Final Note: John Setar

Publicity photograph for John Setar (c. 1980).

Life Member. Alto/Tenor Saxophone
11/16/1924 – 3/15/2017

by Jay and Katherine Setar

Most musicians knew John Setar to be fine studio, stage, and casual musician (flute, clarinet, and sax), contractor, leader, and union member/committee member. Dad might have cited his television work with Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, the Steve Allen Westinghouse Show, and his work on the “Gravy Waltz” recording (which won the 1964 Grammy Award for Best Original Jazz Composition) as the highlights of his extensive career. However, we prefer to focus on our father as the kind, generous, self-made man who enriched the lives of those around him.

Publicity photograph for “The Steve Allen Show” (c. 1963). Personnel, from left to right: Bob Bertaux (bass), Herb Ellis (guitar), Frank Rosolino trombone), Bob Neel (drums), Jimmy Zito (trumpet), Bob Enevoldsen (trombone), John Setar (flute), Donn Trenner.

John Setar (alto sax) performing with the Top Hat Big Band at Las Hadas restaurant in Northridge (c. 2013)

Dad’s colleagues probably knew him as the consummate professional– a very nice guy in a tough business. In his excellent book Leave It To Me… (p. 35), lifelong friend Donn Trenner (composer, conductor, piano) stated “John’s easy-going personality made him especially effective in dealing with television executives.” Those of us who lived with Dad knew how disheartened he was by unkind behavior; he worked hard to make sure the musicians always got their fair share. His more committed students were the happy recipients of his generosity: he never watched the clock, would always personally pick out their instruments, and constantly loaned out music, his own instruments, etc., to help his students succeed. Of his hundreds of students, Dad started several who went on to notable careers: the late Ray Reed, the late Emily Bernstein (who was John Williams’s first call), and film composer Brad Dechter (who rightly cites his father as his biggest influence). Dad routinely performed with former students Steve Carr, Cindy Bradley, and Jake Jacobsen; the latter two worked alongside Dad in the sax section in the Top Hat Big Band at the Las Hadas restaurant in Northridge–Dad’s last Big Band.

John Setar (flute) with daughter, Katherine (keyboard), at a family wedding (2009).

As adults, we were disappointed in discovering that not everyone was as generous as our parents. Dad was always giving with both hands: no amount was too much for tuition, lessons, etc. We both have warm childhood memories of tagging along with Dad on studio calls. Son Jay (drums) emphasizes that Dad was supportive of his jazz fusion and prog rock interests; Dad would often crash Jay’s bands’ rehearsals. Jay also recalls Dad pulling strings to allow him to sit behind Louis Bellson in concert. Occasionally Dad would comment, “I didn’t want you kids to have to work as hard as I did.” We’re glad that Dad lived long enough for us to understand what he meant.

John Setar was an embodiment of the American Dream: through perseverance, talent, and intelligence, Dad fashioned his life out of virtually nothing. On page 35 of Trenner’s book, he states that Dad “learned clarinet in school and then pick[ed] up the saxophone….” This is NOT how Dad got started in music.

Dad was born in 1924 in Nesquehoning, Pennsylvania to a family of oppressed deep-coal miners (and eventually tavern/hotel owners) of (mostly) Hungarian and Slovakian descent. Growing up during the Great Depression, he was unable to speak English when he started school. The Setar family was musical, and Dad’s first childhood gigs were playing czárdáses, polkas, and other folk music on the clarinet with his father. Dad’s first clarinet was a family instrument unfortunately built with the disused Albert fingering system – forcing him to relearn playing the clarinet with the standard Boehm system. Somehow Dad’s parents gave him private music lessons, commuting to New York; the Dorsey brothers’ father was among his earliest teachers. As a student, he helped establish the Hazleton High School Wildcats jazz band, and the Penn State University Campus Owls – the first jazz band at Penn State (formed by students). Majoring in science, Dad was the first Setar college graduate, earning his way by waiting tables and performing with the Owls.

Dad’s big break as a jazz musician came in 1945 with the Jess Stacy Band. Dad was a customer at the Lakewood [Pennsylvania] Dance Hall, where Stacy’s band was performing the band’s lead alto player became sick in New York City, so Stacy’s band arrived in Pennsylvania minus one sax. Overhearing their dilemma, and thinking (as a young college graduate) that he was “hot stuff,” Dad approached Stacy, saying, “I play alto. Should I go home and get my horn?” Because they were desperate, they allowed Dad to sit in with the band and eventually go on the road with them – and apprenticed him in jazz style.

For Dad, performing was an 80-year passion that consumed him until his final days. Characteristic of his drive and stubbornness, he had three rehearsals the week before he was hospitalized for the last time. Good-bye Daddy-o! We will miss you so much!

John Setar is survived by his wife, Mary; his two children, and three grandchildren. A private memorial was held in March.

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