Band Member Turned In Trombone for Pulpit
You can’t really blame the organist at St. Mary’s for chasing after Msgr. John Sanders to get up there in the choir loft with his valve trombone.
If the monsignor could lift the congregation the way those cats were lifted out of their chairs and into the aisles, stomping and screaming, at 2 a.m. in that unforgettable climax to the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, there would be no need for a sermon and hardly anybody would be ducking out before the second collection.
A couple of decades ago, when the Big Band era was in its final full cry, John Sanders held down the middle chair in Duke Ellington’s trombone section.
Birdland. The Blue Note in Chicago. Boston’s Storyville and Ritz Carlton Roof. Carnegie Hall. The Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theater up in Harlem. The Paramount and Loew’s State on Broadway. London’s Royal Festival Hall.
John Sanders was up there on the bandstand in white tie and tails sending out sensuous solos and melding joy and sighs into melodic arrangements of “Mood Indigo,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Take the A Train,” “I’m Beginning to See The Light,” “Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” and other Ellington classics.
But coming out of Salt Lake City one night, the reading light came on over the right front row seat in the band bus. That meant Duke had an inspiration and was composing again.
Then the reading light came on over the seat just behind. John Sanders, who served as Ellington’s copyist on the road, was beginning to see the light, a different light. He was absorbed in pamphlets about delayed vocations to the Roman Catholic priesthood.
“I was past 30 and really thought it was too late, but the idea was always on my mind,” said this son of a New York Harlem postal clerk. “So I dropped in for a chat with a priest in Salt Lake City. He urged me to look into what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
Sanders also received encouragement from the Rev. Norman O’Connor, a Paulist priest who had a radio jazz show in Boston and was master of ceremonies at that Newport Jazz Festival when the Ellington band made the police nervous by igniting the crowd to a dancing frenzy with a scorching rendition of “Diminuendo in Blue.”
It seems like only yesterday the world was John Sanders’ bandstand: Hollywood, London, Paris, Rome, Vienna. But now, he does his solo turns from the pulpit and confessional of an inner-city parish in Norwalk, a decaying factory town trying to make a comeback as a historic seaport.
Soul has a deeper meaning for this dedicated man with a horn who at the Christmas midnight Mass retreated into the past from his usual pastoral duties to lift his trombone toward the altar for a triumphant rendition of “Once in Royal David’s City.”
“Do I miss the old days?” He ponders the question he sometimes asks himself on his knees in his nightly examination of conscience. “Yes, I really do. But not in the sense of longing to go back. I treasure those memories. Duke made dreams come true of everything I wanted to do or be as a musician.”
Those memories began with a sixth-grader at St. Mark’s parochial school in Harlem investing 25 cents of the dollar he got for his 11th birthday in a balcony seat at the Apollo Theater on New York’s 125th Street.
“I was always an Ellington fan, before, during and after,” confesses the monsignor, who still rummages through record stores and garage sales for additions to his collection of Duke albums.
Sanders took the A-train to the High School of Commerce, where Lincoln Center now stands. He played trombone in the school band, which won him assignment to “those fine Navy bands at Great Lakes and San Diego” at the close of World War II.
He studied composition and arranging under the GI Bill at New York’s Juilliard School and began “doing gigs” with Lucky Thompson’s orchestra at the Savoy ballroom and some club dates with Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son, who had his own group.
“One night Duke needed a substitute trombonist and Mercer recommended me. It was like a dream come true,” Sanders recalls in his tiny rectory office, his eyes flickering like high altar candles. “I always thought he was beyond my reach and never met him until I went backstage at the Apollo. He loaned me a jacket, handed me some music and told me I’d be OK.
“They were closing that night with Pearl Bailey. I played the second show. Duke suggested I come out on the road with them for a few nights. He didn’t say where we were going or for how long. We went to the South and out through Texas. Four months went by. We wound up in San Diego and I didn’t get home until April.”
Memories warmed that rectory cubicle more than the afternoon sun faintly filtering through the lace curtains: Going to Hollywood to record Duke’s sound track for “Anatomy of a Murder,” playing President Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House and Carnegie Hall with Ella Fitzgerald, crossing the Atlantic on the Ile de France to do a command performance for the queen and that other duke, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Jazz then was America’s most popular export, and Ellington’s recordings led all Continental charts. “The Europeans took our music very seriously. They knew everyone in the band,” he said. “I’ll never forget the Royal Festival Hall. As each of us came on stage they applauded us, like players coming on the field at the Super Bowl.”
Duke and his valve trombonist came home on the Queen Mary. A few weeks later Sanders had a confession to make. He told Ellington he was leaving the band to find himself.
An incident during rehearsals at the Blue Note in Chicago eased some of the pain. “Duke called me over to the piano and played something serene and meditative. I told him it was beautiful. It was an accompaniment to the ‘Our Father’ he was writing for a sacred concert with Mahalia Jackson.
“I never talked religion with Duke and wasn’t conscious he belonged to any particular denomination. But his whole way of doing things and how he dealt with us musicians showed a respect and warmth for the individual that I think is very spiritual.
“God was treated reverently on the bandstand, too. Duke was very generous with requests, but there was one he would always bypass. If someone requested, as they usually did, ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,’ he wouldn’t touch it. He felt that with all the other music available, why risk making fun of what his mother taught him as a hymn.”
Ellington hated to lose a fine trombonist and, even rarer, an expert copyist. “He was very fatherly about my decision,” Sanders said. “He kept saying: ‘Do what you got to do and make it work for you.’ ”
He was ordained on Feb. 10, 1973, by Bishop Walter Curtis of Bridgeport. Duke couldn’t get to the ordination; he was off doing one-nighters.
But the next day, when the new priest celebrated his first Mass at St. Pius V Church in the Jamaica section of New York City, where his family had moved, “lo and behold, there was Duke sitting in the front pew and, my, it was wonderful to see him.”
A year later, Duke was dead and Sanders was among the mourners at New York’s St. John the Divine Cathedral listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing his haunting “Solitude.”