s, but it was very good for a city the size of Rochester. There were three or four jazz clubs in town. One was a place called the Ridgecrest Inn, another was a place called the Pythodd Hall. So there was live jazz music six or seven nights a week. I heard Miles and Dizzy at Ridgecrest. A lot of the greatest stars performed in town regularly.

PR: Were you able to perform with any of the local pro bands?

NC: One of the local highlights was a group called The Jazz Brothers, which was Gap and Chuck Mangione’s group. Chuck matriculated at Eastman School my senior year. We’d gotten to know each other before that. Over time, I never was a regular member of that sextet, but I subbed for the alto saxophone player, Larry Combs. That kept me active outside of the school.

PR: How did you meet Gap and Chuck?

NC: Gap and Chuck were local heroes already when they were coming out of high school. I don’t remember any more how the connections were made, but I do remember that we used to have jam sessions in the practice rooms at Eastman School. And there were club jam sessions too. On any given night that you showed up at one of those jam sessions there might be 50 or 75 musicians around. You’d say hello to each other and get drunk and do your stuff.

PR: Did you waver at all in your studies at Eastman? Did you think about giving up the jazz and just pursuing classical music?

NC: No. In fact, my objective as an Eastman School student was to succeed on the jazz side of things. I just didn’t see myself being a classical player. My first few years at Eastman School so far as being a clarinet player weren’t entirely a waste but they weren’t particularly productive. To boot, there was just a deluge of wonderful clarinet players who began to arrive to follow Stan Hasty. There was practically a pipeline from Interlochen Music Academy to Eastman School in those days.

PR: What was that like on your ego?

NC: That was the way life is, so you get on with what you’re getting on with. Stan kept encouraging me. At the beginning of my junior year he said, “Look, if you get your shit together and work hard, I’ll be inclined to nominate you to play an audition for a performer’s certificate.” The school gave maybe two dozen of them a year. So it was a pretty hot honor. I was starting to get myself together a little bit more by then, and I really went to work on the clarinet my junior year.

PR: He really believed in you.

NC: Yup. I played the performer’s audition and prevailed, and then my senior year did my performer’s recital and concerto with symphony orchestra.

PR: So you had that under your belt.

NC: I’m pretty sure I could have had a successful career as a classical clarinet player, though I don’t think it would have been at a really high level. But the classical-music sensibility always wore hard on me.

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Ned (left) at Eastman School in 1956. Ron Carter, the great bassist and a fellow Eastman student, on far right. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: Did the jazzers at Eastman coexist affably with the classical people?

NC: There was some meshing and some friction. Jazzers often had a chip on their shoulders because the formal Eastman wouldn’t pay them any attention or any heed. So you pissed on whomever there was to piss on, I suppose. There was always Howard Hanson, because Howard Hanson didn’t pay any attention to the jazzers. He was a moldy fig.

PR: I remember Hanson’s music.

NC: He was a very romantic composer. I’ve always loved his music, but the main bill of fare at Eastman School at the time was Schoenberg, Webern and Berg, and already electronic music was starting to have its impact. So the kind of music that Howard Hanson wrote, again he was a moldy fig.

PR: In the ‘70s, when I was in college and taking a few music courses, most of the music departments were pretty hardcore avant-garde. Electronic, 12 tone, Milton Babbitt … In your era was that stuff around a lot?

NC: It was, yeah. The currency wasn’t as great in the mid and late ‘50s as when you were in college. But I can’t imagine that the periods didn’t have a lot of similarities.

PR: Practically speaking, how did you see your future as a musician?

NC: My evolution as a jazz player was similar to my evolution as a classical player. I was “good, but not as good as.” But one of the things I learned from an upperclassman while at Eastman School was that there was a great opportunity in the music world in those days if you were a doubler.

PR: What’s a doubler?

NC: A player who could do well on multiple instruments.

PR: So you focused on that?

NC: The success that I had as a player wasn’t as a result of being a star on one or another instrument. My success was that I could play a whole bunch of things well.

PR: How did your performing life get started after you graduated from Eastman?

NC: When I graduated I didn’t have a teaching gig, so I decided to stay on in town and play in the Wind Ensemble with Fred Fennell. In the time I played with them we made six recordings — it was the most prolific period of that organization. Then, the summer after I graduated, I signed on to play this Arrangers Holiday thing with Rayburn Wright, who came into town every year from Radio City Music Hall. And simultaneously, I started to play summer stock in East Rochester in the Town and Country Playhouse.

PR: You still had connections with some of those outfits years later, I recall.

NC: I did summer stock beginning in ‘59 through the early ‘70s, and Arrangers Holiday even longer than that. I became a successful commodity there because I was such a good flute doubler. And I got good at piccolo, and then English Horn and bassoon. Getting into the third and fourth year after graduating, I was a valuable item because Ray could say to his composers, “Write whatever you want for these instruments, Corman will take care of it.” There were times when I would carry seven or eight instruments.

PR: That’s an armful.

NC: The basics were clarinet, flute and piccolo, the baritone sax, oboe, English horn and bassoon. I didn’t do a lot of recorder but it came up from time to time.

PR: During that stretch, what became of the teaching?

NC: I didn’t have a gig for the first semester after college, but I was hired afterwards and taught in the Greece school district. I taught at Barnard Elementary School for two and a half years, and taught one more year at Olympia High School, where I started a jazz program.

PR: Did teaching supply your main income at that point?

NC: Yeah, but I was gigging all the time as well. I also started to work with Chuck Mangione. In addition to the sextet, he fronted a big band, and he also had a ten piece band. I was Chuck’s baritone sax player. Part of it was because I could do the flute and alto flute doubles. So during that time and for a bunch of years after, I had a two-pronged career. One was teaching school, and the other was nearly fulltime gigging as a freelance musician.

PR: Rochester’s great, but did you ever want to make it to the big city?

NC: I stayed in town because I’d fallen in love with a singer who was several years younger than I was at Eastman School. When she graduated, she left town and our romance fell apart. More and more Eastman graduates were moving to New York City at this point and finding successful careers in the business — in studios, Broadway shows and Radio City Music Hall. I had my connections to Rayburn Wright at the Music Hall. So when Marianne and I split my plan then was to move as soon as I could and pursue a career in New York City. A confounding variable was that the draft was still in existence. I had a student deferment while I was at Eastman School and a teaching deferment while I was at the Greece School District. And then I got a call from the Fred Waring organization saying, “Would you join us in the fall of ‘63?”

PR: How had they heard of you?

NC: A friend from Eastman, Eugene Tettamanti, had gone on the road with them. When he left them, he said, “Get ahold of Corman, he’s the guy you want for the chair.” So I got the call to do the gig. I said, “I’d like to do the gig but I’m scared my ass is going to be trouble because of the draft.” Well, Fred Waring and Ike Eisenhower were very close friends. The Waring folks said, “Fred will reach out to Ike Eisenhower and will get you deferred.” So I resigned my teaching gig to go on the road with Waring. I guess they didn’t move quickly enough, because two weeks later I got a pre-induction notice, and that scared the shit out of me. I would have been one of those people who went to Canada to avoid the draft.

PR: This would have been when?

NC: Summer of ‘63.

PR: Vietnam was really cranking up at that point.

NC: Yup. So I was scared. As happenstance has it, I couldn’t find another teaching gig. There was nothing available that interested me at all. But a musicologist friend at Eastman knew someone at Penn State, near my hometown of Bellefonte. He said, “Why don’t you run on down there and go to school? You can live at home and save your money. You’ll have a good time with Denis Stevens, and you can be back in school and avoid the draft.” So I called the guy who was the chair of the music department at Penn State, and he cut through all the red tape and I enrolled in their first graduate school year.

PR: And you had a student deferment. What became of the Waring organization’s offer?

NC: I told them, “I can’t go, I’m going to get drafted.” They said, “If the time comes when you’re ready to do it, let us know.” So their offer went on the back burner.

PR: And it was back to Pennsylvania for you.

NC: I’d been away from home for eight years, and I pick up the phone to Mom and Dad and say, “Guess who’s coming home?” But they were wonderful people, and nothing could have made them happier than having me back at home. Well, I suppose.

PR: It must have been strange for you to be a student again.

NC: I became Denis Stevens’ graduate assistant. I have to have the most bogus masters degree of anyone anywhere. I was taking the classes that I was also teaching for him. Denis was a real star in the musicology world. We’d go somewhere and he’d introduce me as his graduate assistant, and somebody would fall on the floor and kiss my shoes.

PR: What was your relationship to New York City during this stretch?

NC: I was visiting periodically. Marianne’s home was Long Island, so during the time we were together I’d gotten to New York a number of times. And I was staying in touch with Eastman School colleagues who had gone on to New York to start to make their career there. I had the beginning of a network down there.

PR: Despite everything, did you consider it inevitable that you’d go to New York one day?

NC: That was the plan. Then, while I was in the masters degree program at Penn State, in the fall of ‘64 I got another call from Waring, saying that the guy who played lead the first half of the tour wants to split, do you want to come on the band the second half of the tour? So I went to work with Waring in January of ‘65. The plan was to do Waring for a couple or three years and practice my ass off while I was on the road. By the time I’d finished my masters degree, I was too old to be drafted.

PR: What were the financial arrangements?

NC: Waring paid very well. And we always stayed at the best hotel in town. There was no per diem in those days, but the lodging was always good. I think I made $250 a week.

PR: That sounds like a lot.

NC: It would be a couple of thousand a week today, I suppose.

fred_waring_band_1965

The Fred Waring band in the 1960s, Ned visible among the sax players. (Photo used with permission from Ned Corman and Rob Enslin)

PR: Was the Waring Band still a big deal?

NC: In Mr. Waring’s early years the band was the biggest thing going — he worked with Sinatra and Crosby. And the remnants of that still existed during the couple of years I toured with him.

PR: What sorts of gigs did you do? What kinds of crowds did you attract?

NC: We played only concerts. At that point he remained very big in the midwest and the west, not so much in the east. We never played New York City, though we did play Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington. And Rochester was a regular on the tour. I played Eastman Theater a couple of times with the Waring company, and that was a big thrill.

PR: I bet.

NC: In the better venues, where he was hotter, we might draw 10,000 people. Our shows at Eastman Theater always sold out. Mr. Waring had a place in Palm Springs, so that was part of the tour. We’d be in the Palm Springs area for four or five days. We played in an airplane hangar out there. It was a benefit for thousands of people — Bob Hope was the emcee.  The atmosphere in Palm Springs was heady stuff.

PR: How long were you with Waring?

NC: A year and a half. His year had two legs, fall and spring. I did the spring leg first year, and fall and spring the second year. I would have gone out a third year with him — it was his 50th anniversary and I really wanted to play that.

PR: What happened?

NC: I was negotiating with him and we’d agreed on a bigger salary for me the third. But as it happened, I got knocked off my motorcycle in the summer of ‘66 and I wasn’t ambulatory until late in the year.

PR: What was Fred Waring like? What was your relationship with him like?

NC: If you were on time and did what you were supposed to, you could work for him for life.

PR: That was a challenge?

NC: It was a classic sideman-leader antagonism.

PR: I don’t know what those dynamics are like.

NC: Well, there’s a natural antagonism between sidemen and conductors. One of the things I always took great pride in was that there was no conductor that I couldn’t get.

PR: What do you mean by “get”?

NC: If the conductor was being a jerk, I could figure out how to slow him down somehow. Just set a trap for the conductor and they always step in it. You never look at them when they want you to look at them. Or you never have your horn in your mouth until the very last instant. When you do that, conductors know that they’re being had and they tend to temper what’s annoying.

PR: How annoying do conductors tend to be?

NC: All conductors are not jerks, but lots are. It takes a particular bent to be a conductor. You have to have a frame of mind of bending to your will the 20 or 100 musicians in front of you.

PR: So there’s some antagonism.

NC: It can be a contest of wills. A conductor wants something to happen one way, and it doesn’t seem like the most musical thing to do to the sideman. It’s a delicate balance, because you don’t want to torpedo a musical performance. Your objective isn’t to ruin the music. But your object is to maintain your musical integrity within the sphere that the conductor is laying down. I’m pretty sure that if you went to any orchestra in the world and had candid conversations, sidemen would pretty much all tell you want I’m telling you.

PR: To be a conductor must take a lot of ego.

NC: Oh, absolutely. I have a couple of conductors who I consider friends. But I’m not sure if I were playing in an orchestra they were conducting that I’d continue being friends with them. Toscanini was a tyrant. He was respected for his musicianship but he was hated for being a tyrant. Buddy Rich was a flaming jerk — most everybody who worked for him hated him as a person. If you Google Buddy Rich and go hunting around, there are pages of players putting down Buddy.

PR: Are there big contrasts between classical conductors and jazz band leaders?

NC: I don’t think it’s peculiar to classical or jazz. The mutual antagonism between conductor and sideman stems from the same place on both sides.

PR: So you’re out there on tour. What did you learn?

NC: In a sense, I learned more working with Waring than I did at Eastman School, certainly about show business and how the real music world works as opposed to the conservatory. You played some music that wasn’t very good. A lot was very good, but there were always three or four gag tunes in the show that had entertainment value but little musical value.

PR: Was it rocky between you and Fred Waring?

NC: It was at first. My relationship with Mr. Waring goes something like this. I show up on the tour having ridden the bus from NYC to Chicago, 16 hours or so. Get a few hours sleep, have a rehearsal and I have my first gig with Waring and the Pennsylvanians. And I did well. Three or four weeks later we arrive in Reno, Nevada. Everything’s going very well. I’m playing the book, it’s going the way it’s supposed to be. Now, Mr. Waring would do things that most conductors wouldn’t do. His motivation for doing things that way was that he was reading the audience — changing stuff or pulling stuff unexpectedly. But really, I think, he was trying to get you. In Reno, we played the Spark’s Nugget. And in one particular show there, Mr. Waring changed something. I did something wrong, and he dropped a line on me. It pissed me off, so I yelled back at him.

PR: You yelled back at the boss?

NC: I did. So I’m yelling at the conductor in the middle of a show.

PR: Oh dear. What followed?

NC: Well, I’d become good friends with his son Fred Jr., who played trombone in the band. Freddy and his dad didn’t get along. It was a classic father/son thing, I suppose. They were both drop-dead good-looking dudes and sometimes, I think, they were both hitting on the same women. It was something. Fred Sr. wanted Fred Jr. to do whatever it is fathers want sons to do and Fred Jr. was just a recalcitrant son.

PR: Fun relationship.

NC: Anyway, after the yelling thing, I went to Freddie Jr. and said, “Oh, shit, man, my days are numbered. What do I do?” He said, “Go to the old man’s dressing room and knock on the door. He’ll tell you to come in. You go in, you apologize for being a jerk and you walk away.” And that’s what I did. Ever after that, Mr. Waring and I had a wonderful relationship.

PR: What was your life like during this stretch? Did you have an apartment?

NC: During the time I was on the road, my mailing address continued to be mother and dad’s home.

PR: How many weeks were you on the road?

NC: Waring worked two legs of about 15 weeks each. You could collect unemployment off-season in those days as well. So in between the legs I went to Bellefonte and hung out there. I had a network of musician friends in State College. The musicians’ fraternity there, Phi Mu Alpha, had a big band, and I led the big band.

PR: What were the other musicians in the Waring band like?

NC: Mostly there were two categories, the old-timers and the new hired hands. There were very few who worked the show for more than three years. But if you were around for three years you were probably going to be a lifer.

PR: What was it about the three-year barrier?

NC: It had to do with being able to put up with what you had to put with. It takes a very particular kind of personality to play the same show night after night. Very few people flourish on playing the same show for thirty weeks a year.

PR: What are some of the things that people who follow music but aren’t pros don’t understand about the pro world?

NC: Most people that I know who are not musicians — musicians sometimes call them “civilians” — have very little accurate sense of how hard it is to make music by yourself let alone with a group of other people. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour thing is an underestimate. While I was on the road, for three years, if I wasn’t practicing four or six or even eight hours a day, it was the exception. It was a long, hard slog.

PR: Night after night, you’ve got to perform at a really high level.

NC: Even people who are amateur musicians I don’t think have a very clear perception of how sharp you have to be to make professional-level things happen wonderfully.

PR: Plus there’s managing the life of it.

NC: Any time you perform, if they don’t clap as hard as you hope they will you’re disappointed.

PR: So even if you’re working at a high level there are frustrations. What are some of the challenges involved when you’re touring? Is it hard to get the energy and concentration up night after night?

NC: There are people who can play night after night and not seem to be bored. And then there are people who do it and they’re always pissed-off about it. Psychologically I’m not sure what’s going on there. Part of my own makeup is when I was growing up I was taught at home always to do what you were told, you had to work hard to get the job done and be a reliable human being. So I could almost always get myself into whatever that “flow” frame of mind is. I was concentrating on doing something better than I’d done it before. I had a few bad nights, but by and large it became an interesting challenge for me to be fresh and vital each night.

PR: Plus there are people in the world who have no problems with authority and some people who have issues with it.

NC: That’s part of it, yup. And usually it’s the drummer or the lead trumpet player.

PR: Why’s that?

NC: They’re usually more stubborn. Bombastic maybe isn’t the right word —

PR: But it’s a good word.

NC: Drummers and first trumpet players usually have the biggest egos in the band. They have the biggest attitudes. They’re the most exposed. With Waring, there were two lead trumpet players, and there was never any conflict on stage, but there was lots of yelling and screaming offstage. It’s a natural thing.

PR: Is it something about the instruments themselves?

NC: You have certain cojones if you play lead trumpet because you’re sticking out there. Even in the saxophone section, playing lead, you have to take more chances. It’s just a different feeling sitting on the bottom of things than being on the top. As a baritone sax player you can really be ridiculous — you can hold over or extend. But you can’t do it as a lead alto player. A lead trumpet player will kiss off — he’ll always stick on for a millisecond later than the rest of the band. That sound is a characteristic of big band playing. But you can’t get away with that if you’re the fourth trumpet player.

PR: It was the ‘60s. What did you encounter so far as drugs and booze went?

NC: I drank too much but I was never into the drug culture. Most of the people I knew who did drugs, I wasn’t around when they did them. In music circles, everybody was fairly circumspect about who you shot up with, or did coke or weed with. Because I didn’t use drugs at all I was never part of that thing that was going on.

PR: How about in between the dates? I’m thinking of corny movies when the musicians play bop on their own time and explore the cool neighborhoods of the city. Anything to that?

NC: The old-timers always knew where the action was in town. Between what they’d tell you and what maybe some friends or schoolmates who lived in town knew, you’d go to clubs. It was a lot of fun the first year for me, because of my friendship with Fred Jr. I don’t know how much time you’ve spent with stars or stars’ sons, but the waters part when they walk in to a place. The maitre d’s all know them, so they get preferential treatment. A bunch of us had a couple of days off after a Reno date and we went to Vegas. While we were there Frank Sinatra Jr. was there and Dino Martin was there. So one of the evenings in Vegas I was out and about with Frank Sinatra Jr., Dino Martin and Fred Waring Jr.

PR: That’s great. What did the evening consist of?

NC: They were getting drunk and tearing it up and doing what everyone who was 30 years old would do. But they were known when they went into the casino, so that made things different and a lot easier.

PR: How did the musicians in the Waring band view the music they were performing?

NC: By and large it was a gig. I don’t remember there being any laggards. One thing I learned is that it’s real important you can control yourself and be on top and deliver when you have to deliver. I learned about lighting. There were maybe 20 singers as well as the band, and a small string section. You were playing a wide variety of music to appeal to a wide variety in the audience. And you did that at a high professional level.

PR: I hear that some people love life on the road and some don’t.

NC: I was in the middle. I never minded it, and I enjoyed the standing poker games on the bus. A quarter and a half game that the old-timers played and a nickel and dime game for the youngsters. I was a really good poker player. I made nearly as much money playing poker as I did being a musician. I just sent my check home every week and lived off what I made playing poker. But I wasn’t unhappy when life on the road ended.

PR: How did you keep your chops in shape?

NC: I practiced my ass off. Lots of times I would practice for an hour or two after the show. And if the bus didn’t leave early in the morning I’d get up and practice in the morning too. And if the bus got in early in the afternoon I’d practice then too. So it wasn’t unusual for me to practice three or even six hours a day.

PR: Wow.

NC: My purpose was to become a whiz-bang flute player. I was a good clarinet player but I wanted to sound like a good classical flutist as well.

PR: How’d you do?

NC: I did very well. From the Waring show years forward, I was a good flute player.

***

Come back tomorrow for Part Two of my five-part interview with Ned Corman.

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About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog 2Blowhards.com. Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in Art, Education, Interviews, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to A Week With Ned Corman: Day One

  1. amac78 says:

    Great interview. Pre-teen farmboy milking at 6am — not the origin story I’d have expected. Something in common with outstanding scientists I’ve known, is Ned’s return to discipline, and the development of self-discipline. I look around (and within), and don’t see that as a characteristic value of this place and time. (Maybe Agnostic will add some perspective…)

    Like

  2. MusicLover167 says:

    Wow, from farm boy to playing jazz with great big bands — what a journey! I’m looking forward to where Ned’s story goes from here. And what an informative immersion in the music life of another era.

    You’ve got me looking up and listening to Frederick Fennell and the Eastman Wind Ensemble over at YouTube — great stuff.

    Like

  3. Pingback: A Week With Ned Corman: Day Two | Uncouth Reflections

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  6. Pingback: A Week With Ned Corman: Day Five | Uncouth Reflections

  7. Pingback: The Best of UR 2014 | Uncouth Reflections

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