I recently posted this on my Facebook account.One of the proudest moments of my life was when Don Palmer told my father that I was one of his favourite students.
I studied 4 years of jazz saxophone at Dalhousie University and Don Palmer was my saxophone professor. He was a Canadian jazz legend and I was lucky to spend a formative part of my life with him. Sadly, he passed away last month.
I’ll never forget the first time I met him at my audition for university music. I was an enthusiastic high school kid who loved music, but in the grand scheme of things, I wasn’t very good. I realized very quickly at the audition that I was in over my head. Here’s how it worked. They call you in a big room and you perform for 3 professors. It felt like a scene from a movie. The room was much too big for only 4 people. The profs are sitting behind a table and don’t say much. When it’s over, they tell you that you’ll get a letter in the mail to let you know if you were accepted. It was terrifying and didn’t go very well. It wasn’t a train wreck, but I left there not feeling good about it. Later, Don would tell me in my 4th year that he remembered my audition and how bad it was. He told me the other two profs didn’t want to accept me but he disagreed. He said to them, “There’s something in this kid. I can work with him,” and he convinced the others to admit me. It was the first of several times Don stood up for me.
On my first day of university, I could only name a handful of standards. I had a good ear and a decent grip on theory but that was it. My knowledge of jazz was beyond green and I wasn’t remotely skilled enough on the instrument to be there. I quickly realized I was in a sink or swim situation. Don was my life jacket. He saw something in me that I didn’t know was there. I was clueless and he opened up an entire new world to a young kid from Cape Breton who was excited about rock and roll, and fiddle music. That first day we started with Bye Bye Blackbird and by the end of my 4th year, I was excited about transcribing Charlie Parker solos.
He would give me a kick in the ass when I was slacking and not putting in enough effort. He also gave me a hug when I developed symptoms of what turned out to be Crohn’s disease and I was struggling. He knew what I needed, when I needed it.
Most of his students would tell you they learned as much about life from Don as they did music. The first thing I learned from him was how serious you have to take your craft. It was the first time I had worked with someone who was at a world class level. He was 63 years old when we met and he was still practicing for many hours a day. He never stopped learning and trying to improve. It was clear to me that you don’t get to be elite without a ton of work.
I always felt like we connected in a unique way. He instantly knew how to get through to me. Early on, he was trying to get me to play with a more full sound. I’d be playing and he’d say, “Louder! Belt it out!” At the end of the lesson I asked him what I should focus on that week and he said, “Here’s your homework.” He grabbed a pen and paper and wrote over the entire sheet, “BLOW THE !@#$ING HORN.” We both laughed. Message received, Don.
Don’s stories about living in New York in the 60’s and 70’s were incredible. He played with many of the all time greats. I could throw any name at him and he’d have the best story. I’d say “Did you ever work with Sinatra?” He said, “No, but I was playing in a restaurant once and he was there having dinner. Later he came up to me with 4 of the most beautiful women you ever saw and told me I sounded good. Then he left the restaurant with the 4 women and got in a limo.” One time I asked, “Did you ever play Carnegie Hall?” He replied, “Oh yeah, a few times. One time I played there with Englebert Humperdinck. He was an asshole. The band hated him. After the show me and another guy in the band were outside the stage door having a smoke and dozens of women waiting for him so we opened the door and let them in and said, “Go get the bastard.”
I figured out that he would tell me stories that he wouldn’t tell other students. Maybe we got along so well because he was also from Cape Breton. He impacted the lives of thousands of students over his career and I was lucky to be one of them. He took a liking to me and I’m a much better person because of it. I’m not sure I respected anyone as much as Don Palmer, so when he told my father that I was one of his favourite students, that meant everything to me.