R.I.P. Mark Colby

A funny story about Mark Colby:

One night on a gig at Fitzgerald’s (famous music room in Berwyn, IL) with Rob Parton’s JazzTech big band, we were playing a song that happened to feature the drums fairly heavily, and even featured a drum solo at one point. Rob had experimented with different setups on the Fitzgerald’s stage, but at this particular point, the drums were routinely situated at the front of the stage, and the saxophones were on the floor, on a riser that was about half the height of the stage (I could be wrong but I think that’s mostly correct). This put the head of 1st tenor—Mark Colby—directly in front of my bass drum.

I can’t remember exactly when this was, but my best guess is I was still in my 20s at this point (you’d think at 36 my memory would be better). It’s probably a difficult thing for my musical colleagues to comprehend, but in my younger days, my playing may have had a slight tendency to get somewhat loud and boisterous at times.

So we’re playing this song that features the drummer, and as I’m soloing, arms and feet thrashing away, I see Mark get up from his chair and walk over to the bar, and proceed to watch me flail about, half smile and half annoyance on his face, from a safer distance. After my solo mercifully ended and the band came back in, he sat back down and we finished the song. As the audience applauded, Mark turned around to me, that same half smile on his face, and yelled, “You son of a bitch!”

I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed that hard in my life. I’d been completely owned, and yes, it was embarrassing, but it was hilarious. The entire band was in stitches. I’ve been given many a curmudgeonly (to my young ears, anyway) speech, especially in my earlier playing days, on volume, sensitivity and transparency by my elders, but Mark summed it up best in just five words in that moment. It would wind up being the most stark—and memorable—lesson I’d ever gotten on playing to a room. That was Mark’s way: to hold the people around him accountable for their role in the music, but to do so with a twinkle in his eye and love in his heart. Instead of a stern lecture, he gave me a Don Rickles roast.

I’ve been reading many tributes to Mark from former students (now professional musicians; great players in their own right) over the past few days. It’s given me a glimpse into the kind of teacher he was and the incredible influence he’s had on the music scene (Chicago area in particular). As a drummer, I’d never had the opportunity to properly study with him, but the experience of playing with him was always an amazing education. And what a great hang. One could not be around him and not laugh.

Thank you, Mark, for everything. Rest well.

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