On August 15, 2015 we lost Al Block, one of the wonderful woodwind doublers of the twentieth century who was 89 years old when he succumbed to pneumonia. Al had a distinguished career having played with the Sauter-Finegan Band, Benny Goodman, Boyd Raeburn, Artie Shaw, Raymond Scott, among many other big bands. He also participated in several legendary recordings including the Miles Davis/Gil Evans Sketches of Spain and Charlie Parker and Voices; played in numerous Broadway shows including the original productions of West Side Story, Gypsy, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, La Cage Aux Folles, etc; and was regarded as one of the better flute doublers of his generation. Al’s career was a successful one but not radically different from many of his New York colleagues who came along during the last great heyday of the music and recording industry in the 1950s/1960s.
Beyond his musical prowess, what distinguished him was his ability to revel in the musical development of younger players and colleagues and to support them in any way possible. He loved being around up and coming doublers, especially those who played flute well and with a classical approach. He would often go to The Juilliard School (not far from his apartment) to hear the flute students give recitals and then tell me how marvelous they were and the new repertoire that they were performing. He was a welcoming presence to a young woodwind player like myself trying to find his way in a business that didn’t always make things clear or easy. I first met Al in 1983 when I would sub for him and another colleague, Charlie Mallard, at La Cage. They couldn’t do enough for me to make a difficult sub workable. They painted a picture for me of how a true professional should act to colleagues.
Al, Charlie, and New York woodwind artists like Wally Kane, Ray Beckenstein, Lester Cantor, Jerry Dodgion and John Campo were always ready to help support the new “kids” on the scene. They didn’t require that someone study with them or fill them with non-stop adulations in order to recommend them for gigs. They were wonderful players, secure with themselves and their abilities, who were happy to find younger woodwind musicians who were equally passionate about music and striving to become better. In my career, I have also encountered some of the hierarchy of L.A. woodwind doublers and know Gary Foster, Gene Cipriano and Joe Soldo to be colleagues of that same stature. I miss working with that group of musician and hope that some of my peers are now doing the same for the next generation.