Saxophonist/composer/arranger/educator John Magruder was active on the Los Angeles music scene for over forty years. He was a mentor to dozens of students who went on to make a life in music, and a great influence on hundreds more young people in his years at University High School.
A longtime player (on baritone sax) as well as an arranger for Don Ellis’ challenging and groundbreaking jazz big band of the 1960’s and 1970’s, John somehow found time to work in the Hollywood recording studios, appear at jazz clubs and festivals, and entertain at social and corporate events, all the while employed as a full-time high school music teacher.
Highly knowledgeable in all musical styles, John’s first love was jazz. For almost thirty years, he led the 18-piece “Magruder Machine” big band, with his wife Joy as music copyist and contractor. For most of that time, the band rehearsed nearly every Wednesday night in the large living room of the Magruder home (once a part of LA’s historical Chandler family holdings). The band featured compositions and arrangements from John, as well as contributions from like-minded writers such as David Angel, Milcho Leviev, Dave Wells and Bobby Harmon, in many jazz styles – from straight ahead bebop, to early jazz/rock fusion; from the odd-timecharts John composed and recorded for Ellis (“Zim”) to humorous titles (Harmon’s “The Philosopher Is Stoned”).
Many of the luminaries of the LA studio and jazz scenes passed through the band, a tribute to John’s skills and to his ability to attract like-minded players. Joy’s natural love of people also made her a natural band contractor. All the cats came and played, and few ever refused the homemade cookies, strong coffee and fruit that Joy wisely provided. The music and the conversation were always on the highest level on Wednesday nights; puns, ribaldry, and affectionate put-downs were all tolerated and even encouraged.
Many of John’s Uni-hi students became his friends and professional associates. A phone call from John, or a conversation on a gig or record date was often responsible for a former student’s first great gig, first big break or first major tour. He shared not only his professional guidance, but his personal largesse: several of his students were married under the olive tree in his back yard. It seemed John and Joy’s home was always open for a quick arranging tip or a Sunday wedding ceremony.
John enjoyed a full musical life, playing with large and small ensembles from classical woodwind quartets to jazz trios. After years of leading his big band, he wanted a simpler vehicle for his writing and playing. The Monktet was spun off from the Machine with players from the larger ensemble (which continued as before). The Monktet made an unreleased recording and played a few live dates in the Los Angeles area.
Unfortunately, John’s health declined a few years after his retirement from teaching, and he passed away in 2003. Band members have contributed new arrangements of both Monk and Magruder compositions, and Wednesday evenings have once again become music nights at the comfortable old house in Sherman Oaks, where the conversation (and the coffee) flow as before.
Best of all, the Monktet is once again performing frequently with many of the original players as well as some great new additions. Everyone still wants to play the music of Monk and Magruder.