Love at first sight usually doesn’t last. But for Charlie Lagond, who developed his first crush before he knew the alphabet, that first love—music—defied the odds and became his lifelong partner.
A toy trumpet his parents gave him one Christmas was the first hint of things to come. It was just another brightly wrapped package under the tree, but once the preschooler saw the instrument, he lost interest in his other gifts. Later that day, the little boy, about age four, according to his big sister, Jill Broscious, of Washington, New Jersey, delivered a recognizable version of “Taps” on his shiny new toy.
That was the start of a love affair with music that endures more than a half-century later for Lagond, a youthful 58-year-old who could lop 15 years off his age without raising suspicion. The slight, spiky-haired musician/composer/arranger/educator is musical director and founder of the seven-year-old Lagond Music School in Elmsford. He plays saxophone, clarinet, and flute professionally, and knows his way around drums and piano well enough to use them while working out new tunes or accompanying students.
Pinpointing Lagond’s interests outside music is no easy task. Even his relationship with his son, 30-year-old Kris Lagond, has a strong musical component. Kris is a professional vocalist, guitarist, and bass player who invited his dad to play on his most recent hard-rock CD. He’s also a skilled studio engineer who records demos at the Lagond School.
Family and friends mention Lagond’s interest in activities such as tennis, golf, and swimming, but usually prefaced by “used to,” as in, “He used to be pretty good with gardening.” Lagond may no longer grow luscious tomatoes, but he rates himself a 4.5 (on a scale of 10) in being handy around his White Plains home. A while back, the musician worked out a fitness regimen with a personal trainer, which he vows to stick to in the coming months. “It’s easier to find an hour to go to the gym than five hours for a round of golf,” he says.
Ed Xiques, a Putnam Valley-based saxophonist and educator, had to search his memory to come up with a detail about his longtime associate that didn’t involve jamming or gigging. Eventually he recalled that he and Lagond used to play chess between sets when they were with Tito Rodriguez Jr.’s band. “He was impressed that I started out very strong,” Xiques says, “but, of course, he always beat me.”
Mark Delano of Ossining, whose son, James, is a longtime Lagond School student, says, “It’s music twenty-four/seven with Charlie.” He points out that even Lagond’s leisure activities are music related: he spends his unscheduled time practicing at the studio, or attending students’ concerts.
In establishing the school, Lagond wanted to create an opportunity for students to play in ensembles and perform regularly for audiences, rather than struggle in solitude with, say, one annual recital to look forward to in the distant horizon. He also aimed to provide students with a forum to express themselves through their instruments, and to learn about how to combine art and commerce in the increasingly complex music business. Lagond believed that this combination would attract students so passionate about music that they wouldn’t have to be told to practice. The 130 to 150 students, age six to 50-plus, who enroll in the school each year, demonstrate there’s a lively interest in what the Lagond school has to offer.
While Lagond was growing up in Easton, Pennsylvania, his parents were always supportive of his passion for music. When his sister, Jill, studied piano, the boy badgered his folks to let him learn, too. The teacher sat down with little Charlie and gave him some exercises to determine if he was old enough to start lessons. His sister recalls the teacher was so impressed by the child’s rapid comprehension that he told the Lagonds their young son had the talent to master any instrument.
When Charlie was in third grade, a local music store brought an assortment of instruments to the school for the kids to try. “I really wanted to play trumpet,” Lagond says, “but they were all out by the time they got to me in line.” His second choice, clarinet, was inspired by players he’d seen and heard on TV. Lagond is probably one of the rare baby boomers who’s quick to admit that as a kid he came running when his parents announced that Lawrence Welk was on TV; he couldn’t get enough of Dixieland masters such as clarinetist Pete Fountain, who regularly appeared on the show. His first exposure to jazz clarinet was seeing Benny Goodman’s and Artie Shaw’s bands featured on The Ed Sullivan Show. “I chose the clarinet and took to it right away,” Lagond says. He added the tenor saxophone to his musical arsenal after his high school jazz band director pointed out that the ensemble’s repertoire had more sax parts than clarinet parts.
An aptitude test taken in high school gave Lagond his first inkling that music could be “a career option.” By then, he says, the only musicians he knew who were making a living were teachers, “and I just knew I wanted to get out and play gigs,” he says. “I had no idea what I’d be, if not a musician. Nothing else ever excited or inspired me.” Lagond began playing big band music at gigs with his music teacher while playing keyboards in a rock band with his friends.
The next stop was Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where Lagond earned a BA in music with the intention of pursuing a master’s. But he was lured out of the ivory tower by a friend and fellow musician who was in Manhattan looking for a roommate. New York’s vibrant music scene in the early 1970s offered a different kind of education for young players. “We all had lofts or apartments with drums set up in the bedroom where we jammed,” Lagond says.
Like many musicians, Lagond is a fan as well as a player. His voice sparks with enthusiasm when talking about meeting and playing with the likes of jazz greats Michael and Randy Brecker, Saturday Night Live band alumni Lou Marini and Tom Malone, and the young lions of Latin music, Eddie Rivera and Oscar Hernandez. He sounds awestruck in describing a gig with Bernard Purdie, who is reputed to be the most frequently recorded drummer in history, backing up a roster of hit-makers including the Beatles and Steely Dan. “I looked around at Bernard, and he was squinting, his face was a sheet of sweat, his eyes were burning. He was out there giving it his all. The greats always play like it’s the last time they’re ever gonna play.”
Though he loved the vitality of Manhattan, after his son, Kris, was born, Lagond began looking for a place outside the city. “I had grown up in the suburbs and knew what I’d experienced as a child, spending the whole day outside playing. I didn’t know how to do that in New York City.” He visited his friend, Ed Xiques in Putnam Valley, liked what he saw, and bought a house nearby that was the family’s home base for the next two decades. “I was starting to do a lot of touring, so it worked out,” Lagond says. “I didn’t have to be in Manhattan.” Lagond has traveled extensively in Europe, South America, and the Caribbean, and occasionally played in locales as far-flung as Japan and Dubai. During weeklong engagements in major cities, he’d take “full advantage of the time for sightseeing, meeting people, viewing the architecture, and sampling the cuisine.”
He spent much of the ’80s and ’90s on the road with Kid Creole and the Coconuts, a genre-blurring dance band that had chart-topping hits in Europe and South America and achieved cult status in the U.S. Sometimes the people in the audience were far more famous than those onstage; the group played a concert for one of Princess Diana’s charity functions and performed at inaugural parties for George H.W. Bush and for Bill Clinton.
“Kid Creole never qualified if there were two people or twenty thousand in the audience, if they were posh or funky; he always gave one-hundred percent,” Lagond says. “I loved that about him, and he expected the same thing from us.”
Though he didn’t meet the first President Bush, a photo of Lagond and President Clinton graces the wall of the recording studio of the Elmsford music school. It was taken in the White House Rose Garden, where Clinton made a beeline for his fellow saxophonist as Kid Creole’s band was setting up to play. They had a pleasant chat, comparing notes on models of instruments, types of reeds, and favorite players, leaving Lagond impressed with the former Sax Player in Chief’s musical knowledge. Lagond says, “There’s a certain excitement to seeing Princess Di boogieing down to your jams.”
He began teaching privately about a decade ago when he moved to White Plains. As he was kicking around ideas for pioneering a different kind of music education, Lagond found inspiration while watching a Grammy telecast in which someone described the role of music as entertainment, inspiration, and comfort. The last two elements “hit me like a bullet,” he says.
He founded the school in Elmsford as a not-for-profit organization that could offer scholarships and would be eligible for donations and grants. “I didn’t want it to be an exclusive school. I didn’t want to turn away someone who couldn’t afford it.”
To make ensemble playing and regular performances a part of the students’ training, Lagond says, he “found places for them to play, to give them the feeling of what it’s like to play in a club.” Local bookings at Pete’s Saloon in Elmsford were followed by gigs at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village and other venues.
Lagond founded a band, The Element, for his top students, and took them on a cross-country tour in 2007 and 2008. At the end of the 2007 tour, The Element recorded a self-titled CD in the school’s stateof-the-art studio. Another Lagond school band, Standing Room Only, beat out five other ensembles to win a Battle of the Bands competition at Playland in Rye in July. Both The Element and Standing Room Only play a sophisticated jazz repertoire, arranged in a funky, contemporary style, moving gracefully through tightly choreographed dance moves.
Standing Room Only drummer Rosie Glassman, 19, a sophomore in the jazz studies program at New York University, began studying with Lagond when she was in eighth grade. “Charlie has created a really special thing, there’s nothing else like it.”
For Lagond, teaching is different from touring but equally fulfilling. “I get on the stage with my student bands and treat them like pros. There’s the same age difference between them and me as between me and Buddy Rich when I was starting out. Now I’m the mentor.”
Elzy Kolb is a veteran writer, editor, and copy editor, and longtime Westchester resident.