Telephone interview by Debra Jean McKim
19 January 1999
Patterson, New Jersey
Used with permission of both Debra Jean McKim and David Demsey
Copyright 2000, Debra Jean McKim
McKim: When and where did you study with Allard?
Demsey: I studied with him from September `77 until May `80, almost constantly. Sometimes more than once a week, but usually weekly, all during the school year and anytime he was not in New Hampshire. I studied with him at his home, even though I was a Juilliard student. That happened through a really wonderful coincidence. I originally wanted to go to the Manhattan School of Music; I did my undergraduate at the University of Maine, and I wanted to go to Manhattan because of the school, I didn't even know who Joe was at that point. I did a very naive thing as a senior in college; I applied only to Manhattan. not realizing that they had a very tight quota system there. They took their own undergrads first, and then accepted any external people. So that first year, that would have been the fall of `77, I found out too late in the game that there were no vacancies. So I was shut out of grad school. My cousin Harry Beall in Tenafly, New Jersey, was a very prominent artist manager; he managed the Guarnari String Quartet, Jessye Norman, etc. My plan was to live with his family and attend Manhattan. After I got shut out of Manhattan that fall, he called up and said, "Why don't you come stay with us anyway, find Joe Allard wherever he is, study with him privately and then get yourself into grad school." About an hour after we had talked about Joe, my cousin called back and said, "Well, you'll never guess who I just talked to on the phone - Joe. It turns out he lives two streets over from me." What a great coincidence - I used to walk to my lessons. I'd shovel his driveway in the winters sometimes. There was a student, an insider student so to speak, named Ernie Guadagnini. Ernie was a perennial summer house sitter, but I ended up doing that one summer. It was great; I just lived in Joe's house for a summer alone, and saved his stuff from a flood once.
Anyway, even after I got into Juilliard, all my lessons were at his house, I never took a lesson from him in the Juilliard building. We did have quartet rehearsals there every week, but I took all my lessons at his house - early morning. He started at 8:00; my lessons were at 9:00. Then immediately, his hands were in my mouth and down my throat, so I had to make sure I ate really early! But those lessons were magic. To have them at his house just meant all the more, because he had all of his stuff there. At Juilliard, he was just treated like a peon, they just gave him an empty office or practice room, and so he really didn't have anything, except the stuff in his briefcase. And also he played with me or for me. He never took his saxophone to Juilliard or to any of his schools as far as I know. It was great to have him be able to demonstrate stuff on his own horn. I know there were lots of times when he would borrow student's horns and play, but to hear him on his own stuff was great.
DM: Whom did you study with as an undergrad?
DD: I'm from Boston originally, so I grew up north of Boston in Winchester, Massachusetts - and I studied with a Boston area player who's a New England Conservatory grad named Edward Mitchell. Ed, after I got to about to my sophomore year in high school, sent me to Joe Viola. And that was equally magic to get ready for Joe Allard, because Joe Viola studied with Allard. So I studied for three years with Joe Viola and then as I said, I went to the University of Maine and studied with a very fine teacher who was primarily an oboist named Louis Hall. He's an Illinois grad, very fine musician, and incredible player. So through Joe [Viola], I had my saxophone basics down, my breathing and embouchure. I was pretty solid. Then I started to learn how to practice and learn repertoire from Louis Hall in Maine, so when I went to Joe, I really stood to benefit, because I had the foundations down. I was strong enough at that point to respond to what he was doing, because I'd already been thinking about it.
DM: Do you consider Allard to be your primary saxophone teacher?
DD: Although all four of them had influences in different ways, I would say that the strongest influences were the two Joes - Joe Allard and Joe Viola in that order. A lot of it was the time in my life; I was really ready to get serious. I knew exactly what I couldn't do when I hit Joe Allard and so I could really benefit from that.
DM: Since Joe Viola studied with Joe Allard, were a lot of the concepts familiar?
DD: Well they were, but I have to say that Joe Viola didn't teach exactly Joe Allard's stuff. Like a lot of us, he must have taken what he could use of Joe's things and taught that, but he didn't really teach exactly the same embouchure and his way of teaching breathing wasn't the same. Not a strict Allard approach and he never used Joe's name at all. I didn't know he'd studied with Joe until Allard told me. I didn't realize it. I was lucky to come in with a concept that was very close to what he was teaching. And also I was already a jazz player, even though I had a classical background. I had already played lead alto in the University band, and played with a rhythm and blues band for three years. so I had some road chops. That helped me with Joe because I'd had to deal with the realities of trying to get a lot of different sounds.
That was one of the things that Joe really gave me the most strongly, that there was no one sound. As demanding as he could be sometimes, doing exactly the way he wanted it, some other times he would insist there is no one way to do it. You've got to be able to play with more mouthpiece, less mouthpiece, more lip, less tip - be flexible. Just to get used to playing on the tip end of the mouthpiece on a tenor ballad, and playing with a lot of mouthpiece on a rock solo, he just taught me to get comfortable just getting around. A lot of players find that really unnerving. To have to move in or out, they feel like they're going to choke on it. It feels very comfortable to me. So that's really valuable.
DM: What are some other concepts and principles that were important?
DD: I spent a lot of time on the harmonics with Joe. When I went to him I could play in the altissimo, but I was playing with too much pressure and the air stream wasn't focused well. That was my problem. I spent a lot of time on harmonics, because I got to a certain point in the harmonic series where I just couldn't go higher without biting. And it was agony, he just kept beating on it and I couldn't get it and he wouldn't go to anything else. I literally remember there were times when my eyes were filling up; I was so frustrated that I was ready to start crying. And finally it just came. When I got it, it was so solid because I'd been practicing it his way for so long.
It involved the throat and the tongue. Keep the tongue high and anchored on the teeth. The throat assumes the same position it would assume to sing the note. Then you keep it in that same position when you're playing it on the saxophone. This is kind of warped over time, because I've taught it so much. I've put my own spin on it. A lot of times he would use this falsetto and inhale to get these real high pitches in his throat. He would like [Demsey produces high pitched "squeak"] and I'm doing that inhaling. He would get the real high pitches and then put the horn in his mouth as he was inhaling; then he would exhale and the pitch would come out. In other words, trying to relate the vocalization to the instrument a lot.
Also, he spent a lot of time with his fingers in my mouth working on the tongue position. I played with my tongue kind of down in my mouth, kind of open. Since my undergrad teacher was a Big 10 guy coming out of the University of Illinois, I was somewhat of a modified Teal player at that time. That was the biggest physical change I made with Joe and I found that it really focused my sound a lot. The tongue is anchored on the teeth, but obviously free to tongue right underneath the tip of the reed.
DM: Did he use the term forward coning with you?
DD: Forward coning? No, he did not use that with me. He talked a lot about different vowel enunciations: to, te, ti, and how it affected the tongue and which combinations of vowels I should imagine to get my tongue in the right spot, but he never used the word coning. I wonder if that was earlier students? I may be among the later guys you talk to.
DM: So he was talking about syllables to get your tongue into position?
DD: Yea I still have one of the sheets that he wrote on during my lessons where he wrote "te, tu, ti, ta;" he would talk about different words to enunciate to practice getting my tongue in the right position. Physically we talked about air - I can remember lying on his dining room floor doing yoga-type exercises; the three-part breath, first the upper then the middle and then the lower, expanding. And he'd have me play, lying there holding the Glazounov Concerto in front of my face - that concerto has never been quite the same.
DM: What about the embouchure?
DD: He felt that I was trying to grab the corners of the mouthpiece too much all the time. He made a very good point - I can still remember him holding the end of the mouthpiece, tip facing me and asking "does that look round to you?" Well no, the reed surface forms a flat bottom His point was to make your embouchure fit the mouthpiece. And then he'd talk for about twenty minutes on how he disagreed with Larry Teal. But it brings up a good point - if the lip is round and curved, you're crimping the corners of the reed in and it's going to deaden the sound. So try to leave the lip a little flatter and get the corners back away and then getting the inner part of the upper lip to fold down and be the air seal. My problem always was that when I got my lower lip far enough back to suit him. I would have this air leaking out. What do I do? He'd say, "It's your upper lip that's not happening, not your lower lip." I'd never given any thought to what my upper lip did.
DM: Did he have you do exercises where you lifted your upper lip off the mouthpiece?
DD: Yes, and also lifted my upper teeth off. The upper lip off the mouthpiece, but also the upper teeth off the mouthpiece. He'd always say, "Feel the reed with your teeth." That's how much pressure to use, just feel the pressure of the reed coming through your lip, but no more. That expression has been immensely helpful to me as a teacher, because so many younger students in my opinion use too much pressure and I've found that to be a great barometer.
I don't know if a lot of guys had as much repertoire as I did. Strangely enough, I had never prepared or at least performed the Ibert or the Glazounov when I came to him as a grad student. I had sort of looked at them on my own, but I really learned those pieces from Joe. And I don't know anyone else who did.
DM: Very few people I've talked to studied much literature.
DD: I spent a lot of time on both of those pieces, and I spent a lot of time on the Persichetti. I was studying it with Persichetti at the same time - Persichetti was on the Juilliard faculty - but Joe essentially taught me that piece by rote. He would sing it, and wouldn't let me go on until I played it like he sang it. So eventually I just decided I would learn this piece through Joe's ears and then make it my own. He just insisted that there was a way that was supposed to go. Joe's concept was very jazzy and Persichetti backed that up. Joe was apparently Persichetti's kind of consultant and guinea pig while he was writing the piece for Brian [Minor]. Persichetti originally wrote low A trills which Joe helped edit out. As a matter of fact, Joe had manuscripts of that piece - early drafts of the thing.
Anyway, getting back to things - I did work on a lot of literature, those three pieces in particular at length. I remember when I brought in the Glazounov the first time. I thought I knew it and I got somewhere down around the middle of the first page and there was a little blip. He said, "Put your horn away." I thought he was going to throw me out of the studio, which had never happened before. He then said, "Sing." He would not let me play the Glazounov for him until I could sight-sing the whole piece. That took a fair amount of time, because it's tough; it modulates all over the place. To this day, if I haven't played the piece for a year or two I can pick it up and play it right through. He made me sight sing the Persichetti and the Ibert too. The idea was to learn the whole piece by ear before you get into the music.
He would circle the crucial notes. He really taught me how to build a melody. I was playing very rhythmically, every note had become important. I was getting too tied up in getting it rhythmically perfect. He taught me how to blow though the phrases. He would put a circle around one crucial note and then put an arrow or draw a line connecting it to other notes. He would have me draw the circles but then he would put in the lines. Then he had me sing it that way. That was immensely helpful. He wasn't doing that with anybody else at the time. He was working with them on mechanical stuff.
He also taught me tunes; we'd play tunes together. He was the first guy to ever make me learn tunes in all twelve keys which I had never really done up to that point. And to make me think in all keys, a lot of things functionally, intervallically. For example, rather than thinking Bluesette starts on a F - think of it starting on the fifth of the scale and going up to the tonic then to the third, etc. It was a real functional way of thinking. Bluesette was the first tune he made me play in all twelve keys; I have it written out in his hand. We didn't do many after that; he just kept asking me if I was still doing it, which I was. There were two or three or four tunes that he had me play in all keys. I remember I borrowed fake books that he had; my first real anthology was copies from him.
DM: You've discussed this some already. but could you elaborate on how you use Joe's concepts in your own teaching?
DD: I find more and more that people in and around New York come to me to get Joe's concepts. I'm not sure they want to hear me; they want to hear what Joe had to say to me. They're very interested in Joe's teaching. I find that the students that come into the jazz program here. they've heard about Joe and they want that in particular. They want the handouts that Joe gave me; they want to see what went on. So, I do use Joe's concepts a lot, particularly the harmonic stuff, the overtone exercises, the tonguing things. but also the musical things; the melodic line concepts. Also, he has been such an influence on me personally. He was such a gentleman, in the way he handled himself. in the way he treated people when he was with them. He had a way about him that was from another generation and kind in New York, harkening back to when everyone wore a jacket and a tie to everything. Joe had a coat and tie, or at least a coat, on every morning; he was always dressed up.
DM: What do you consider Joe's greatest contribution? Why is all this important?
DD: The first thing that comes to mind is that Joe didn't draw any lines between being a classical player and a jazz player. That's where I've always cone from and he taught a way of playing and an approach to music that didn't draw any lines. I was a person who followed the LarryTeal/Sinta school for a while. Although there were and are many advantages to that approach. I found that I could not get a jazz sound that was convincing using those techniques. And Joe solved that problem. I found that he really taught me a way to make music in any style, in any one of a million different situations, from rock band to playing in a chamber ensemble, to a sax section, quartet. solo pieces - his approach to the instrument works no matter where you use it. I don't know that many other teachers are like that. I think that's his greatest professional contribution. A guy that can teach the great classical players that he taught, like Harvey Pittel, like Ken Radnofsky and Paul Cohen and at the same time teach Mike Brecker and Pepper Adams and Dave Liebman, players that are so completely different in the way they sound. Yet to me, when I hear Ken and I hear Harvey and I hear Liebman and Mike and Eddie Daniels, I still hear Joe. I hear that focus - there's a focus in the sound that you can just tell that somebody studied with Joe. I don't know exactly what it is - whether it's the throat/tongue stuff or the embouchure or just his whole way of playing. To me, Eddie Daniels is maybe the best example. There's a laser kind of liquid focus that he has - I've never heard anybody else sound like that. And Mike Brecker too, the older stuff right after he studied with Joe, the mid to late `70s stuff- before he hurt his throat and had to go to really bright mouthpieces - there's that same focus. To me that's Joe's greatest accomplishment.
He taught so many hundreds of people over so many decades, he was as much as anybody responsible for bringing the mentality and sensibility of the '40s and `50s into the '70s and '80s. He would tell me Toscanini stories and so on, just because he was of that age. It was very important to me, because I realized how different it was, even then. I guess anybody that age could do that, but just the fact that Joe had been where he'd been by that point, and had taught who he'd taught - it brought an extra weight to it for me. It was a great experience for me - it changed my life, that's for sure.
As an aside, I studied almost exclusively alto with Joe but I had also been a tenor player up to that point. At the end of my first year with Joe, I picked up the tenor again and I suddenly had a tenor sound that surpassed anything that I'd ever had before. And that was the moment that I realized just how far I'd come in that first year with Joe. I remember picking the horn up and just playing a little four-bar something and I just put the horn down and started laughing. It didn't sound like me, but it sounded like what I'd been hearing in my head. Joe gave me a good tenor sound. The throat, tongue, embouchure stuff just converted over. Years later, I started playing bass clarinet and I realized how incredibly it affected the sound. I only studied clarinet maybe two lessons with Joe, but it applies across through the clarinet family too. I can't think of another teacher who can do that - techniques that work just as well on the clarinet as they do on saxophone.
DM: What kind of mouthpiece did Joe have you playing on?
DD: I came in playing a C*, and two weeks before my Juilliard recital, he changed my mouthpiece. I'd been studying with him for three years at that point and one day he said, "What are you playing on that piece of junk for?" He whipped it off and threw it into my case, and he gave me a Selmer E - I was too scared not to play the recital on it, so that was a loud recital! I was still on a 3 reed, so I was booming. It was a square chamber E, even though he professed not to kite those mouthpieces very much. And then after awhile, he asked me what I was playing on that for and we went back to the C* again.
We did work on reeds a lot. He was a wizard with reeds. He was a showoff. He'd be talking to me, telling me Toscanini stories, and the shavings would be flying. He'd give me back the reed and whatever reed it was would instantly be magic; it would just play. He'd wink at me and say, "You bring me in the worst pieces of knotty lumber." He could save anything. I remember my reed knife came from Joe. He was enraged that he got a shipment of Bhosys reed knives that were left-handed. He discovered I was left-handed, so the next time I shoveled his driveway and refused to take any money for it, he thrust that in my hand and said, "Now we're both happy." I still have that knife. We did do several reed adjustment lessons too. He'd talk about the heart of the reed and where to take off. I'd bring in my junk reeds and work on them with him. He taught a way to check the reed balance by moving the horn back and forth pinching off one side of the reed and then the other.
Has anybody ever told you the reed-wiggling story? This is kind of funny. Whenever he was trying to get the warp out of a reed, he'd always hold it with his thumb on the mouthpiece. And he'd take the reed and kind of wiggle it back and forth. And so all of us did that. Somebody then asked Joe why he did that - did the friction help? He said, "It gives me something to do while I'm waiting for the reed to straighten out." I still do it, I can't stop doing it, and all my students do it! Certainly reed making is a big element; I'm not intimidated anymore, I'll just go right at it. He was the one who had me get the file and showed me all the techniques - he was very specific about it.
Speaking of files, has anybody told you that he tried to file their teeth? He never did with me, but guys would tell me stories. In his studio, he had this fulllength mirror and he'd kind of back their head up against that mirror and say. "You won't feel anything." And he'd flatten down their bottom teeth. He had a set of dental files; a little amateur dentistry there. Ask students you talk to how he ended their lesson. We all have a callous on our thigh from him slapping it! He had a clock there and I would be in the middle of the cadenza on the Glazounov - whack! "Well, Dave," or Dan or Don, "that's it, see you next week." That was it; a slap every week. There were a lot of funny stories. I'm sure if I heard other people's stories, they probably happened to me too.
Joe dealt with everybody as they were and had a really unique way of diagnosing without ever telling you exactly what he was doing. It was always months. years later, that you would think to yourself, "Oh that's why he had his hands in my mouth that way." I would walk out of lessons shaking my head sometimes, but I would realize later. I'm still getting stuff - that is an amazingly influential teacher.