I recently got a message via Facebook from my high school friend Terrie Ocker (now Terrie Barrow). She said that the coverage of Muhammad Ali’s death made her think of me. My initial response was “Really? Why?” but before I hit send, I realized why she would associate me with Ali.
When we were in high school, we were proud band nerds. Our band program had a system similar to athletic letters where we could letter in band. We even had our own black and turquoise band jackets for displaying our letter. To earn the letter, you’d accumulate a baseline number of points as you participated in mandatory band activities. Then to meet the number of points required for the letter, you had to do extra things, like taking private lessons, playing in pep band, going to workshops, etc.
One way to earn points was to go to concerts and save the programs as proof of attendance. This is how I developed the life-long habit of going to hear live music. I didn’t care about the big rock concerts that my friends went to—I went to exactly one rock concert in high school: Frank Zappa. Instead I attended concerts by Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Woody Shaw, Dexter Gordon, Chuck Mangione, Maynard Ferguson, the New Mexico Symphony, and many of the local musicians on the Albuquerque jazz scene.
Most of these concerts were in auditoriums and concert halls, which were easy to get into as an underage teenager with a newly minted driver’s license. The tricky ones were the clubs where alcohol was served. Minors could attend only if accompanied by an adult, and my mother was often recruited as the adult who chaperoned my friends and me to these venues.
In my junior year of high school, I was a fan of saxophonist Richie Cole. He was a road warrior and often came to Albuquerque with his band Alto Madness. I heard that he was scheduled to play way over on the west side of town at a jazz club called Danby’s. Even though it was a school night, I talked my mother into taking a group of us to the show, including Terrie Ocker (who we called “Teriyaki”).
When we arrived at Danby’s, the place was packed, and we thought it was odd that a long row of tables in the center of the club was left empty. We found a table off to the side with a good view of the band and settled in to hear the music. As the first set of the band’s burning bebop came to an end, attention turned from the stage to an entourage of over a dozen Black men and women entering the club. The sophisticated group, dressed in fancy tuxedos and evening gowns, was directed to the long table in the center of the club, and as they took their seats, the crowd began to murmur. The face at the head of the table was instantly recognizable: it was Muhammad Ali.
Somehow at that age, I was fearless in approaching performers—at jazz concerts it was easy to gain access to the musicians on their breaks or back stage. I was building a nice collection of autographs and I wanted to meet Richie Cole. I turned to Teriyaki and said, “Let’s go!” Without hesitation I moved us towards the front of the club to the scrum of fans. The sax player would have to wait as I worked my way up to the table and came face-to-face with Muhammad Ali. He was patient and gracious, reaching for a cocktail napkin and pen as I asked for his autograph. His calm, dignified demeanor and impeccable black tuxedo, the white napkin with black-penned autograph, my excitement and chutzpah are the indelible memories of that moment.
My pal Teriyaki came along for the ride and she got an autograph too. In her Facebook note, she remembered her disbelief and nervousness as I led her up to meet Muhammad Ali. We both still have his autograph stashed away, along with the shared memory of how the quest for band points resulted in this encounter with “The Greatest.”