If you ever had the privilege to hear Hal McKusick play saxophone, then you heard a thoughtful, sophisticated voice with its source in the very heart of modern jazz. That voice is now gone. Longtime Sag Harbor fixture Hal McKusick passed away on April 10 at the age of 87, after an illness. I had the great pleasure of knowing Hal, and, as a musician myself I was thrilled to be able to talk with him about his influences and the jazz history he had seen—and made.
Hal came from Medford, Massachusetts and started out as a clarinetist. In the mid-1940’s, at the tail end of the Big-Band era, he was a member of Boyd Raeburn’s band and the Claude Thornhill band. During World War II, these bands would travel by military transport planes from base to base to perform for troops, and Hal developed a lifelong love of flying. Later, he got his pilot’s license and had his own plane to fly to gigs all over. He even did some charter flying to St. Barts.
As combo jazz and bebop came along in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Hal had more than enough chops to keep up with the times. Among the musicians he played and recorded with are Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans and Dizzy Gillespie. He recorded widely in the 50’s, both as a sideman for the likes of George Russell and Jimmy Giuffre, and as a headliner, and appeared on roughly 230 recording sessions. Hal’s recordings for such jazz labels as Savoy and Prestige are still in print and are especially prized by aficionados for Hal’s virtuoso mastery of a light, lyrical tone and imaginative improvisation. Meanwhile, Hal was under contract to CBS from 1958 to 1972, playing for live radio and television broadcasts and recording with the CBS Orchestra. He was honored by inclusion in the Smithsonian Institute’s oral history of jazz project for his contributions to American jazz.
A man of great energy and curiosity, after moving to Sag Harbor Hal became active in woodworking and built his own shop filled with serious, professional tools. He took great pride in his handcrafted bowls and furniture that he made for his historic 18th century home in the village. Here he could often be found giving saxophone lessons.
For the last 15 years, Hal was mentoring young musicians at the Ross School, where he also directed the jazz band, providing custom arrangements especially suited to the skills of his players.
Hal loved to perform, and he attracted the best and brightest young talent to play with him. Even locally, in concerts at the Old Whalers’ Church and at Christ Church in Sag Harbor, he would be able to attract top sidemen from around the world who wanted to work with him. The spontaneity and energy of these performances brought the true essence of jazz to this place.
We will miss his music, we will miss his voice, and we will miss him greatly.
Hal is survived by his wife Jan McKusick, three children from a previous marriage, Richard McKusick of Pasadena Calif., Jim McKusick of Henderson, Nev., Leslie Ballard of Las Vegas Nev., two brothers Kenneth McKusick of Orleans Mass., Charles McKusick of Satellite Beach, Fla., seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
A public memorial service will be announced at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made to the Hal McKusick Scholarship Fund at Ross School, 18 Goodfriend Drive, East Hampton, NY 11937.