Weekend Edition: Play the fife lowly

James Bornemeier

James Bornemeier

My thoughts focused sharply last week on my old chum Richard McDonnell.

I was listening to the great jazz alto player Cannonball Adderley on one of his more sedate and obscure recording sessions with his friend, the cerebral jazz pianist Bill Evans. Although Cannon got off some of his unmistakable saxophone licks, his performance bore little resemblance to the explosive, head-nodding sheets of hip funk he produced in the ‘50s, usually with his brother, Nat, on cornet.

In those days, Richard and I would spend hours listening to Adderley, marveling at how his rolling virtuosic technique could produce such earthy, timeless jazz pronouncements. That is why there will only be one Cannonball per this present version of Earth.

Richard was one of those rare guys who, even during childhood, you knew was special. A warm, big-hearted fellow in first grade, he never changed, never picked up any of the grit that attaches to so many of us along the way. I saw him at a 20th high school reunion in suburban St. Louis and he was the exact mature version of the jolly, earnest third-grade classmate who insisted, despite Miss Huckey’s clear demonstrations otherwise, that leaves were the engines of plant growth and not roots. Like Julia Roberts, he seemed to have extra teeth to populate his smile. I cannot think of him with closed lips.

Back when elementary schools offered “enrichment” along with the basics, Richard and I started on clarinet in the fourth grade. I used a school-owned metal clarinet, but Richard brought a real (wood) one from home. I soon found out why. He came from a big family and lived in a sprawling, unostentatious house off by itself on Dougherty Ferry Road, away from the old and new subdivisions where most of us lived. His many siblings had access to several musical instruments, either the Hammond organ in the spacious living room or the nearby grand piano, the accordion, or the cello (although I may be making that up). As far as I can recall, Richard was the only McDonnell who tackled the clarinet and saxophone.
We both became proficient and would wile away rainy afternoons in the McDonnell manse playing Bach fugues transcribed as woodwind duets. After particularly adroit readings, Mrs. McDonnell would come out from her kitchen, clapping in approval. Not surprisingly, in such an atmosphere we would play for hours, rewarding ourselves afterward with some Cannonball upstairs in Richard’s room.

Ours was a big suburban high school that had a notable music program, and Richard and I flung ourselves into the various opportunities. I hated marching band and the pungent red woolen uniforms, but Richard never seemed to mind. Eventually, by junior year we had risen through the audition ranks to be the top clarinetists. The only remaining contest was who would be the concert band’s first clarinet and who would get the slightly more prestigious chair in the orchestra. The school musical director and possibly two other aspiring clarinetists had some interest in the outcome. Richard and I could not have cared less, such was our inviolable bond as brothers in Bach duets. I went to the orchestra and Richard the band. To this day the years collapse when I hear the clarinet triplet figure at the end of the first movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony: That was me in high school.

Richard and I were also founding members in a schoolmate’s crackerjack extracurricular dance band that played for proms, wedding receptions and whatever. Ten dollars a gig. Fittingly, Richard ably led the five-man sax section on alto. The “book” was big band hits from the ‘40s and ‘50s, an Ellington here, a Glenn Miller there, “The Party’s Over” at the end. We, in white tuxedo jackets, played for our senior prom, which a yearbook photo documents.

I went to a Big Ten music school with thoughts of a saxophone-borne livelihood. That came to a quick end as I segued into liberal arts and wound up, after defending the Caribbean from Communist invasion aboard a Navy destroyer, a newspaperman.

Richard became an investment banker. After three sons and 30 years of the business life, he then did a most remarkable thing: He formed a jazz record label. First, he recorded St. Louis-area musicians, but soon expanded his roster to top-tier national artists like pianist Mulgrew Miller, guitarist Russell Malone and a stable of wonderful jazz singers. He became a beneficent pillar of the St. Louis jazz scene, and performers across the country held him in high regard as a knowing but stay-out-of-the-way producer of their art. “Let the music tell the story” was his lodestar.

On February 7, a Friday, his habitual jazz night out, Richard was at a local club enjoying the estimable duo of pianist Bill Charlap and tenorman Houston Person. He had a stroke, never came to and died the next day, his sons and his music all around him. I cannot help but smile at the cunning timing of his death.

Sweet dreams, my friend.