Repaying a Debt… Realizing a Dream…

I was blessed to grow up twenty-three miles west of New York City in a community that, at least for a time, invested in public school music programs. My two high school band directors were accomplished and working jazz musicians. Their love of the art form was as infectious as the audience screams when our stage band played Buddy Rich’s “Channel One Suite” and Thad Jones’ “Cherry Juice” to win the state championship during my freshman year in high school. I wanted some of that! Lots of it. At thirteen, I met Thad Jones when he performed at my high school. Roy Haynes performed there a couple of years later. By 11th grade, we had convinced the school district to offer a daily Jazz Improvisation course for credit. We young hipsters played a major role in crafting that curriculum.

While other schools had large paramilitary stage bands in platform shoes and Hawaiian shirts playing” In The Mood” and Barry Manilow charts, we had small combos playing Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Ornette Coleman, Woody Shaw, and original compositions. Jazz was not only a vehicle for creative expression and personal development within a collaborative context, it was gateway to understanding African American history, civil rights, tolerance, democracy, beauty, joy, and truth. The time I have spent in the company of jazz musicians has taught me as much about learning as any professional pursuit. I spent my 18th birthday at Fat Tuesday’s, a now defunct New York City jazz club, listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. My friends, teachers, and I revered jazz. We still do. Jazz has never let me down.

After high school, I studied to be a jazz musician at Berklee, Rutgers, and William Paterson until my conspicuous lack of talent caught up with me. I loved jazz too much to be bad at it; so, I quit playing. However, I still spend a large percentage of my time and money attending live performances around the world and purchasing recordings. I have been known to fly cross-country to attend a performance or arrange work overseas to coincide with a jazz festival.

Less than a year out of high school, I learned that my home school district voted 9-0 to defund school music. A few nights later, I attended a Board meeting and got the vote reversed. I then formed the Friends of Music of Wayne, a non-profit advocacy group dedicated to ensuring that school music programs would never be jeopardized again. Two of the best nights in my life were introducing some of the world’s finest jazz musicians who performed in my alma mater’s cafeteria (done up like a jazz club) in a concert opened by student musicians. The two ensembles I produced included: Mulgrew Miller, James Williams, Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring, Eddie Allen, Phil Bowler, Ira Coleman, Carl Allen, and Dwayne Broadnax. Those gentleman were currently playing with Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Nat Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Little Jimmy Scott, Mongo Santamaria, Woody Shaw, and Wynton Marsalis.

Early in 12th grade (fall of 1980), I attended one of William Paterson College’s Jazz Room concerts on a Sunday afternoon. I believe that the band performing was the Frank Strozier Quartet featuring Harold Mabern on piano. I was so blown away by that concert that I could barely sleep that night or focus in school the next day. As soon as the school bell rang, I hopped into my 1974 chocolate brown Grand Torino Elite and drove to the William Paterson campus. I parked illegally and carried my trumpet case into the music building. To this day, I have no idea what I thought was going to happen. I certainly had no plan.

Within minutes, the door to the large rehearsal room swung open and a great giant of a man, Chico Mendoza, the director of the college’s latin jazz ensemble looked at me sitting on my trumpet case and yelled, “Hey kid, is that a trumpet?” I nodded in the affirmative and Chico yelled, “Get in here!” As he held the classroom door open for me I tried telling him that I was not a college student. He pointed to an empty music stand and said, “You! 3rd trumpet!” I played the rehearsal and had a ball. At the end of the session, I went up to the conductor to thank him for his hospitality. He replied, “You’ll be here next week, right?” “But, I don’t go to school here,” I told him. Chico replied, “I don’t care. I need a trumpet player.” So, I played in his college band for the rest of the year. I even travelled with them. When he found out that I wanted to study arranging, Chico paid me with his own money to copy the charts he was writing for the band and came to my house to give me arranging lessons.

Over the five decades since, I have experienced and witnessed similar acts of love, generosity, and mentoring by countless jazz musicians. This is one of the many reasons I love jazz and jazz musicians so much. I can never repay the kindness and wisdom I’ve received from jazz legends like Jimmy Heath, Harold Mabern, Freddy Cole, Paul Jeffrey, Frank Foster, Barry Harris, Eddie Palmieri, Machito, Phil Woods, Slide Hampton, Kurt Elling, John Stubblefield, Branford Marsalis, Carl Allen, Brian Lynch or the countless young artists who have befriended me.

Each of these formative experiences from my teens and early twenties form the basis for a secular ministry in which I not only surrender myself to the power of great Black American Music, but have introduced countless friends and colleagues to live jazz – from New York to Thailand, Germany, Australia, and across the USA. I don’t wish to sound grandiose, but my latest venture is a way of preserving an art form that has given me so much and to amplify the voices of its practitioners.

I am thrilled to announce the launch of Cymbal Press, a new publishing company celebrating the arts and artists. We give voice to artists and teaching artists by sharing their expertise in-print and digital formats. Based on the success of Constructing Modern Knowledge Press, a company publishing books by creative educators for creative educators, Cymbal Press will bring the stories and wisdom of jazz musicians and other artists to the world.

Our first two books, available in October, are Life in E Flat – The Autobiography of Phil Woods and Jazz Dialogues with Jon Gordon. Phil Woods is one of the greatest saxophonists, band leaders, and characters of all-time. Being trusted with the posthumous publication of his autobiography is an awesome responsibility and great honor. It even earned me a phone call from Billy Joel! I am beyond grateful to Phil’s wife Jill Goodwin for her support and faith in me. My partner Sylvia Martinez has worked hundreds of hours preparing this important work for publication. Her efforts give wings to my dreams.

Phil Woods and Gary Stager

Most of all, I wish to thank the great Phil Woods for writing such a terrific memoir and for his remarkable achievements as a performer, composer, educator, mentor, parent, partner, and friend. I first met Phil when I attended the Ramapo College Jazz Camp as a 15-year-old in 1978. His music has been part of the soundtrack of my life ever since. Getting to know him thirty years later was a great joy. It is a supreme honor and privilege to share this autobiography with the world. His life and myriad contributions deserve to be remembered. Hopefully, Life in E Flat will inspire additional Phil Woods scholarship. His recorded output will challenge and delight anyone who loves great music forever.

I also hope that Cymbal Press will be able to publish essays, criticism, memoirs, and instructional texts by other artists. Potential authors should contact me to explore such possibilities.

Learn more about our books and mission at

Happy reading! Keep swinging! #bam

Gary S. Stager, Ph.D.
Publisher and CEO: Cymbal Press

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