Michael Upton, 62
A careless whisper with a street saxophonist.
Adams Street and Michigan Avenue
What’s in your repertoire? A whole heritage of American songs: “When You’re Smiling,” “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “My Country, ’Tis of Thee.” I do improvised versions, otherwise I get bored. That is, I think, where jazz came from—guys growing tired of playing straight.
I noticed you only have a dollar and change in your donation box. Doesn’t matter. This is just another way to praise the Lord.
How long have you been saxing it up? Fifty years. I started out on trumpet in elementary school at Carver on the South Side. The band teacher, Mr. Tamm, was white, and one day he was trying to show me the melodic line. He took the trumpet and didn’t swap out the mouthpiece. He just wiped it off and played. I said, “Wow, he’s a man of a different color, but he wasn’t affected by the thought of the color of my skin.” Color went away in the context of music.
Obviously, you kept at it. Years later, I tried out for the United States Navy Band. They asked me to play “Anchors Aweigh.” It seemed like I played it right, but the band leader was like, “No, you fail!” [Laughs]
When did you serve? I voluntarily enlisted in 1967. I was stationed offshore on an aircraft carrier, and I could see Vietnam burning. I worked my way up to air-sea rescue. One time, a pilot—the first officer of color I’d ever seen—smashed down onto the nose of his plane. We got him out of the wreck. It made me feel like a real American hero!