George Saunders never could play the saxophone like Charlie “Bird” Parker or John Coltrane.
He couldn’t toot a horn like Dizzy Gillespie, twirl drumsticks like Max Roach or tickle the ivory like his friend, Richie Powell.
He did play something, though.
“The record player,” said his daughter, Lori Saunders-Rodgers, laughing at the memory.
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Folks in Macon called him the “Jazz Man,” not that his name will ever be found in any music hall of fame. But if heaven has a Cooperstown for jazz lovers, he just showed up for the induction ceremony.
When George died Sunday at the ripe age of 84, our community lost perhaps its greatest ambassador for jazz music. He lived it and breathed it. He tapped his toe to its soundtrack, and he wanted to take you along.
As family members gather for the visitation Friday night at Jones Brothers Mortuary on Millerfield Road, a recording of a jazz show George once hosted will be playing in the background.
George wasn’t a large man. He stood 5-foot-7 on his tiptoes.
Still, he could hit all the high notes when it came to his unofficial role as Macon’s Jazz Ambassador. He spun jazz records as a disc jockey on local radio stations. He taught classes in jazz history and offered community enrichment programs in jazz appreciation. He led elderhostel programs on the subject through Mercer University and was co-founder of the Jazz Association of Macon.
He was a man of many talents. He served as an instructor of graphic design and printing at Macon Technical Institute, which is now Central Georgia Tech. He was civic minded and forward thinking.
“We weren’t introduced to jazz,” said Alfred Hill, a boyhood friend from Harlem. “We were just there when it happened. It was all around us, part of our environment.”
George was the oldest of six children, born eight months after the beginning of the Depression. His mother was a Geechee from Charleston, South Carolina, who settled in Harlem with George’s stepfather. Among the residents of the tenement house where they lived was poet Langston Hughes. Growing up, George also brushed elbows with another Harlem Renaissance poet, Countee Cullen, and author James Baldwin.
He tried the violin, but that didn’t work out. He was short, wore glasses and was often bullied at school. He took up boxing to defend himself without having to carry knives and razors in his socks.
He also learned gymnastics and became part of a vaudeville dance group called the Crackerjacks. He danced at the famed Apollo Theatre and once performed to the accompaniment of Count Basie’s band. He appeared as a dancer on both “The Ed Sullivan Show” and Ted Mack’s “Original Amateur Hour.”
George was a regular at the jazz clubs in New York. He became friends with jazz greats Richie and Bud Powell and was acquainted with Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis and Grover Washington Jr.
His life changed forever when he met a Virginia from Georgia.
One day, he came to the rescue of a young lady in Central Park in New York. Her bicycle had a flat tire. She told him she was married, but she had a friend she wanted him to meet, a young lady from Macon, Georgia, who was a student at Columbia University, getting her degree in social work.
“I had never met anyone like him,” said Virginia, who became his wife of 45 years. “He was a worldly person. He had traveled and been to Broadway plays. I played the piano and enjoyed music, but I didn’t know anything about jazz. I played mostly gospel.”
She eventually replaced jazz as his first love, but running a close third was his adopted hometown. When she brought him to Macon to meet her family, he was enamored with the city and Southern culture.
They moved here in 1973. George got a teaching job and was willing to trade Central Park for Central City Park, the Cotton Club for Cotton Avenue.
“I think the thing he loved most about Macon was the possibility of owning his own home,” said Virginia. “It had always been his dream.”
They bought a lot in Lakeside Hills in east Macon and designed and built a house. He was so proud he would invite folks over to see it. He founded the neighborhood association.
He and Virginia became the first African-Americans members at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer on Pierce Avenue, where his funeral will be held Saturday.
His affinity for jazz was somewhat legendary on area radio stations.
“He had a smooth, sexy voice,” Virginia said. “People knew that voice and, when they met him, they couldn’t believe he was this little, short guy.”
Lori said her father was equally proud of his four daughters. “If you had time and ears, he would tell you all about us,” she said. That is what she will remember and appreciate most.
“I know many people in the community knew him as the ‘Jazz Man,’ but at home he was simply the best dad in the world, who would do anything for you and who would tell you hundreds of times, ‘I love you,’ ” she said. “He definitely had a rich history, but the small ‘daddy’ things were most important to me. Those things were interesting and fascinating, but we valued the family man more. He didn’t have to impress us with that extra stuff. We were impressed with the loving man that he was.”
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