30 songs in 30 days: #26 – “Harlem Nocturne” (Earle Hagen and Dick Rogers, performed by the Viscounts)

Day 26: A song that you can play on an instrument

I used to play alto saxophone when I was in school. I still have it; I lug it around with me whenever I move to a new home, and every now and then I open its case and fondly recall playing it for holiday and spring concerts in elementary and middle school. But it’s not in playing condition anymore; there’s significant discoloration inside the bell, which I’m assuming is indicative of the rest of its interior, and all the keys’ pads are likely all dried out after sitting in its case for close to fifteen years. Sad, really, considering how much I enjoyed playing when I was younger. The only other items in the case aside from the disassembled sax are some rumpled sheets of staff paper, with hand-written musical notes on them. The one that’s always on top contains the melody to the jazz standard “Harlem Nocturne,” and it reminds me of my first and only solo performance as a young musician.

My elementary and middle schools organized student band and choral concerts twice a year for us student musicians, so for the winter holiday season and the spring, my bandmates and I performed once for the school and once for our families. In middle school, the full-band concert programs became peppered with interludes, including jazz and pop ensembles, as well as solo performances. When my parents noticed the solos, my mother suggested I play “Harlem Nocturne,” one of her favorite jazz pieces which she had on an old 45 (the vinyl equivalent of a single, for you younguns). I first transferred it to a cassette for ease of rewinding and fast-forwarding, and then began the painstaking process of transcription, matching the melody note-for-note from my sax to staff paper. It was an amateur effort, but I didn’t need to know music composition. I had the rhythm of the melody in my mind; I just needed to know where to put my fingers for each note.

The night of my final school concert came, and when it was time for my solo, I walked out to the front of the stage, smiled at Mom in the audience, and played “Harlem Nocturne,” unaccompanied, for her. Part of me wishes I could say that my first solo performance launched a successful bout as a musician, but in reality I would put down my sax after that last year of middle school, picking it up briefly in college when I joined a student-run jazz ensemble. But I haven’t played in any capacity since then. I’m thinking about getting an estimate for the cost of a complete instrument overhaul, at least to give myself the possibility of playing again. For now, though, I can think back fondly on the memory of my mother inspiring my first, and only, solo sax performance.

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