There is No Short Cut
Interview with Al Joslin
by Bill Weaver
photo by George Bredewater
Al Joslin and George Bredewater wait for me as I enter the Brown County Public Library. Joslin is a friendly, energetic man with a firm handshake and a limitless reservoir of stories that he says aren’t very interesting. He’s wrong about that.
Al grew up on the east side of Indianapolis before the Second World War. His father played saxophone and young Al soon displayed a talent that landed him a spot on the popular Major Bowes’ Amateur Hour. Though only a junior in high school, Joslin was offered a place in one of Bowes’s regional “units.”
“So, I was all ready to stay with the unit, 50 dollars a week. I thought, ‘Man, that’s big.’ My dad changed that,” he laughs.
While finishing high school Al played in the Newsboys’ Band, sponsored by The Indianapolis News. He also had a place in the Butler University Band. “Butler played Wabash in football and we went up there—I’d never heard of the school.” He liked what he saw.
“My dad was glad I was going to Wabash because there wasn’t any music there. He didn’t really want me to go into professional music, I don’t know why.
“Then my freshman year Jimmy Dorsey came to the Lyric Theater. I went over to see him and we had quite a talk.”
What they talked about, Al said, “Changed my life.” Asked to recommend a teacher, Dorsey suggested his friend Norman Bates.
“He said, ‘We’re going to be back in New York in six weeks, I’ll talk to Norman about it.’” Soon after Joslin received a letter from Bates. “He said that he had a spot for me. I let him know I was quite excited.”
Each summer Joslin returned to New York. “We got along extremely well. I was there just to play.”
Bates taught Al how to breathe properly and how to finger the saxophone keys rapidly and economically. “He told me, ‘You may be a big operator in Indiana but here’s what you have to do to work here. My fingers are always on the buttons. I don’t lose any energy.’”
One day, “Jimmy Dorsey told me, ‘When you get where Norman wants you to be, and where you think you should be, pick the man you most want to sound like. Go to him and ask him to give you lessons and you’ll never want for work.’
“I chose a fella named Hymie Shertzer. He was about seven or eight years older than I was and played with all the bands. He played lead with Dorsey, and Goodman really liked him.”
By the time Joslin graduated from college he was playing with Ray Heatherton’s band at the Belmont Plaza Hotel. “Which at that time I thought was the best hotel job.
“I suppose I was there four weeks and Victor Borge came into New York. MCA had him booked at the Belmont for his first job. But for some reason Ray and Borge got their wires crossed someway. I knew Ray had missed the cues and Victor looked over, and I tell you, Victor knew how to cuss.” Al laughs, “He really told us off.”
“He struggled with us for three weeks but the last four shows Ray said, ‘We’re going to play the best we’ve ever played for him.’ We almost knocked him off the bench.”
Al quickly discovered that a musician’s life included a lot of work. “You made seventy dollars a week and we played from six to nine and ten until two, five or six nights a week. Your first show, on occasion, would be at 9:30 in the morning.
“When you played in a band like that the less the leader said to you the better. That meant he had great confidence in you.”
“Most musicians,” he adds, “were quality fellows. They could have been executives. I liked it and I was happy there.”
After serving in the Army Air Corps, Joslin married his wife Betty and began working in an insurance agency in downtown Indianapolis. He continued playing music for shows like the Shrine Circus and Ice Capades. “Somebody would call and say, ‘We need you on baritone.’ They just carried three or four musicians.”
Al enjoyed the opportunities to play, and the professional respect he earned, but “I wasn’t home much. It was tough on Betty. Our social life was zero and so one night I sold everything, even my extra reed. I didn’t blow a note for four years.”
He didn’t think he’d play professionally again until one day when a young woman from his Christian Church called him.
“She said, ‘I hear you’re a musician.’ I said, ‘Well, sort of.’
“‘I would like you to accompany me.’
“I said, ‘I don’t even have an instrument.’ That was a Sunday. Tuesday, a fellow who goes to Italy the way we go to Nashville, back and forth, said, ‘What do you think I saw over in Italy? A brand new curved soprano saxophone! They haven’t made those since 1954. Are you interested?’
“I said, ‘I don’t know.’
“Betty and I came home one day and there was a big box on our deck. When I got the bill I thought that I should have had a guard for it.
“I called this young woman, I said, ‘I have something I could do.’ She said, ‘I want you and your wife to come down with me, we’re going to do this in our church in Tennessee.’ We did just that and stayed with her parents.
“Then, of course, the word went around and I was back in the business.”
Joslin played for Ted Campbell and Walt Jackson in Indianapolis. “Every New Year’s Eve I would say, ‘I don’t think I’m going to do this anymore.’” But every spring Al would find himself in the band that opened the baseball season. “And everybody would say, ‘Thought you’d quit!’”
Al first visited Brown County with his parents. “My dad worked every day as a salesman and quit at Saturday noon. My mom would take the car and we’d meet him there on North Pennsylvania and come down for a picnic. He loved Brown County Park
“We had a chance to buy land and build a house in 1967. We were weekenders for ten years.” They moved permanently when Joslin retired. “God’s hand has been in my life. I hadn’t planned to retire at 59.”
Al still plays saxophone with the community band and enjoys teaching. “I tell my students there’s no short cut. You have to practice. There are some great kids and some great parents,” he adds. I tell these kids, ‘It isn’t just you and me, there’s three of us. Your mother’s in on this deal, too.’”
He retains the attitude towards excellence that first caught the eye of Major Bowes, Tommy Dorsey, and Norman Bates. “I’ve never laid the saxophone down or listened to the replay,” he says, “that if I had it to do over again I would have done it a little differently. I’ve never been satisfied.”