Littman: Fly me to the moon with Tony G

Peter Littman
Valley Voices
Peter Littman

The first time I met Tony, our first lesson, he made quite the memorable impression. Unlike any other teacher of mine, he was not so focused on the technical aspects of my musicianship. Instead, he knew that the saxophone’s soul was what spoke to me.

From the first day, he was a soulful guy with a knack for understanding how to ignite his students’ passion. He was amazing at pushing people out of their comfort zone, but just the right amount. 

Our bond immediately flourished, from eighth grade through high school we unfailingly met for lessons once or twice a week. I accompanied him to Iowa for a jazz camp one summer. We talked for hours in the car — life, love, music, he wanted to know everything.

For Tony, getting to know his pupils deeply was a priority. Iowa was our first moment truly as friends — late night jams, eating ribeyes at 11:30 after a long day of playing. He treated me as one of the guys, an equal, loved. One afternoon during camp while running through the Iowa farm country, a vicious dog stranded me on the wrong side of a road. Giving instructor Tony a distressed call, he hightailed it out of class to rescue me. 

I started gigging at restaurants and lounges around the Vail Valley with my trio a year later. But it was only after years of sitting in with Tony at his Westin and Grouse gigs, experiences where I gained the confidence, skill, and energy to play any room.

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Playing gigs, Tony’s magic came alive. I was always dumbfounded that he knew almost every family that would walk through the door, including people who only came to town once a year, sometimes just to see Tony. Thirty years ago, he had played their weddings and then, their kids’ weddings too, traveled with them, you name it.

Tony had a big, big family. He galavanted all over the world to play — lived like a real star. He played in Japan more times than he could count, Austria, Denmark, New York and everywhere between. Once, his best friend and renowned saxophonist, Roger Newman, had his pants fall down in front of a stately Austrian Mayor during the town gala. The whole crowd went wild in laughter. Tony loved to tell that story. He was amazing at getting people to dance, sing and smile. He would look people right in the eye, always with a big grin, he was a big hugger too. No one doubted how much Tony loved them. 

Once we were playing a gig, when my family showed up. I cringed — a symptom of my high school angst. He cringed along too, we both laughed, he totally got me.

Another time, I came to him absolutely heartbroken by my high school sweetheart. He completely understood what I was going through. Giving my hair a ruffle, he reminded me that to play the blues, you gotta live the blues. That cheered me up.

While I was at McGill, Tony visited me in Montreal — we did not get to play at all on that trip, but we sure ate well: I remember him ordering in goofy crude French at this sandwich shop, the chef couldn’t get enough of it.

People gravitated to Tony. He was so good at making fast friends (which he was sure to do with all of my friends too). That visit was a beautiful reminder that our relationship was built on music, but it was so much more — a friendship, a mentorship, and companionship. In the last few years, Tony and I have made lots of plans — New York, Newport, Maine, none of them panned out. But it certainly was not for lack of trying on his part. 

Through the years, we played numerous magical gigs, sharing many beautiful songs. “Misty” was my favorite of ours. Between two musicians there is nothing more intimate than playing together. You have to be so in touch with every dynamic, rhythm and tone you bounce off one another.

He taught me how to slow down, to listen, relax and channel my emotions into the horn. I have so many wonderful Tony memories, I couldn’t possibly write them all down. Every time I saw him, he lit up my day, my time with him is unforgettable.

I will forever remember him when I pick up my sax. He understood me like almost no one could. I can’t imagine a better mentor, a better inspiration to strive to emulate. You changed my life forever — I love you over the moon, Tony G.

Peter Littman is a senior at Bowdoin College.

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