Hal McKusick: From Woodwinds to Woodworking – Bringing Music to Furniture
R. B. Stuart
archive article, added 12/19/2006
Hal McKusick the 82 year-old Sag Harbor dynamo has been a master musician for 70 years, and a self-taught woodworker for 30. He blends the language of both arts “turning” wood into visual music and woodwind notes into the feeling of something tangible. His vast collection of music is exemplified in the archives of The Smithsonian and Rutgers University, who last year had interviewed him and chronicled his life and musical contribution to the history of jazz.
The master musician, Hal MuKusick. Photo by R. B. Stuart
McKusick was a musician before he was anything else. Born and raised in Massachusetts on a dairy farm where his family bred, raised and trained horses. One year his mother asked the five children what they wanted for Christmas, and out of nowhere eight year-old McKusick spouted, “A wooden clarinet and a teacher.” His wish was granted and he began playing the clarinet, and within a year the Alto Sax.
Young McKusick studied for a year with each instrument all the while incorporating the recordings of his mentors, Miles Davis and Lester Young into his studies. At 15, his preparation and commitment enabled him to travel to Boston and study with Al Navarro.
With such passion and dedication McKusick would go on to play over a dozen instruments. And it was his talent and ability to play all of the woodwind family (except double reeds), that he found himself as a young man invited on the road to play with some of the jazz greats. As a soloist, he traveled for many years with the likes of Woody Herman, Billy Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, The NY Philharmonic and more.
From 1958 – 1972 McKusick landed a long term gig with the CBS Staff Orchestra doing studio work for their legendary top television shows, Ed Sullivan, Gary Moore and Carol Burnett. Adding to the bevy of A-list performers that he worked with were legendary icons Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Barbra Streisand, Count Basie and a slew of others.
These collaborations were the reason why The Smithsonian and Rutgers approached him for their archives. His contribution to jazz from 1945 and on brought a catalogue of 600 recordings. “I was honored to be included in the luminaries of American Jazz,” McKusick commented. Columbia Records chose a track of his to be included on a compilation entitled, The Best of Jazz and in The Development of Jazz.
His favorite musicians today are Mike LeDonne, Don Friedman and Hank Jones, “I love their piano playing,” he mused. But it’s with the kids, his students at The Ross School in East Hampton, where McKusick has been the director of Jazz Studies for the past 11 years, and the director and orchestrator of The Ross School Jazz Band that he’s had the greatest influence. “If you teach somebody to play an instrument, to learn the language of music - you as the teacher are learning as much as the student. In teaching we share our lives, our experiences…the joy is watching the student develop,” he reflected. He also teaches privately and advises those who are just beginning, “Learn as much as you can and be patient with yourself, get a talented teacher, develop good practice habits and see the benefits. Most of all enjoy yourself….music is to enjoy,” he said.
And he proves it’s never too late to learn, as he began making Shaker furniture at the age of 51. He was greatly influenced by reading about woodworking, coupled with the expertise of two fellow woodworkers Richard Baxter and John Nolan, who graciously shared their knowledge and wisdom, which has allowed McKusick to work on special projects by commission only.
His attraction to Shaker style came from it’s, “simplicity, practicality, superb joinery, flowing lines and it swings,” McKusick exclaimed. “It’s very much like early Japanese joinery.” The wood that attracts him are Curly Cherry Tiger and Birds Eye Maple, and exotic woods from all over the world. Not only does he build furniture, but “turns” (on a wood turning lathe) bowls and plates into wooden beauties of all sizes.
What he likes about working with wood is it’s organic. “I’ve always been attracted to wood since I was a child. Once you have a burl (a deformed, protrusion on the side of a tree) and begin to turn and true it…in your mind you can see what it wants to be, and it’s a challenge to turn it into something beautiful and useful,” he admits. The process of building a piece of furniture can take anywhere from 10 – 60 hours. He works alone as he prefers to be the lone craftsman, similar to his musical career as a soloist. He concluded, “Overall, things are great. I feel blessed for all these opportunities to further develop my own skills and work with gifted people. My whole life has been in music and the fact that the dream of an 8 year-old boy evolved for eight decades….is beautiful.”
McKusick has two bands, The Hal McKusick Jazz Quartet and The Hal McKusick Big Band (nine piece). He still performs around NY and LI, usually in private estates, but if you can mark your calendar for next summer he’ll be performing June 10, 2007, in Sag Harbor at The Christ Episcopal Church.
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