This past Sunday morning, my wife and I stopped by to visit saxophonist Hal McKusick and his wife, Jan. Hal had invited us over to his house some weeks back, and my wife and I were staying nearby on Saturday so we drove over.
Upon entering Hal and Jan's historic, shingled home, which dates from 1796, the first thing you notice is how much natural wood there is—Shaker tables, chairs, bowls, beams, floorboards and cabinets. In his spare time, Hal is a first-class woodworker and has a deep appreciation for wood's beauty—how it can be shaped with the right tools, how it cures, and how it will age. Hal and Jan's home has a warm, authentic feel that's possible only when the owner knows what to restore and what to leave as is.
In the dining room, atop a splendidly finished Shaker table Hal made a year ago, there was a full score for O Tannenbaum. When we arrived, Hal had been copying parts from his arrangement for a holiday jazz concert to be held at the private school where he teaches music. I leaned over to take a look. Hal's musical penmanship is as fine and delicate as his playing.
In the adjacent music room—which is neatly filled with photos, CDs, reel-to-reel tapes, and stereo and recording equipment—Hal showed me his Selmer Super alto and tenor saxophones. He also pulled out a silver curved-neck soprano sax from 1928. Handing me the instrument, Hal said, "Feel it." As I fingered the pads, Hal said that straight-neck sopranos fall out of tune too easily. "The curved neck models are much better and much more accurate," he noted.
Hal then showed me some of the photos he has taken over the years of jazz artists he's played with. Yep, Hal's also a top-notch photographer and has snapped hundreds of portraits, including candids of Zoot Sims (with his dog), Barry Galbraith, Art Farmer, Bobby Brookmeyer, Gerry Mulligan and many others. Like everything Hal puts his hands on, his photography is sensitive and finely crafted.
Hal and I swapped a bunch of CDs—I burned him a wide range of jazz from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and he gave me recordings made locally with his many bands. (I just started playing them yesterday and they're beautiful.) As we listened to Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra: The Post-War Era, Hal told me a bunch of stories from his CBS Studio Orchestra days.
Hal was unfamiliar with the Dorsey CD, though he knew the band well. "Actually, I was asked to be in that band but I didn't want to leave Claude Thornhill's band at the time." Quite a dilemma!
Amazingly, as we listened to the CD, Hal correctly picked out nearly every soloist in the band. At one point, while Bill Finegan's arrangement of The Continental played, Hal stopped mid-sentence to listen to the reed arrangement and then shook his head in admiration. "Man, that band was clean."
Hal then took us all out to his wood shop where he builds furniture by hand. There on his worktable was a sizable cherrywood kitchen cabinet nearing completion. Hal's wife, Jan, had requested it. When I asked how he learned to work so proficiently with wood, his answer was classic Hal: "Gee," he said, pausing, "I don't know."
In truth, nearly 30 years ago a friend had asked him to copy a Shaker table. So Hal spent weeks looking at how the original was made and pored over books on furniture. Then he set to work teaching himself how to make the piece. Today, his hand-made wood furniture and bowls are similar to his tone on the saxophone—pure and perfect.
Our wives left the woodworking studio first, and Hal mentioned that he and Jan were trying to figure out which style handles would work best on the cabinet—a narrow one or a wider one. Both had the grace and finish of chess pieces. The decision remains a work in progress.
And that was it. As the four of us said our goodbyes, Hal and Jan's dog Scooter (a fetching mix of long-haired chihuahua and terrier) came out to send us off. Another day in the life of Hal McKusick— composing, copying, woodworking, photography, teaching and listening. It's a good life.