Some 15 years or so ago I mailed the only fan letter I’ve ever received a response to. It was also the only letter I’ve sent.

The letter was to Bruce Hornsby, whose PO Box address was listed in the liner notes of his Spirit TrailMostly I thanked him for his music and said he was an inspiration for my playing. He returned the letter with brief comments in the margins. I was absolutely thrilled. I might still have that letter in a box of other nostalgia.

I recently received an email response that excited me as much. I don’t know why I was thinking of Jim Lunsford, my choir director for but one year in high school, my freshman year. Despite the limited time I had with him, Mr. Lunsford would become a great inspiration for me musically.

When I hated jazz

I’ve had the benefit of some wonderful music teachers, but looking back he was the one least content with mediocrity. I’m not sure I said that the way I mean. See, he taught only one year at Kofa High School, and he’d inherited a pretty good jazz/madrigal choir. But he took the choir to higher musical heights my freshman year than any director would after. (At least till I moved in 2001. I haven’t kept up with them.) He inspired in me a desire for excellence in art, one that often leaves me discontent with my own playing, one that causes me to invest more and more time practicing.

The other thing Mr. Lunsford did was introduce me to jazz, as well as to one Bruce Hornsby. But I didn’t like jazz initially, mostly because I couldn’t play it. 

When I’d auditioned for the choir, I didn’t do so as a vocalist but as a piano player. At 14, I wasn’t singing much. But Mr. Lunsford hadn’t conducted the audition; the former director did. Mr. Lunsford had no need for a piano player in the jazz rhythm section. He was an extraordinary jazz pianist himself. And I’d hated him for it. I didn’t play much my freshman year. Definitely not on the jazz numbers. Except for once, which I’ll explain in a forthcoming post.

After that one year at Kofa, though, Mr. Lunsford moved across town to Cibola High School. I’m not sure why he left Kofa and a very talented ensemble for one whose style was that of a show choir. “Jazz hands” instead of good jazz vocals.

I wished he’d stayed but am grateful he left

Our new director couldn’t play the piano to save his life, which provided a wonderful opportunity for me. Those following three years I served basically as the assistant choir director. Or maybe it was assistant to the choir director. 

Thrust into the role of primary jazz pianist, I enlisted the help of Mr. Lunsford. I had just a couple (free) lessons with him, but he taught me a lot about music, about playing in a band, about what to listen for when directing. Not to mention augmented and 13th chords and how to comp Latin jazz.

I found Mr. Lunsford’s email address online at a school in Chicago, so I wrote to tell him of the influence he’s had on my “career.” Here’s part of his response:

How delightful to hear from you! And a remarkable coincidence. About three weeks ago I was going through some old boxes in the basement.  I ran across a photo of the Royalaires, and it took me back. I struggled to recall names, but a few came to me, and yours was one. Overall it was a very talented group, but some stood out — Jennifer, Angie, the three Mikes, Jason, and you.  …

I am most grateful for your kind words. As you might have heard somewhere, the teaching profession is not a career one chooses for its pecuniary benefits. The greatest reward comes when a student finds some inspiration in the sharing of knowledge and passion.

If you are ever in Chicago, please don’t hesitate to call.  I’d love to catch up over a meal or a coffee.

I might head to Chicago just to chat with him, after I look up the word pecuniary.

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