My first acquaintance with Woodrow Dexter was in sixth grade band, as lusty a legion of music-loathers as ever slaughtered a symphony. I was a French horn player of undetermined promise but dogged determination. Woody played the tenor saxophone, and to him music was an adventure. Music did not, however, return the compliment. To Music, Woody was “The Enemy.”
The particular instrument that Woody had been given was nicknamed Feemster, after a legendary tuba player of imposing proportions who had inadvertently stumbled when passing the chair where the saxophone was lying and, had sax-sitting been a crime, would have been fined for assault and battery. What damage was done to Feemster the man was not recorded; but Feemster the instrument was destined for immortality.
Since elementary bands run on a tight budget, and since quality of sound is of secondary importance to solvency of finances, some ingenious maintenance was done, a little hammering and flattening was applied, and the horn was at least serviceable for the likes of Mr. Dexter, whose love for music was pretty much confined to volume, anyway.
We may assume that the tone of the sax was not helped by the accident, but its stature in the eyes of future generations of horn-honkers was assured. To be assigned Feemster when the instruments were passed out was a high honor. (In the eyes of Mr. Wortham, the long-suffering director, it was tantamount to the designation of Least Likely To Harmonize.)
One thing I vividly recall from that period is the unique smell of the band room. Old school buildings always had an aroma of dust, chalk, cleaning fluid and – when it was a band room – spit. Were we in high society, I would substitute the more proper term of “saliva,” but in band that simply will not fly.
What flies is spit – everywhere. It is omnipresent in a band room. From the first day the tyke takes up his tooter, he learns that periodically he must press the little valve on the bottom and blow the stuff out, or else produce an unpleasant gurgling sound.
This purging of liquid produces a satisfying “whoosh,” so beginning band students attend to their plumbing maintenance frequently, to the point that sometimes the “whooshes” almost drown out the playing. By the end of the day a floor that has been liberally saturated with the collective droolings of the would-be musicians of the school district has an odor that is downright pungent.
I have one other memory of my band days with Woody. We had been asked to play for sixth grade graduation, and so the director had passed out a simple arrangement of Pomp and Circumstance. Mr. Wortham made his preparatory remarks, pointed out the troublesome passages, took a deep breath, closed his eyes, slowly exhaled and gave the downbeat, looking for all the world like a condemned criminal approaching the electric chair.
You have, perhaps, heard the sound made by a flock of crows when some enthusiastic hound dashes among them, intent on having raven roast for supper? Well, downgrade the aesthetic qualities of that chorus by several factors and you have something approximating that first reading of Pomp and Circumstance. I remember that Mr. Wortham’s jaw muscles clenched spasmodically throughout the ordeal.
The crowning feature of the competition was Woody’s inspired interpretation as he enthusiastically honked along, ultimately arriving at the last measure about four bars before anyone else. He rose from his chair, triumphantly thrust his fist into the air and gleefully cried out, “I won!” The sigh that escaped the lips of the beleaguered conductor was pathos itself.