I may not recall much about the music program at my elementary school, but I have vivid memories of the junior high program, mostly because of a teacher named Don Nelligan. He was tall and lanky, with straight brown hair that stuck up on the sides and one of the most amazing upper lips I’ve ever seen. Broad, flat, and long, his lip was like a miniature first baseman’s mitt. It was the perfect shape for playing a trombone, which was something Mr. Nelligan did quite well. I never could figure out whether he played the trombone because his lip was shaped that way, or whether his lip was shaped that way because he played the trombone.
I think Mr. Nelligan would have preferred to make his living making music instead of teaching it, but for one reason or another that hadn’t worked out. I met a lot of people like that over the years. Typically they were good players whose lives growing up had revolved around music and who assumed things would always be that way. When they graduated high school, they played a few jobs here and there, until slowly it dawned on them that they were good but not quite good enough to make a living at it.
What do you do when you’ve spent your entire life preparing for a part you can’t play? One thing you can do is teach. Some resented the choice and grew bitter. You see them at schools everywhere, putting in their hours in the band room, complaining in the teachers’ lounge, dreaming all the while about a career on the concert stage or in a recording studio. Then there are people like Don Nelligan.
I never got the feeling Mr. Nelligan loved kids, though I think he liked them well enough. What he loved was music. Besides being an instrumentalist, Mr. Nelligan was a talented arranger with a special passion for big bands, and he shared that passion with his students at every opportunity. He formed a dance band, of which I was a member, and set out to make us as good as the Count Basie Orchestra.
He would play Basie records for us, pointing out inside arranger stuff, like the way brass notes were reinforced by the snare drum to give the band its distinctive, explosive sound. Basie’s music was as precise as a Swiss watch, but above all it swung. Rhythm, we learned, was not a mathematical thing but an intuitive sense, a feel. Basie had it, and Mr. Nelligan was determined that we would, too.
I learned recently that Don Nelligan had passed away. Suddenly I saw him in front of the dance band, snapping his fingers, counting us off, tapping his foot in time to music that sounded a little bit like Count Basie. Of course, the real music was in his head. It was always there, and it always swung. On a few special days, thanks to Mr. Nelligan, so did we.