After 35 Hip Years, 'Daddy' Takes A Bow

Chorus Instructor Was A Virtuoso, But First Love Was Boogie-woogie

April 12, 1992|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Staff writer

Only a nickname like "Daddy" could sum up both the teddy-bear familyman and the hip, boogie-woogie pianist who has taught chorus for thelast 35 years at Westminster High School.

"Play, Daddy," pleaded the group of students in his chorus class on a spring day last week.

Back in 1969, he started using more jazz in his class and called students "Daddy," the way jazz musicians used to talk.

"Then they started calling me 'Daddy,' " said Herb Sell, 62.

The name stuck through the rest of his career: This is Sell's last year before retiring from the school and as director of the Carroll County Choral Society.

Last week, Sell finally agreed to play some of his favorite boogie-woogie on the piano in Room 134E, but only after he made the class practice "On the Sunny Side of the Street" a few more times.

"My piano's out of tune," he said in weak protest as he pulled the bench up to the keyboard.

"Play!" the class shouted.

But it was clear he was going to play, as a smile spread across his face and he dove into Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll."

Ellington was one of his favorite band leaders, and Sell managed to get the jazz legend to visit Westminster High in 1969 and 1972 and direct the chorus. Sell also brought Jester Hairston, another great choral director, to the school four times.

As Sell began "Satin Doll," his left hand started a regular bass pattern, and the right hand played the complicated jazz melody.

"You can't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," Sell says of the boogie-woogie style, which comes naturally to him.

He made a few faces at the students, who laughed lovingly, except for a few who looked a little bored, apparently just too young to appreciate great jazz.

This spring could be the last time most Carroll countians will be able to hear Sell play and direct a chorus, during his last concerts with the Carroll County Choral Society April27 and 26 at Westminster High School.

The concert, sponsored by the society and the Westminster Rotary Club, will bring back several of Sell's students and Choral Society members, who will sing favorites, including selections from his famous all-Gershwin concert of 1967 at the school. He has directed the Choral Society for 21 years.

Sell started piano lessons at 7, playing marches for his first five years. When he was 12, his music teacher in Littlestown, Pa., had a relative visiting who happened to be playing Woody Herman's "Woodchopper'sBall."

"I said, 'What's that?,' and he said, 'That's boogie-woogie.' From then on, I said 'That is for me.' My music teacher and I parted company," he said.

Like his music teacher, most folks serious about music thought boogie-woogie was vulgar and certainly not worth study.

"It was sort of like your rock today," he told the students. "The more they didn't like it, the more I played it. I was rebellious."

He'd come home from school and start listening to his 78s andfantasizing that he was a great bandleader. He still has those records today, and if he had a record player that went 78 revolutions per minute, he'd still be playing them.

During his teen years, he played in bands around Pennsylvania and Maryland. He wasn't much of an athlete, so playing the latest music was his ticket to popularity, he said.

He attended Shippensburg (Pa.) State College and played in the dance band until the Korean War started. He joined the Air Force and spent the next three years playing around the country in an Army band and lecturing on music appreciation in special services schools.

It was during a stint at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis that he met his wife. During his sessions at the Rail Club, he noticed ayoung woman named Eleanor Salter came quite often for about three weeks to hear him play.

"I thought, 'Well, holy smokes, I ought to get this gal.' The girls I knew all wanted to dance, and if you were playing all the time, they would be very interested in you," he said.

Although Eleanor Sell doesn't play, her husband says she knows good music from bad.

Sell hopes he's been able to teach his students to appreciate good music of all styles. He grew up during Hank Williams' time, but looked down on him, although now he really likes the music of the man known as "the father of country music."

"Back then,you were either hillbilly or you were on the hip side. And if you were on the hip side, you wouldn't be caught dead with a guitar," Sell said.

Though he liked the hip world of jazz, he decided against pursuing a career as a performer because of the drugs and alcohol that seemed to be a part of the lifestyle. He was a family man, and his church background told him the drugs were bad, though he admits to the beer and cigarettes.

He went to Western Maryland College on the GIBill, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 1957. At the college and when he started teaching at Westminster High School that year, he thought his professors and superiors would look down on jazz, so he stuck to classical music and Broadway until around 1969.

For his master's thesis at the University of Maryland, he chose the birth of theblues, and then started incorporating more jazz, blues and boogie-woogie into his teaching during the 1970s.

He said he learned the philosophy of "cosmopolitanism" about music from J. T. H. Mize, a musicologist who was his boss during the Air Force years and later a critic for Esquire magazine.

Mize taught Sell not to look down on any style of music, but to learn to appreciate the best in each style.

So, in the concerts he directed for the school and choral society, hesaid, he has included all kinds of music.

"But after the concerts, I still would go back to my jazz," he said.

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