Monsignor John Sanders brought warmth and gratitude to the offices of the Jazz Museum in Harlem on August 10, 2006. His earliest memories were in the mid-’30s, and center on his foster family in Harlem, where he grew up at 123 West 138th Street.
Sanders described in great detail the neighborhood back then: the white and brownstone tenements; the social dances at the Renaissance Ballroom; the YWCA, of which his mom was a member; Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the stately Adam Clayton Powell Sr. and Jr. helmed; Lincoln Court, a six-story apartment complex with an elevator; an empty lot where he and other children played, which was converted into an apartment building where Chick Webb, Jimmy Mundy, Andy Kirk and Count Basie lived; as well as St. Marks Catholic school, which laid the foundation for his later spiritual path of service.
Many of his extended family lived together. “Our dining room was like Times Square,” he recalled. His uncle Joe loved Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; his Aunt Edith, who adored the stage shows at the Apollo Theatre, and took him there, and the Saturday night broadcasts of WNEW’s Make Believe Ballroom, when black bands were featured.
He vividly described the magical experience of witnessing Jimmie Lunceford, Count Basie, and, especially, Duke Ellington in their swinging glory. In the summer of 1938, at the age of 13, he heard “Azure,” “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” and other classics, and got hooked. These profound moments of musical bliss inspired Sanders to study music while in high school, and he continued this study while playing with Navy bands after signing up in 1943.
After returning to New York in 1946 he began studying trombone at the Juilliard School, and in 1949 joined an ensemble led by reed great Lucky Thompson for a group that served as the house band at the Savoy Ballroom.
In 1952 Mercer Ellington told him that he needed “a trombone player for Pop. Go see Pop at the Apollo, and tell him I sent you.” He did, and the Maestro asked him if he could play that very night! He sped to Queens on the iron horse (train), told his mom the news, got his horn and jetted back to the Apollo, where for the first time he played with the legendary orchestra. Duke asked if he could come out for a few nights—this turned into a six-week tour.
He continued playing with Thompson thereafter, until Duke called once again in January 1954. “When Duke calls, what else can you say but yes?” He described how the band members accepted him graciously, the styles and personalities of several of his band mates, and commented on the pleasure and education he gained from becoming the copyist for Duke and Billy Strayhorn while the band traveled on the road.
Loren Schoenberg conducted the interview, laying down one question at a time like a single modal chord upon which Sanders responded with Art Tatum-like verbal embellishments. After intermission Schoenberg put on a DVD of the Ellington orchestra performing a medley, with a young Sanders featured on “Caravan.”
Sanders and audience member and legendary CBS producer George Avakian warmly recalled the events leading up to, during, and after the historic night at Newport in 1956. Sanders left the band in 1959 to answer the call to the priesthood, which Duke supported; in fact Sanders contends that songs such as “Come Sunday” from the Black, Brown and Beige Suite foreshadowed the sacred concerts of the ’60s. After Sanders joined the seminary, Ellington told him, “John, we’re on the same team.” Ellington even attended his first mass on Feb. 11, 1973. For 25 years Sanders served as a Roman Catholic priest at the St. Mary Church in Norwalk, Connecticut. He’s retired from active duty as a priest, and has started playing trombone again!
The evening ended on a sacred note, as we listened to Mahalia Jackson reverently singing “Come Sunday” (when Sanders played valve and slide ‘bone with the band), with Duke’s soft chords underneath, breathing a somber and reflective spirit of beauty into our souls.