A stunningly smooth, sophisticated style on the saxophone—a world-class trademark of Hal McKusick—is but a small piece of the late jazz giant’s story.
The prominent saxophonist, clarinetist and flutist hit the big-band scene with a bang beginning in the late 1940s, influenced countless musicians and, in the 1950s, started a recording career and worked with nearly all the greats in the genre, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Mr. McKusick, who settled in Sag Harbor in 1972 and taught music at the Ross School in East Hampton from the 1990s through this past winter, died at age 87 last Tuesday, April 10, at Southampton Hospital, from complications due to a fall, according to his family.
His death marks a somber note in jazz annals.
“He’s basically the history of post-war jazz. He’s on so many top recording sessions in the jazz world that it’s quite astonishing, really,” said Marc Myers, who writes about music for The Wall Street Journal and about jazz on jazzwax.com, and has interviewed Mr. McKusick many times.
But Mr. McKusick’s legacy, especially here on the East End, lives on, friends and acquaintances said this week.
At the Ross School, where Mr. McKusick founded the popular jazz band, students and alumni spoke fondly of how he used to handwrite customized arrangements for the group.
“Something that he really seemed to live by is that the fun is in the doing,” said Ryan Anderson, a college student from Quogue who graduated from Ross last year and took jazz band every trimester of his high school career. “He really liked the process. He enjoyed being on stage and all that part, but the process of rehearsing every day and getting better, and writing the arrangements, that was something he was really into.”
His former teacher played in many of the legendary bands that created the distinctive sound of the jazz era. In addition to playing with Les Brown, Woody Herman and Boyd Rayburn, for example, he also played with the Johnny Otis, Buddy Rich, Claude Thornhill and Elliot Lawrence bands, among others. He is recorded on dozens of albums and recorded nine albums of his own. From 1958 to 1972, he had a career with the CBS Studio Orchestra, which provided music for live TV shows, while continuing to work on the New York music scene.
But among his young proteges, Mr. McKusick was not known for tooting his own horn—at least not figuratively, as he played his sax right alongside his students on the stage. To them, he is perhaps best known for his down-to-earth qualities.
“I don’t know if we ever really felt that he was a super-prominent figure. He was a very humble person,” Mr. Anderson said, adding that Mr. McKusick never broadcast the number of albums or recordings he had made. “You kind of didn’t realize it until you kind of started to get to know him.”
Mr. Myers offered a similar take: “The amazing thing about Hal is that when people of that generation were really cool, they didn’t have to tell you that.”
Sam Kramer, an 11th grade student at Ross, said that since he played piano, he did not have to pack up his belongings like his fellow classmates did. In those precious minutes at the end of class, he said, Mr. McKusick would “jam” with him—a joy for Sam, but a practice that routinely made him late for his next class, he acknowledged.
Beneath Mr. McKusick’s quiet modesty, however, was a firmness of hand that lent well to teaching, Ross staff and fellow musicians said.
“He immediately disarmed everybody he met, while being a really demanding teacher at the same time,” remarked Michele Claeys, the head of school. “That’s a rare gift.” She described her former colleague as a fantastic showman, charming, sunny and even flirtatious.
“In addition to having the musical chops, he was a real showman, just a fantastic showman, and he taught that to our kids, as well, that whole idea of taking care of your audience,” Ms. Claeys said. “He was just always thinking about other people.”
Harold Wilfred McKusick Jr. was born on June 1, 1924 in Medford, Massachusetts. In addition to his musical exploits, for which he is best known, he developed an array of other interests and talents. An interest in photography led to an exhibition of his work at the Nikon House galleries in New York’s Rockefeller Center in the 1970s, his family said.
The musician of many hats was also known as a talented craftsman, favoring furniture of the Shaker style. He restored his Madison Street house in Sag Harbor, which, according to a biography posted on his website, was originally built in 1796. In the 1980s, the self-taught woodworker opened an antiques and restoration shop, Little Barn Antiques, where he crafted special commission furniture pieces for decades.