The Guy Who Taught Me the Saxophone - Kenny Blekicki
Written by Seth M. Ebersole
I grew up in a family of brass players. My father is a tubist, my oldest sister played french horn, and another sister is a trumpet player. When it came time for me to pick an instrument, the trumpet seemed like a natural choice...until I tried it. It was awful! For better or worse, I soon switched to saxophone. My father, a recently retired band director, had a colleague who was a saxophonist and was keen on giving me lessons. He called my dad up and asked if he could see me for some private instruction.
Ken Blekicki was an old man when I met him as an 8 year old. Here was this jolly white haired guy who had a seemingly endless cache of knowledge, stories, and fascinating tidbits about music. He had lived a full life, having played with many of the greats from the swing era. His wall was full of beautiful black-and-white photographs signed by the likes of Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Stan Kenton, and Buddy Rich. They were all made out to “Little Kenny.” He had been something of a prodigy as a kid and had gotten to play with many of these great bands while still in grade school. He told me about each interaction with these legends, helping to paint a rose-colored, romantic view of the music I was just beginning to hear. Every time I visited, he would have another sensational story about one of the greats and what they were like.
Ken was also a fine educator. He taught in the same school district as my father for many years. He was the Jr. High School band director in Fleetwood Area School District in Berks County, PA. Countless 9th graders moved to my father’s band at the high school citing Ken as the only reason they continued playing. Many of them hadn’t played an instrument before taking his band class, he had let them join the band anyhow. He just wanted them to experience the wonder of music! Ken had a way of letting kids feel like they could do it, there was no mystery to learning music, just joy. Music was something vital, something accessible that every student deserved to experience.
This was his approach to our private lessons as well. I remember when he put a set of chord changes in front of me, “Autumn Leaves,” I believe. I knew what minor and major was at this point, but Kenny hadn’t yet taught me chord progressions or how chords were spelled. He simply played the melody, then played the theme from “M*A*S*H” the second time. He said, “See? They both work!” He asked me to play the new melody back by ear, then change things to be the way I wanted them, but ONLY if I first played the melody clearly. This was my introduction to improvisation. No mystery, no secrets, just melody.
Years after, I realized that Kenny’s way of seeing the music went far deeper than I realized. In college, a mentor told me that the music I grew up with and the music I was surrounded by as a kid was among the most important to my musical identity. At the time, I had no idea what the teacher meant by this. I grew up listening to my father’s band music: Holst, Vaughn Williams, Grainger, and musical scores like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe. How could this music have anything to do with me as a jazz musician? As it turns out, the lessons I learned from Ken and the music we listened to together have proven themselves some of the richest and most vital to my own life in music.
Ken always loved the standards from musical theatre and Broadway. In a way, I always have too, but I didn’t realize it until recently. These songs almost always have simple melodies driven by lyricism and a distinct harmonic progression - as a music student, I found that I could learn songs efficiently and quickly. This was, in part because Ken taught me to prioritize melody when I was soloing. He encouraged me to learn songs that would stand up to that type of improvisation. I realize now that the music I play, the way I want to play, the reasons I play, are all informed by my relationships as a kid. How does Ken influence my playing in such a deep way? Ken is the reason I still play. The music that I grew up with and experienced with him has become the backbone of my musical identity. Ken laid the groundwork for this with the love of music that he shared with me.
I mentioned that Ken as a teacher was always encouraging. No student felt like they couldn’t do it. Everyone could enjoy playing music. I have attempted to adopt this philosophy as a teacher myself because it is exactly what Ken used with me. Today, I play because Ken not only showed me that I could, but that life was more colorful with melody, today was sweeter with stories of music of the past, and that the relationships built through a life in music were among the most vital to what makes one human.
Ken left us several weeks ago. I was fortunate enough to be asked to play at his memorial service. I put on a stiff upper lip and did what I could through the proceedings. Halfway through, it became apparent that, as much as Ken had shared with me, he had shared equally with every person he knew. Three people gave a eulogy for him - my father, someone who was far younger than Ken and had been greatly influenced by him. The second, a colleague who had worked his entire career with Ken. The third was a personal friend from half a century ago. Each man talked about the same things: Ken loved music, Ken loved his students, and Ken loved them. Kenny is the guy who taught me how to play saxophone. But more than that, he is the reason I became a musician and the type of teacher and person I desperately hope to be.
Seth M. Ebersole
Jazz Artist In Residence, Saginaw Valley State University
Jazz Woodwinds Faculty, Jazz & Creative Institute