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Daniel Rubin: School helps sax player take his own giant steps

They were nervous, that's understandable. They'd driven half the day to what seemed like the middle of nowhere for their one shot at impressing the Gods of Music.

They were nervous, that's understandable. They'd driven half the day to what seemed like the middle of nowhere for their one shot at impressing the Gods of Music.

They were five players from Camden Creative Arts High's mighty big band, and just getting an audition for Oberlin College's prestigious conservatory was an honor.

But when Wendell Logan, the Ohio school's chair of jazz studies, asked them if they wanted to play anything special, they froze.

"Mr. Dickerson had told us to play 'Tribute to Trane,' " Alexander Cummings, 18, recalls, referring to their band director, Jamal Dickerson, who'd started him on saxophone in fourth grade.

That piece let everyone show off, Cummings in particular - on four horns, absolutely owning the medley of John Coltrane songs.

But they showed nothing. They could barely speak, let alone play. So Logan suggested the standard "Body and Soul," and the result was good, but nothing special.

Dickerson sank in his seat. "When you miss the opportunity, you may never get it again. Who needs another saxophonist? Especially a broke saxophonist?"

In April, Cummings heard from the school.


Dickerson was crushed. He'd been in his first year of teaching when he began working with the lanky boy, who lives with his mother, a Puerto Rican factory worker, in Camden's Cramer Hill neighborhood. He'd assigned the boy "long notes" to practice, and at their next lesson, the kid blew him away by playing an extended-note scale.

"I said, 'You really practiced, didn't you.' "

The next year Cummings was playing in an all-city band. After that he was winning awards every time he competed.

Dickerson doesn't even remember handing Cummings a sheet of paper listing the jazz giants the boy should seek out: Trane, Monk, Charlie Parker, Art Blakey, Clifford Brown, Jackie McLean.

But the boy still has it filed away at home. How many kids spend their time chasing down the works of Lee Morgan?

"I got them as presents from relatives," he said. "Some of my teachers let me borrow them."

He's been hearing music ever since, filling in any moment of silence with imaginary arrangements for horn sections, copping what he hears on the radio and at shows. "It's about all I think about," he said. He practices at school for three hours a day, and then an hour after homework. He practices about three hours each weekend.

His talent and drive caught the attention of the writer James McBride, who has been working with the Camden school for the last three years, trying to cultivate talent.

McBride, an Oberlin grad and saxophonist, had paid for Cummings and the four other boys to travel to Ohio.

After Cummings was put on the wait list, McBride wrote to the conservatory's admissions director. He didn't mince words:

"Alex is exactly the kind of student that Oberlin says it needs . . .," he wrote. "He is a young man of excellent character and one of the top graduates of his class, with a GPA well over 3.0. . . . His hardworking mother barely speaks English. His father has abandoned the family. This kid grew up in an environment where he has overcome tremendous odds. To be turned away at this point in his life from a school like Oberlin gives him, and those of us who recruit for Oberlin, the clear message that there is no place for kids like him at our school."

Migdalia Lopez, 45, was home from her job - she packs boxes at a Camden factory - and had just finished cooking rice and beans for dinner when her son came home with the news.

Oberlin was offering him a full scholarship for four years. A year there costs about $52,000. Cummings is one of 20 students accepted into the conservatory's jazz studies program.

He made it on a borrowed saxophone.

Friday night he finally got a horn of his own. At the big band's final concert of the year, at Rutgers-Camden, Peggy Krist was in the audience. She's the mother of Jonathan Krist, who died in a car crash during his freshman year at Oberlin. The New Hope woman set up a foundation in his memory.

She surprised Cummings with a brand new Yamaha Custom Z alto sax, a $3,000 instrument that he will not have to fight to make sing.

He was also awarded $5,000 from the foundation, an amount that will repeat each year of college that he completes.

It was quite a year for the Camden school. Its students won more than $750,000 in scholarships and prizes. Another student, Zaire Darden, will go to Oberlin if he can raise about $5,000. Stephen Williams and Christopher Newbill won full rides to Florida A&M University, although Newbill is still considering William Paterson University. Eric Figueroa will attend Lincoln University on scholarship.

Cummings talks of riding his new horn to places he's never before imagined. "I just want to be the best I can be," he said. "I want to play my music around the world. And then I want to return to the community and show everybody what I've learned. I don't want to be selfish."