by James A. Strain
Al Payson, retired Percussionist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was nearly at a loss for words when informed of his election into the PAS Hall of Fame. "I am stunned to learn of my selection and words fail me," Payson said. "I feel really honored to be chosen and can't quite fathom the full meaning just yet. This was totally unexpected."
Payson retired from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1997 after performing with that prestigious organization since 1958. Prior to accepting the CSO position, Payson had graduated with a B.M. degree in Applied Percussion from the University of Illinois as a student of Paul Price. He then spent one season with the Louisville Orchestra and one season with the Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra. He was invited to join the Chicago Symphony Orchestra by legendary CSO Music Director Fritz Reiner.
When asked to recall outstanding memories regarding his career with the CSO, Payson expressed how proud he is that the orchestra -- through the leadership of Reiner, Martinon, Solti, Barenboim, and others -- grew from just a twenty-eight-week season when he joined to a full-time employment season of fifty-two weeks. "It's wonderful now," Payson says. "The new players can focus on an orchestra career without other obligations. It fosters such a better quality orchestra than when I began my career."
Specific performing highlights cited by Payson include the Grammy award-winning recording of Ravel's "Bolero" under the baton of Sir Georg Solti, featuring Payson on snare drum, and the fact that the CSO was chosen to record the soundtrack for Disney's Fantasia II.
In addition to his orchestral performing career, Payson is highly revered for his educational activities, product development, and numerous publications. As a clinician for Ludwig Industries, Payson has presented numerous clinics and authored many articles in an effort to help educate the percussion and music community. With his wife, Gerry, who is also a percussionist, he formed the Chicago Percussion Ensemble, a professional percussion quartet that performs educational concerts throughout the Chicago area.
Payson's clinics were typically inspirational to those who saw them. Michael Folker, a freelance percussionist in the Chicago area who also teaches percussion at College DuPage, recalls, "The sole reason I came to Chicago for graduate school was to study with Al Payson. I had seen him present several clinics and was so impressed by his abilities, knowledge, and demeanor, that I just knew he would be an excellent teacher for me."
Folker, like many of the working percussionists in the Chicago area, studied with Payson at the DePaul University School of Music. Payson began his teaching duties at DePaul over twenty-five years ago, and was instrumental in developing the school's comprehensive percussion program. Currently, he teaches just one day a week, and in addition to Applied Percussion, he has been responsible for the Percussion Accessories class, the Latin Accessories class, and the graduate course in Percussion Pedagogy.
Michael Green, Coordinator of Percussion Studies at DePaul University School of Music, respectfully describes Payson's persona as follows: "His performing, teaching, and commitment to percussion through his publications and clinics have always been done with consummate professionalism. He is always prepared for each lesson or performance, even when the part is as esoteric as the musical saw. Al has the ability to instill this insightful approach to all of his students by example. [Being elected to the PAS Hall of Fame] is an honor for Al that is much deserved and long overdue."
Other former students are also quick to praise Payson's influence in their lives and careers. Bobby Everson, Timpanist with the Chicago Sinfonietta, who studied with Payson from 1978-85, remembers that, "Al has always had a sincere, genuine interest in his students and cared personally for each of them. He cordially invited us into his home when we visited, and he regularly had us over for cookouts in the backyard. As a teacher, he sets the best example possible on how to be a gentleman, how to communicate in a professional manner, and how to have each part prepared for rehearsals -- all things that are necessary in order to succeed in a musical career."
As an entrepreneur, Payson developed several products that are used by percussionists throughout the world. Among these are aluminum-shaft timpani mallets with a textured, vinyl grip; tunable, pitched "timp-toms" that were developed by Remo into RotoToms; and the "Jonesie Stick Tote," the original soft stick bag used by drummers to hang sticks from their floor tom. This bag, based on the popular soft trumpet bags, was the idea of and was developed with Harold Jones, a drummer with the Count Basie Orchestra.
Perhaps Payson's most wide-ranging educational products are his numerous publications. These include his popular Snare Drum in the Concert Hall and Techniques of Playing Bass Drum, Cymbals and Accessories books, as well as numerous other books and literature. Payson is quick to point out that his solo and ensemble literature is graded for use by high school and college-age players. His multiple-percussion solo "Die Zwitschermaschine" ("The Twittering Machine") is a popular recital piece.
Jim Ross, Percussionist with the Chicago Symphony, became a colleague of Payson's when he joined the CSO in 1979, a position previously held by his father. "Little did I realize as an eight- or nine-year-old that some day I would be in the same orchestra that my dad was in, and little did I realize that I would play in the same section as some of the percussionists I watched and listened to growing up," says Ross.
"When I think of Al, the first thing that comes to mind is that he is always the voice of reason and an island of calm. In a business where, all too often, inflated and fragile egos are the norm, I never saw even a hint of that with Al. He is the epitome of a 'good colleague.' That, as many of us know, is extremely important and something that should never be taken for granted.
"Also, of course, Al is a wonderfully insightful musician, and I would never hesitate to go to him with a question about something I had to play or to get a comment on how something sounded to him. He always had something useful to say when asked. He was also the first one to come over after a concert and say 'good job' or 'bravo.' That kind of unfailing kindness and support is so important, especially when it's directed toward a young player on probation trying just to make it through that first year on the job.
"I am so thrilled that Al is being given this honor," says Ross, reflecting the feeling of many in the percussion community regarding Payson's election to the PAS Hall of Fame. "I can't think of anyone that is more deserving in so many ways -- player, teacher, inventor, and for me, colleague and -- most importantly -- friend. Good job and BRAVO to you, Al."