Wellspring of Joy: Rollan Masciarelli
Michael Robinson and Rollan Masciarelli
How do you thank a person who bequests the gift of life? Not in a literal sense, as that comes from one’s parents, but in the sense of a teacher awakening individual pupils to maximize their unique potentialities.
I was drifting dangerously, cut off from my love of sports by injures that curtailed my effectiveness and enjoyment, when Rollan Masciarelli recognized and expressed great excitement for the musical aptitude he perceived in myself, sitting in the back of a music theory class in the spring half of tenth grade.
Somehow he ignited me to develop whatever seed of musicality was lying dormant by providing an alto saxophone together with private lessons that quickly led to my joining the concert band. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Masciarelli introduced me to the thrilling music of Lester Young and Charlie Parker, with the latter becoming an obsession.
Recently, I learned that Parker claimed to have practiced his saxophone between eleven and fifteen hours a day for three to four years, and if I had known that back in tenth grade, I probably would have attempted to emulate that extreme commitment, but I did put in four to six hours a day for several years, ultimately deciding that composition rather than improvisation was my true calling.
A favored iconic memory of Mr. Masciarelli blazoned into my mind’s eye is how perfect and timeless he appeared one balmy spring morning in band class with cool, invigorating breezes darting around the room from the open windows. He stood at the podium next to the slanted portals in immaculate shirt sleeves and tie carefully checking his score before the rehearsal began, and I was momentarily transported to the innocent, unlimited promise of the fifties through his Chet Baker-like visage, haircut, and intensity that bespoke an earnest melancholy and rugged beauty comparable to -- I later realized -- the scene in the inspired film, Field of Dreams, where Burt Lancaster selflessly and dramatically abandons a second chance to become a professional baseball player in order to rescue an imperiled child by returning to his role as a physician.
You see, Rollan was a brilliant jazz trumpeter whose career was cut short by an automobile accident that limited him to playing with only a fraction of his former mastery, and so, after receiving a masters degree from Columbia University, he gave his all to imparting a sense of the urgency, discipline, aesthetic appreciation, and attention to detail required in music and life to his students.
Mr. Masciarelli, who I loved discussing music with more than anyone else due to his formidable intellect and insight, was the personification of a noble soul. He was born on June 23, 1932, and that was a blessed day for the numerable students at Wantagh High who he inspired over an impassioned career.
Years after college, even after moving to Los Angeles, I made it a point to visit Mr. Masciarelli at his home on Holiday Park Drive in Wantagh when I visited New York each year. He always greeted me with a giant smile and handshake, and insisted on purchasing every CD I released. His spoken voice had an unforgettable halting yet energetic style that seemed to indicate impatience with the limitations of language compared to music.
While in high school, he puzzled me one day, stating that I was the most intelligent student there (many of our graduates went on to Ivy League schools), and I had no idea where that thought came from, or if he ever complimented other students in this manner. Rollan also used the extreme term “genius” to describe my musical abilities (perhaps he used this expression with other students, too, in past and future years) when introducing me to the audience during a senior year concert, and said in private that a piece I produced for a composition class he taught that same year, one of my very first works, was superior to the efforts of composition majors at a nearby university he was associated with. Another time, he effused that he "wished he had what I had" after having me play a passage during band practice. One of my favorite memories of all is the day our jazz band played a concert at a local elementary school, with all the excitedly charmed children sitting on the floor in a gymnasium right in front of us. Everything seemed to click perfectly for me that day, playing way over my head during improvised solos. After we boarded the bus for the drive back, Mr. Masciarelli got up from his front seat, turned to address us, and gushed astonished words about how he had been wowed by my performance.
I’m not sure exactly what part of Mr. Masciarelli’s influence dwells inside of me, but it has something to do with the qualities of a perfect spring day when anything seems possible, and striving towards synchronizing with the beauty of nature (God) while doing your best to assist others through one’s work.
This title of this writing was derived from Joy Spring, a composition by Clifford Brown, who was Mr. Masciarelli's favorite trumpet artist; and also by what Rollan believed was the predominant element informing the improvisations of Charlie Parker, his favorite jazz artist: joy.
- Michael Robinson, October 2012, Los Angeles
© 2012 Michael Robinson All rights reserved
Musings by Rollan Masciarelli
Michael Robinson is a Los Angeles-based composer and writer (musicologist).