Hal McKusick, 87, Noted Jazz Musician

June 1, 1924 - April 10, 2012
Hal McKusick

    The jazz musician Hal McKusick told The Star in 1998 that he did not like to talk about himself, preferring instead to talk about his influences. As a result, his South Fork neighbors were often surprised that someone with such an exceptional roster of musical collaborators — including Woody Herman, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Stan Getz, and John Coltrane — lived in their midst.
    Mr. McKusick, who died in Sag Harbor on April 10 from complications after a fall, was 87. In more recent years, he was a beloved music teacher at the Ross School, where he founded the jazz band. Among the instruments he played were saxophone, clarinet, and flute.
    He was born Harold Wilfred McKusick Jr. on June 1, 1924, in Medford, Mass., to Harold and Bernice McKusick, and grew up there. A clarinet caught his eye in a store window as a young boy and at the age of 8 he was playing the instrument in the junior high band. During that time he also learned alto saxophone from his music teacher, who led his own band in the 1930s. He would eventually learn all five varieties of saxaphone, although he felt most at home on alto and developed a particular style of playing that was an influence on musicians of the cool jazz period.
    He began performing at age 15 in Boston and was playing in big bands by the time he was out of high school, eschewing a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music to join Les Brown on tour.
    The bandleaders he played with in the 1940s included Les Brown, Woody Herman, and Boyd Rayburn. He went on to play in the Johnny Otis, Buddy Rich, Claude Thornhill, and Elliot Lawrence bands, among others. He also played with Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman. In 1998, he said that Lester Young and Charlie Parker were his biggest influences.
    During World War II, Mr. McKusick’s travels prevented his induction into the armed services. By the time preinduction blood tests were complete at one location, band members were off to the next spot, and the process had to begin again.
    Instead, he told The Star, like “all the big bands, we spent sometimes six months at a time doing one-nighters,” living in Army camps and traveling between U.S.O. shows in a cargo plane. “The band was there to back up the big stars — Judy Garland and so on. It was a wild life, let me tell you.”
    In the 1950s, he began recording with almost all the major jazz artists and arrangers of the time. Eventually, he led his own band, recording nine albums with them. He was in the CBS Studio Orchestra in New York from 1958 to 1972, backing up Barbra Streisand and Tony Bennett on special programs and playing for shows such as “I’ve Got a Secret” and “Candid Camera.”
    Mr. McKusick began coming to Wainscott in the 1960s and eventually bought a house in Sag Harbor. Although he moved to Sag Harbor full time in 1972, he continued to record and play music in the city while performing on the South Fork at concerts, benefits, and private events. 
    Looking back on his career in 1998, he said some of his personal highlights were appearing as an alto sax soloist with South American and Cuban bands such as Tito Puente’s and Machito’s, and a date as a saxophone soloist with the New York Philharmonic. He recalled that it was frightening to play among the symphonic stars, but when he heard the applause, he thought: “They let me into the club.”
    In addition he composed music for two Edward Albee plays, “The Sandbox” and “The Death of Bessie Smith.” He was friends with Mr. Albee and actually appeared in one of the plays.
    Of his teaching he said, “It goes beyond trying to play the instrument technically perfect. It’s a feeling that you put on it. It’s pursuing a dream. It’s being passionate about what you believe in, and if you’re lucky enough to find that when you’re a kid, and you have the inspiration to carry on and make that a reality. . . . That takes mentors. And that’s what I’d like to do with my students.” This approach seems to have left him dozens of devoted protégés. His wife, Jan McKusick, said this week that she had been contacted by many of them and the outpouring of gratitude had been overwhelming.
    When he wasn’t playing music, he enjoyed success in hobbies such as his photography, which was exhibited at Nikon House Galleries in Rockefeller Center in the 1970s. The photographs were of wildlife he spotted in the woods and shorelines of Southampton, Bridgehampton, Sagaponack, and East Hampton.
    In the same decade, he became a commercial pilot and enjoyed piloting charter flights on the Eastern Seaboard. He also spent time on St. Barts, which had one of the region’s most challenging runways, flying passengers between the Caribbean islands and down from the north and playing with his band at night on St. Barts and Nevis.
    He enjoyed working with wood and making Shaker-style furniture. He owned and operated a shop in Sag Harbor called Little Barn Antiques, in a carriage house behind his residence. The shop and his furniture designs were featured in Architectural Digest.
    Mr. McKusick is survived by his wife Jan McKusick and three children from a previous marriage that ended in divorce, Richard McKusick of Pasadena, Calif., Jim McKusick of Henderson, Nev., and Leslie Ballard of Las Vegas. He also had two brothers, Kenneth McKusick of Orleans, Mass., and Charles McKusick of Satellite Beach, Fla., and seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.  Two sisters died before him, Ruthe Berry and Elaine Dewing.
    Mr. McKusick was cremated. A public memorial gathering will be announced at a later date. The family has suggested contributions to the Hal McKusick Scholarship Fund at the Ross School, 18 Goodfriend Drive, East Hampton 11937.