I got a call from my mother yesterday. An old family friend had died. Fred Sgambaty had been struggling the last several years, and had peacefully passed on while watching a baseball game.
As I was thinking about Fred I started to realize the tremendous impact he’d had on my life.
My earliest memories of Fred date back nearly 40 years to Carlisle Way in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife Dot, and children Jim and Lisa, lived in the house across the street from us there. His son Jim was my age, Lisa was older.
The Sgambaty’s relocated eastward to Rochester, NY when I was 5 or 6 years old. We visited them once while they were there, before they came back west and settled in San Jose.
This is where my strongest memories of Fred come from. It was here that he started talking with me about music in general, and the sax as an instrument in particular. I’d started playing the flute when I was 9 or 10 years old and he sensed that I had some musical ability and decided that he was going to nurture that.
I remember him, every once in a while, when our family would stop by on a Saturday afternoon or for a holiday dinner, taking out his beautiful, mint condition, Selmer Mark VI tenor sax, considered by many (if not most) to be the finest sax ever produced. He’d play a few short riffs or the melody of a tune (“Do I know that tune? No, but hum a few bars and I’ll play it”), almost, I think, as a challenge to me to someday be able to do the same. It worked. It was around this time that I decided that I wanted to play jazz like he did, and switched instruments from the flute to the tenor sax. I also remember him once showing me an old picture of him on the bad stand leading his group, and then showing me the big band style stand from the picture that he’d kept with a “F. S.” emblazoned on it. He told me stories of his days playing for the Navy band, and of things that happened to him on gigs (the one scratch on his sax came from a drunk knocking it off its stand while he was on break). He favored a metal mouth piece because, he explained, it was narrower than a plastic or rubber one, and made the transition to playing the clarinet smoother. It also had a clearer tone that would cut through better. His clarinet was a Buffet made from wood, and beautiful also. He favored the buffet because it had a richer tone than the Selmer. He also had a Selmer flute, but didn’t play that much.
Once I’d decided to play the sax, he took the time to help my parents find a used one for me, one that played well and had a nice tone. He tried several out, and then found a nice one that wasn’t too expensive and didn’t look so nice (it was old and the lacquer was spotty), but it played nicely and had a nice tone. I got it as a surprise for Christmas in 1980 or so, a Buescher Aristocrat Series tenor sax (I think it was a series III). I played that sax for the next 20 years until I dropped it after a gig and broke it beyond repair (although, I still have it. I don’t think I could ever just throw it away). I’ve since switched to a beautiful Guardala, mostly because of Fred. I couldn’t afford a Mark VI, but the Guardala was modeled after it and is the only other horn I’ve played that comes close to achieving the richness in sound that the Mark VI is known for.
I remember once, after I’d auditioned and made it to the lead tenor chair in the high school jazz band, he came to a concert and watched us attempt the Woody Herman classic Four Brothers, a favorite of his. We played it well (for a high school band… it’s one of the harder pieces of big band music there is), and he smiled the whole time. He especially liked that I had wood shed and learned the original Zoot Sims solo note for note as a surprise for him.
On the saxophone
He taught me how to:
- Choose a reed: “Too hard and you’ll loose expressiveness, too soft and you’ll loose dynamics. It’s best to use one somewhere in the middle.” He favored a Rico 2 1/2.
- Inspect a reed: “Make sure the grain in the wood goes all the way to the end and that when you hold it up to the light there aren’t any thin spots”
- Use a ligature: “Put in on the mouthpiece with the screws on top rather than the bottom. It creates a more even pressure across the reed.”
- Prepare a reed: “If you shave down the edges, low notes will pop out easier.”
- Repair reeds and bought me a reed clipper that I still have and use.
He taught me to:
- Listen for the chords (they’re the roadmap)
- Listen to the bass (it keeps the time and provides the foundation)
- Use my ears when improvising (if it sounds good, it is good)
Like when you hear actors say that acting is mostly about listening, playing music is the same way. If you get too caught up in what you’re doing, the musicality is lost. Playing music is really listening to music.
Are you sensing a pattern here? He was all about the musicality of what was being done, not necessarily technical prowess or revolutionary ideas. He favored the West Coast sound over Bebop, Swing over Fusion.
I can still remember him coming back from a business trip and telling me the story of how he’d listen to the jazz station on the plane the whole way just to catch one particular tune as many times as possible. It turned out to be a recording of How High The Moon made by Scott Hamilton on the album Tenorshoes. He immediately went out and bought the album, and explained to me that he hadn’t heard a player that great in many years, and that it made him want to throw his sax in the river (he didn’t, of course). We went together to see Mr. Hamilton perform at The Garden City, and he took the opportunity to tell Scott that as well. Scott just smiled.
He also once had me listen to an album by Lew Tabackin called Vintage Tenor. It featured Lew with an all Japanese big band backing him up. It was a stunning album and he made a copy for me on cassette tape. I’ve been looking for that album for years on CD or in any digital form. Alas it has never been digitized. Maybe someday.
Beyond his music, Fred was always quick with a joke or story. He always had a way to get those around him smiling.
I can never thank you enough Fred. You gave me a gift that has lasted my whole life. You taught me to appreciate the music, to play it, and enjoy the adventure.
You will be, and are already missed.
Hey Fred, I know you’re reading this now… I’m still playing the sax. I’m in a group, Joe Banana and his Bunch, Music with Appeal.