Interviewer’s note: unlike most interviews on Trumpet Journey, there is no preliminary bio or equipment list for Dennis Monk. His interview is, essentially, his bio.
The date of this live interview was February 20, 2018. The interviewer is Stanley Curtis, who was a student of Dennis in the 1980s at the University of Alabama.
SC: Dennis, thanks for agreeing to sit with me and talk about music, your life, your career—and maybe a little about the trumpet along the way!
DM: It’s my pleasure! I often think of my career in terms of the story of the Fox and the Hedgehog from the fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” Me? I could never be the hedgehog, but I was a pretty good fox.
SC: Tell me about your childhood. How did you get interested in music? What was it like growing up in South Dakota?
DM: I grew up the descendants of homesteaders in a little town called Olivet in S.D.—population of about 500, mostly Norwegian-Americans. I was the child of immigrants, who were recruited by the railroad from countries like Denmark, Ireland, Hungary, Poland and Germany.
My father’s family had a home orchestra. He played several instruments, including the trumpet, and my mother played the piano and saxophone. And every village in SD had a good-quality town band. My grandfather had become an owner of a bank. He closed it every afternoon at 3pm to conduct the local high school band. My grandparents so loved music that they would walk five miles to a railroad spur and take the train to the nearest city (50 miles away) to hear a touring opera star or an orchestra or a band, and then after the concert and get back on the train and back home in the morning.
Unfortunately, the Great Depression destroyed the family bank. My father had to do something, so he became, without any degree in music education, the high school band director, choral director, basketball coach and principal. In a band in those days, the most important person was the first-chair cornet. I say cornet, because the trumpet might as well have not been invented, yet—they were considered pea-shooters! My father began grooming me to be the first chair cornet player starting when I was in Fifth Grade. I played a Reynolds cornet with a Bach 7C mouthpiece. Starting in the Sixth Grade, I was his first cornet player for 6 years. I thought I was pretty great. I played in a polka band in high school, playing “dawn dances” (in the summer), so-called because they started at midnight and went to sunrise.
But the “Fox” of Archilochus took over. I began to be interested in theater, debate, choir and “original oratory,” which is a competitive event. I was one of three democrats in the school. Outspoken doesn’t come close to what I was!
SC: What did you do after high school?
DM: I eventually came to realize that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was on the cornet.
I had to decide between going to college at Michigan State (I had been offered a little scholarship there) or joining the Navy. In 1955, you either did your obligatory military service before went to college or after you went to college. If you got drafted after college, you might become an Army grunt and sleep in foxholes and get shot. Whereas the Navy offered me the opportunity of hot meals, sheets, and expanding my musical experience (there was a school of music in the Navy). So, at 17, I enlisted, and spent two and a half years in the Navy. I became the director of a 30-member boot camp band, at age 17, in Great Lakes. We played the “Star Spangled Banner” at morning colors and “Anchors Aweigh” marching back to the band room. That was the total repertoire of the boot camp band. Before going to boot camp, I had seen only one black growing up in South Dakota. That all changed with my experience with the Navy Band program.
After boot camp, I spent a year in Navy School of Music at Anacostia Naval Station, in Southeast D.C. I was smart, and I could type, so they kept me on the staff.
Then I was shipped out to sea for the remainder of my enlistment. In the Navy, I played in a big band on the USS Bennington. On this ship I went to Sydney, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Hawaii. There was a jazz trumpeter named Jerry van Blair, who went on to play with Bill Chase. The band on the Bennington was made up of draftees. Many were college music majors.
SC: After your time in the Navy, what did you do?
DM: I discovered after a year at sea, I wasn’t getting any better, and I was discouraged. So, when I was discharged in 1958, I decided I would study music education. The best college at the time in music education was San Francisco State. My tuition was $37 a semester.
I set foot on a college campus and thought I had died and gone to heaven. I decided that I would never leave a college campus, and, as it turns out, I never did. I took courses in English, Art and Philosophy, but I remember my advisor eventually said to me, “You know, Dennis, if you’re a music major, at some point you’re expected to take classes in music.” So, I started studying conducting, and I decided I wanted to be an opera conductor. I finished my degree without going to many of the classes, because they were so easy. Then, I got a job starting a band and a jazz band at a Jesuit prep school in San Francisco. I conducted musical shows. Then they hired me at the University of San Francisco (also a Jesuit school). There, I started conducting musical shows. That’s when I discovered that going to college was one thing, and teaching was entirely different. I was more excited to teach. “Music Man” was the first show. At the same time, I was taking graduate courses at San Francisco State in music history, because I needed to know more about classical music, since I wanted to be a conductor. True to the “Fox”, I discovered I really liked music history. And I liked the idea of teaching in a college.
SC: What did you do after you graduated from San Francisco State?
DM: I got married in 1962—my bride, Kay, and I eloped. Soon she was pregnant. Even though I was really busy and sleep-deprived, we packed up and moved to Los Angeles. There I started working toward my Ph.D. at UCLA. I studied conducting with Zubin Mehta’s dad, Mehli Mehta. I was the assistant conductor of the UCLA symphony and the UCLA opera, and soon became a father. Because UCLA didn’t have a doctorate in conducting, I got my Ph.D. in musicology as an alternative to conducting—my residency lasting only two and a half years.
SC: What did you do then?
DM: I accepted a job at a junior college in Washington State. Now I had a family to support. But then I heard about Fulbright Fellowships. The “Fox” came calling once again. I could not resist the temptation of applying for a Fulbright to Vienna.
SC: Had you already learned German?
DM: I had already learned how to read German, but I couldn’t speak it. Much to my astonishment, I received the Fulbright award. I rescinded my teaching position, before I got there. I moved to Vienna with my family (my three-year-old daughter, Kimberly, learned to speak German almost immediately and could translate for my wife during shopping trips). I began doing my dissertation research on the 18th-century symphony: how the style had changed between Bach and Haydn. I felt that up to this time there was the lack of scores to help in this research. So, I went to archives in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and photographed orchestral parts, in order to re-compile them later into a score for study. I got my Fulbright extended by a year, and by this time, I was moving my focus away from the symphony to the quartet, because it was easier to collect only four parts for a quartet.
When I returned to the U.S., after I made scores from the parts, I could analyze them to see how the style changed between Bach and Haydn. I looked at about a dozen composers, such as Johann Baptist Vanhal and Franz Asplmayr. I published some of my editions.
After I got my doctoral degree in 1972, I got a phone call from dean of Oberlin (a UCLA grad), he had a temporary position, so I began teaching musicology. As this temporary job was about to disappear, I took a job at Central Michigan University. There I started an early music ensemble. I got a chance to conduct Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea.” I was their first music historian. But, like many times before, the “Fox” showed up in my door again. I got invited to take a year’s internship in the Vice President’s office, followed by being appointed Chair of Music Department. It was a really good music school. I liked the place and it was growing. I even helped to design a new building there.
But the damned “Fox” showed up again. I got very active with the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM). I had the reputation of being very active but a little weird. I gave a lot of papers to them that were quite visionary.
SC: But you didn’t stay there, did you?
DM: No. I was sitting at my desk at CMU, when the Dean at the University of Alabama rang me up. , He said, “We’re doing a chairman search and we have stalled. We’re on the 2nd year and the faculty won’t agree.” I told him, “Let me think who might be a good person for Alabama.” “No, you don’t understand. We want you!” I told him I didn’t want to go, but I went anyway to interview there.
After visiting the Alabama campus and still being undecided, I flew back to Michigan, flying over the last dirty snow of the year. It was cold and ugly, so I walked through the door and told my wife to pack!
SC: I knew you when I was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama. You were, by then, the music director of the school of music there. Was it easy to lead this music school at that time? How did you find Alabama?
DM: I had challenges right away. Because the dean of the college of Arts and Sciences didn’t want to fire anybody, he had simply removed three positions from the school because of budget cutting. This affected me: I didn’t have these positions in the School of Music, and I had thought I did. When it dawned on me what had transpired, I barged into the dean’s office with my hair on fire. He sat there smoking his pipe. “Well, we lied a little”. He told me that I would just have to work through it. So, I did as best as I could.
I had also been promised that there were plans and money set aside for a new music building. I finally asked President (Joab) Thomas how much money had they set aside. He finally confessed that it was only $7 million. Well, you can’t build for that little—especially with a concert hall in the design! Joab (Thomas, the president) was only too glad to pull the plug on the project, but I saved the building. I started going to trustee meetings. The chancellor finally stepped in and, with his help, the building was finally funded and built.
I stayed on as director for about eleven years. Then I went to work in the Chancellor’s office for a few years, but I didn’t enjoy it. Sooner or later, you’re libel to run afoul your boss. With a personality like mine, it came. The dean took an almost instant dislike to me. The law of jungle is that if you’re chairman and dean doesn’t like you, you have to resign. I resigned. I spent the last 10 years just teaching. And they were the most pleasurable of my entire career.
Now, I enjoy connecting with many of my students on social media, following their lives. It’s been a real pleasure. I just got an email from one of my students from the time I was teaching in San Francisco. He told me that he had recently named me as a music teacher that changed his life.
SC: What advice do you have for the younger generation? How can we improve our musical world?
DM: Be ready for change. Follow the fox. There are books out now that say that knowledge is useless. Because everything is changing. I have become very interested in the stoic philosophy of people like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. It has been a new interest. In a nutshell: the past is the past and there is nothing you can do about. The future you have no idea about. So, you must live for the present. In neuroscience, we have come to learn that decisions aren’t made consciously, but subconsciously. And the conscious mind simply recognizes the decisions. I trusted intuition, opportunity and danger. I think that was the right thing to do, and I would suggest that’s an important lesson for young people today. Over the years, I’ve come to embrace two favorite expressions: “I don’t know” and “I don’t know.” Both are very helpful.
SC: What kind of projects are you looking forward to in the future?
DM: Just recently, when my wife, Kay, died, I got an opportunity to work again on the scores that I had compiled in my doctorate research.
Someone in Canada who works with Tafelmusik and in a string quartet, asked me to help with some quartets that he was interested in. After he mentioned to me they were going to record some quartets by Asplmayr that I had edited, I was able to show him some later works that are even more interesting. Now his quartet is planning to do another CD. I’m past 80, and my work still seems relevant, and this makes me very happy.
SC: Dennis, your journey has certainly been an adventure, and I’m sure that some young trumpeters out there will find some inspiration from the paths that you took.
DM: I hope so. It was great to chat with you!
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