Leonard Gagliardi passed away in May. Who was Leonard Gagliardi? He was a passionate, soulful, humorous, serious, hard-working, underpaid, demanding, romantic, loyal, competitive, old-fashioned, modern, dogmatic, maddening, dedicated band director. He was my band director. You could almost call him a band dictator. If anyone could get dozens of lazy teenagers to win first place at half-time competitions and jazz band festivals he was the one.
Mr. G recruited me from Taft High, an upper middle-class school known for its football team, not for its music. He heard me playing quite sadly in my junior high school band, but I suppose could see my potential as less-than-sad. Maybe it’s because I was one of the very few who were actually trying to improvise.
The first thing Mr. G did was to get me to study with Charlie Shoemake, a vibraphonist who played for a few years with George Shearing. He set up this intense system teaching jazz, focussing on learning the masters’ solos. Over the three years I came to my Saturday afternoon lessons, I lmemorized over 100 solos by Bird, Sonny, etc.
Besides being extremely passionate about music and his bands, he loved his wife dearly. Every time he talked about her his eyes lit up and he smiled. He also lit up when he talked about his Peugeot, but not as much.
A couple weeks ago, in the sleepy coastal of Port Hueneme north of Los Angeles where had lived for so long, and had commuted 40 minutes each way to Reseda High School, close to a hundred people gathered to celebrate his life. Joe Gray, an alto saxophonist (class of ’74) put together a big band of alumni spanning close to 30 G-years. The band, a mix of mostly men (one woman) whose skills ranged from just hanging in there, to active professionals, swung on at least a dozen arrangements provided by Mr. Gray. Although we weren’t ready for prime time, the feeling was there, and I am sure Mr. Gagliardi would have smiled that big smile of his (and had a few notes).
I had the opportunity to visit Mr. G about eight years ago. He had lost his wife, traded in his Peugeot, and still lived in the same house he had been for decades. When I sat down with him in his very modest living room, he pulled out his scrap books. He loved remembering the different bands, and what festivals they played, and what awards they got, and who went on to become professionals.
One scrap book, the one whose pages he lingered on the most and turned the most delicately, was the one about his wife. She was an actress from Belgium, quite the looker in her day, and had been attached to one of the movie studios back in the 50s and 60s, and had played bit parts in several movies, and did some theater. Oh, he loved Mrs.G.
At the end of the memorial two weeks ago, after the speeches, and the last chart was butchered, I mean played, Mr. G’s very close friend Alisa, a woman who was in the drill team in the late 50s, pulled me aside. “Mr, G was so proud of you. I want you to take his saxophone. He would want you to have it.” I couldn’t believe it. I was so honored. This was the old Martin tenor he played in the army band in the early 40s. Mr. G always talked about the old days, playing with the bands, but never pulled the horn out. Never gave us a little taste of his past.
When I met the next day with Alisa and opened the slightly dusty case, flipping the sticky latches, the horn almost glowed. Even after all these years you could tell he took care of it. He must have pulled it out every once in a while and cleaned it, oiled its keys, held it in his hands and reminisced about the swing era. I wonder if he had regrets. When I think about all the love and joy he gave to teaching I am sure he didn’t.
We will all miss Mr. G, and remember him with love and fondness.