“Listen up, you guys. Maynard’s in town.”
It was 1963 and the three of us, each 16 years old—well, one of us was only 15—were sitting in Mr. Masciarelli’s tiny office off the band room at Wantagh High School. We would often go there instead of study hall. Some of us called him Mr. Masciarelli. The rest just called him “Mr. Maz” to his face, or just “Maz” when referring to him. Now he was addressing us in a serious manner.
“Maynard’s in town. And you should go see him.”
Rollan Masciarelli was thin and lanky, around 6’ 6”, and came from a West Virginia coal mining family. His deep black hair often hung over his forehead, and when conducting the school band he reminded some people of Leonard Bernstein. As a teenager he turned out to be quite a prodigy on trumpet and soon realized he could make a lot more money playing gigs than he could down in the mines. He loved to tell us about how he’d stuff cash he earned into his trumpet case so no one would find it.
At some point in the mid-1950s Maz was drafted and performed in the Army jazz band that featured quite a number of soon-to-be-famous musicians. After his discharge he managed to go to college and then get a master’s degree. He married “the girl of his dreams,” Lucille, and they raised five daughters.
The “Maynard” he was talking about, of course, was trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, who was well-known for hitting notes that reached into the stratosphere as well as leading a terrific band.
Although I myself did not play a traditional band instrument, I did play guitar in Maz’s after-school jazz dance band, and the other students in the room— Mike on tenor sax and John on drums—had recently formed a small rock band, the Blue Velvets. We had our own business cards, band outfits, and everything. We thought we sounded great. Regardless, the business cards and outfits were terrific.
The three of us looked at each other and understood this was more than just a suggestion. We needed to go see Maynard, who would be performing at a nearby Long Island venue—maybe Westbury or Mineola. Our parents were used to shuttling us around and never seemed to complain.
Mr. Masciarelli wasn’t finished.
“And while you’re there, go backstage and say hello to my old friend Rufus Jones. We used to play together in the Army.”
I later discovered that Rufus “Speedy” Jones, born in 1936 in Charleston, South Carolina, was working with Lionel Hampton’s band by the time he was 18. Soon after that he too was drafted, and that’s when he met Mr. Masciarelli. After his discharge, Jones joined Maynard Ferguson’s Orchestra from 1959 to 1963.
A few days later, dressed in our blue blazers, white shirts, and the skinny black ties we wore for rock band gigs, we sat and listened in awe to the Maynard Ferguson Band. As was common, the drummer was seated on a platform in the back. And Rufus Jones was a dazzling drummer. His initials were featured on his bass drum and he was one of only a few Black musicians in the band.
During intermission, the three of us gathered ourselves and our wits in the lobby and decided now was the time. We exited through the front doors, walked around the building, and found the stage entrance located next to an ominous sign that read:
NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT BY AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL
Standing near the sign were half a dozen musicians, all smoking cigarettes. The three of us looked at each other, held our collective breath, and walked through the door.
No one stopped us. We were inside. We exhaled. A miracle.
A bunch of people—musicians, provocative-looking older women, and hangers-on, were milling around. We scanned the room looking for our target.
“I think that’s him coming down the stairs,” Mike said.
We walked over to the stairway, and when he got to the bottom I asked, “Excuse me, are you Rufus Jones?”
I was nervous, but managed, “Our band teacher, Rollan Masciarelli, told us to…”
A giant smile filled his face as he blurted out, “Maz! Maz! How is my man Maz?”
John, the 15-year-old drummer, who was bigger than all of us, responded, “He’s doing fine, and he wanted us to say hello to you.”
“Well, that’s just great,” he exclaimed. “You tell Maz that I’m thinking of him and I miss him!”
Our conversation was obviously over. There was nothing else to talk about, so I asked, “Is there any way to meet Maynard?”
“Oh, yeah. He’s over there,” pointing to a small room off to the side. The door was open and we could see him. We said our goodbyes to Rufus Jones, and walked towards the room. Maynard looked up when he saw us, and smiled.
“What can I do for you boys?”
Mike asked, “Can we get your autograph?”
Which we did. Easy. Mission accomplished.
Now it was 1973, ten years later, and I was in grad school at UC Berkeley. At the moment I was sitting at my breakfast table in Oakland, California, looking through the Sunday entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Pink Section, as it was known, featured articles and listings of what was happening in the Bay Area.
A small ad near the bottom of a right-hand page caught my eye:
The Duke Ellington Orchestra. One show, Today only. Oakland Auditorium.
In my head, I heard Masciarelli’s voice loud and clear:
“The Duke’s in town, and you should go see him.”
My wife and infant daughter were out of town and I had an hour or two before the show started. It was a relatively short walk from where I lived to the Oakland Auditorium, so off I went. I was on a student budget, so I bought the cheapest ticket they had, up in the nosebleed section. The auditorium was half empty and I sensed, somewhat sadly, that I was one of the youngest people in the audience. When the music started, I had the profound feeling I was witnessing the end of an era. In fact, I was—Ellington would live only another year.
I climbed to my seat and watched and listened to one of the most iconic big bands in history. I knew all of the many famous Ellington songs and arrangements being presented, and was glad I’d come. The only thing that bothered me was how far I was from the stage. I could barely discern anyone’s face.
As I scanned the list of musicians in the program, one name jumped out. Rufus Jones. I couldn’t believe it. I peered more closely at the man atop a raised platform sitting behind a mountain of drums. Yes, it was indeed Rufus Speedy Jones!
Intermission arrived, and with a sense of déjà vu I walked through the lobby, out the front doors, and around the building where I found the stage entrance. Again, I confronted my old nemesis:
NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT BY AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL
Standing outside the door were five or six musicians smoking cigarettes. I barely paused as I walked in. I was backstage. Milling around were musicians, women, and other hangers-on—all very much older than I.
Although he looked older, I identified Rufus Jones, and went up to him.
“Excuse me…Rufus Jones?”
“Who’s asking?” Some things never change.
“Rufus, when I was in high school, my band teacher Rollan Masciarelli…”
“Maz! How’s my man Maz?” I am not making this up. His smile was beaming.
“He’s doing just great. And he still plays gigs, too!”
“He was one of the best! Too bad about that accident.”
Maz had been in a bad car accident at some point, probably when he was in the Army, and his front teeth had been knocked out, putting a damper on what might have been a tremendous professional career. Although we all knew that he wore dentures, he was still a great player.
The musicians were getting ready to go back on stage and Rufus excused himself. He told me to give his best to Maz, and I promised I would.
When I turned around to leave, I stopped in my tracks. I was backstage, and quickly decided: I’m not going anywhere. They’re gonna have to throw me out. The fact that I was one of only a few white people amongst the many hangers-on, groupies, and sycophants (most of whom were in their 70s, 80s, or beyond), didn’t deter me. I walked to a spot in the wings that had some dark curtains, stood next to them, and did my best to make myself invisible. This worked for about two minutes.
It became quiet backstage as the musicians settled in on stage. All was going well until I saw someone walking towards me.
Duke Ellington. He was smiling that famous megawatt smile as he paused, turned, and spoke to me. My heart stopped.
“Are you enjoying the show?” he asked.
“I sure am!” was all I could say.
“Good!” responded the Duke, as he continued toward the stage.
Many years later I reflect on such chance meetings, and how funny life is in this way. Even now, if I mention to a musician or jazz lover that I once met Duke Ellington, I see the same reaction of awe in their face. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. For a moment. He saw me and spoke kindly to me, and I responded.
The world is full of such moments, and I’ve certainly had my share. Sometimes you just step outside your door and wham! I’m glad of these small miracles and have tried to chronicle them throughout my adult life.
While many look at such moments as coincidences, there are others who claim, “There are no coincidences—everything happens for a reason.”
I was in New York to attend a high school reunion in 2009, and several of us arranged a visit to see Mr. Masciarelli at his home. He was not well, but he was damned happy to see us. We told him stories about our lives in and out of music. He particularly loved hearing about his old friend, Rufus Jones, and how the suggestion for us to say hello when he was playing with Maynard led me to meet Duke Ellington. Maz died later that summer, but for those of us whose lives were changed by his spirit, talent, and mentoring friendship, he lives still.