Part V – Memories of Sy Shaffer
In a previous segment I highlighted Roy Smeck, a great friend and former teacher. Roy was an early pioneer in audio & film recordings, method books and instrument endorsements. As a result, people can find a wide range of material about Roy archived online. It’s a little sad to me that there’s not a comparable trove of material on another of my most important influences: Professor Sy Shaffer. The following essay is a meager attempt to leave a small mark on “the web” of the legacy he gave to myself and dozens of other appreciative music students over the years.
Seymour Shaffer was most widely known in his life as a virtuoso trombonist. Born in 1921, he left school – against his parents’ wishes – to pursue a career in music. It is a mark of his talent that he supported himself as a sideman by the time he was 18, collaborating with some of America’s greatest bandleaders – Carmen Cavallaro, Benny Goodman, Vincent Lopez and Frankie Masters. In 1943 (at the urging of his friend & fellow trombonist, Jerry Colonna) he joined the musical staff at CBS, where he played with Raymond Scott, Andre Kostelanetz and Ray Bloch as well as the CBS Symphony, making many recordings with numerous popular music artists. During this time he became known by his more familiar nickname, “Sy”. (His name was frequently misspelled in many credits as “Schaefer”, “Schaeffer” or “Shaeffer”, particularly on his Goodman recordings.)
His association with the Arthur Godfrey programs began in 1945. He participated in many Godfrey recordings, notably providing the comic voice parts in “Too Fat Polka” and “I’m A Lonely Little Petunia (In An Onion Patch)” and became a memorable figure on the show. In Godfrey’s own words, “Over the years people have come to recognize the notes from Sy Shaffer’s trombone opening our theme song – Seems Like Old Times – as the cue for our daily program. No words are necessary, for his slow rhythmic notes sound the news, but I remember well the first time I heard Shaffer play his trombone. That was 13 years ago. He’s still with the show, still playing Seems Like Old Times”.
Around that time, Shaffer began another chapter of his career composing and conducting music for a number of well-known nationally advertised products. As Sy described to our class, one of his early jobs in the jingle business was to produce several spots for cigarette brands of the Philip Morris company. During a “take” at the very first recording session, the female singer was temporarily distracted by a trumpet player who she was flirting with – resulting in a gap while she was singing, “Winston tastes good like a ……cigarette should!” Sy immediately recognized that the two-beat gap added a distinctive quality. He subsequently wrote many more memorable advertising tunes (many with equally distinctive patterned breaks) including Imprevu, Chevrolet, Buick, Salem, Noxema, Ajax, Green Giant, E.F. Hutton and AT&T. One of those jingles – for Kellogg’s cereals – became a flashpoint of inspiration for John Lennon to write “Good Morning, Good Morning”. By 1971, Sy had been dubbed “The Jingle Meister” in national publications and was co-owner of a film company which specialized in producing commercials, industrial films and documentaries.
In the classical field, he studied conducting with Pierre Monteux and was the long-time Musical Director and Conductor of the Nassau Orchestral Society, appearing as trombone soloist with many symphony orchestras. He recorded several albums of his orchestrations and arrangements with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra including “Best of Puccini for Orchestra”, “Musical Moods of the Mona Lisa”, and “Opera Without Words”.
In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Sy recorded several albums of popular music for the Westminster label backing vocalists as well as two instrumental albums of his own, “Seems Like Old Times” and “Love Story”. In his arrangements of standards for those records, he made use of harmonic techniques of “Modus Lascivus”, a theoretical harmonic approach he had studied from its originator, Tibor Serly. He introduced a number of students to this conceptual model, which expands the classifications of scalar and harmonic modalities in a logical manner beyond the standard approaches. Finally, Sy Shaffer’s career concluded with the legacy of students whom he inspired over 16 years as a Professor and Department Head for music at Suffolk County Community College up to his retirement in 1989.
After learning of his background and reputation, I traveled a 60 mile round trip every school day for 2 years to study with him in the unique environment he helped create. At his own personal expense, he had copies of his book, “A First Look at Theory”, distributed to every student in his first year Music Theory courses. was a long-established fact that the College paid no money for his Jazz Ensemble’s music library because all the songs were written and arranged by the ensemble members themselves with Sy’s guidance and approval. He presented material with clarity and focus, while treating his students with both collegial respect and constructive critique. Sy’s background in jazz and classical music made him an extraordinary teacher – able to illustrate concepts with diverse examples in their stylistic applications. He even arranged a songwriting workshop & impromptu performance for the students by none other than Paul Simon. Through it all, Sy stressed fundamentals – rhythm, melody, harmony, technique – and an appreciation of musical expression in all forms. I will always cherish my memories of him and my fellow classmates for opening my mind and ears to a broader range of soundscapes than I would have known without them.