Remembering a Music Mentor

SKF NOTE: Leo Feinstein knew a lot about jazz and classical music. For example, customers at Sam Goody’s Walt Whitman Shopping Center store wanting to know which conductor/orchestra recorded the best version of Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique would get a learned answer from Leo.

Often Leo offered customers a choice. He’d say, “Well, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s version with Claudo Abbado conducting takes this approach to Berlioz’s music. Some people prefer how Louis Fremaux presents this music with the London Symphony Orchestra.”

This was the early 1970s. Before digital music. There was no way Leo’s customers could hear the albums he described. But, Leo knew the music well. His descriptions were a customer’s next best thing to hearing the music.

Leo performed the same educational service for young Sam Goody’s sales clerks, like me, hungry to learn about jazz. We were discovering the sounds of the great jazz musicians as fast as we could afford to buy their records. Leo, on the other hand, already knew the music. Not only from records, but from NYC jazz clubs, and NYC jazz radio too.

One day Leo mentioned Buddy Rich was playing that night, about a half hour’s drive from work. Leo told me he and Buddy Rich knew each other. Because we were working late we wouldn’t make the first set opening. But if we hurried we could get to the club to see part of the first set. And, said Leo, he would see if he could introduce us to Buddy.

Three of us drove to hear Buddy from Sam Goody’s that night. I don’t remember the third person with Leo and me, but he was someone closer to my age. Possibly it was a non-Sam Goody’s friend of mine interested in hearing Buddy Rich.

At any rate, we reached the club and parked the car. As soon as we opened the doors to get out we heard Buddy Rich’s band going full swing.

The club entrance door was open with a greeter checking ID. Because we were all of legal age to get in, the greeter surprised us when he told Leo only he could get in to hear Buddy. Our third companion and I were wearing blue jeans, which, the greeter informed us, was against the club dress code.

Standing at the club entrance we could see the club was packed. Onstage, stage lit above the silhouetted crowd, was Buddy Rich. We were looking at him from his right side.

Leo, always calm, negotiated with the greeter. These kids, he said, have come a long way to hear Buddy. How about letting them in just to hear the rest of the first set? It’s dark inside. No one will know they’re wearing dungarees, said Leo.

No, no, said the greeter. Finally, he did relent a bit by letting us, for just a few moments, stand and observe Buddy Rich from just outside the entrance.

The first time I was seeing and hearing Buddy, not on Johnny Carson’s tv show or on record, but in-person, I can still see him lighted within a darkened nightclub, hearing his sticks flying over and under, cymbal to cymbal, and to his drums echoing wall to wall, floor to ceiling.

Although I left the club disappointed the night hadn’t gone as planned, 50 years later it’s clear Leo gave me a musical night to remember.

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