A tribute to J. David Abt

Volume 122, No. 3March, 2022

Ken Rizzo

The trombonist and music teacher J. David Abt died on December 14, 2021 at the age of 91 after being a member of Local 802 since 1958. Allegro previously published a tribute by Mr. Abt’s daughter, and now we’d like to present this tribute by Local 802 member Ken Rizzo:

David Abt was my music teacher at Hicksville High School. He led both the Symphonic Wind Ensemble (the equivalent of the “varsity” musicians) and the Stage Band (the jazz ensemble). We produced two records during my time at at Hicksville. One was a live recording of an extremely challenging program that the wind ensemble performed at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. The other was a session the Stage Band recorded in the band room at school. Both records remain a part of my LP collection.

The thing about Mr. Abt was that he knew he could challenge us. The Stage Band once remarked en masse to him that we loved playing “In The Mood.” His response, after rolling his eyes, was to present us with Frank Zappa charts. In wind ensemble we performed the John Cage piece “Souvenir.” Aside from a challenge for us, that piece was a logistical and organizational challenge for him. The school auditorium had to be equipped with black lights and we gave out “souvenirs” of ping pong balls and silly string, which Mr. Abt had to procure. The piece itself was as “20th century” as it got — completely improvisatory, but highly structured. And Mr. Abt did this all for us.

Years later, when I was student teaching, I was preparing to present a piece called “Blue Lake” to the advanced students at LaGuardia High School. “Blue Lake” was one of the pieces we had performed at that concert in Rochester, and I needed some advice. So I called Mr. Abt. (By then, I was calling him Dave.) He was so gracious and just picked up teaching me as if no time had passed. I don’t know if he had the score in front of him, but as I went through the piece he would say things like, “O.K., now, at bar 98 you have to….” He was right on it.

I only actually saw Mr. Abt once after high school. I used to have a steady Friday gig with Lew Anderson at Birdland. On one occasion, as I was setting up my bass gear, I heard a voice say, “I was told you were now playing something other than sax, but I didn’t know what it was.” I don’t recall why he was there that one night — and I never saw him there again — but it was great to see him and to get his imprimatur for the musician I had become. Whatever I achieved, it is in part due to the foundation he helped to forge.

p.s…Below are the front covers of the two records that Mr. Abt produced for us. I treasure these in my collection: