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Alan Greenspan, saxophonist, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve.

John Robert Brown

Alan Greenspan

The Honourable Alan C. Greenspan, PhD, KBE is an American economist and former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve of the United States. At one point he was possibly the second most powerful man in the USA. Not many people know that Greenspan was also a jazz saxophonist, who once played professionally.

Alan Greenspan was born March 6, 1926, in New York City, where his father worked as a stockbroker and financial analyst. In high school, Greenspan played clarinet and saxophone alongside classmate and saxophonist Stan Getz. Greenspan and Getz took to hanging around together, trading licks on the saxophone. They also engaged in fevered discussions about their idol, Benny Goodman. Greenspan was one year older than Getz but, by Greenspan's own reckoning, in terms of musical talent Getz was light years ahead. Getz was first to take the plunge into the music business. Getz dropped out of school at age fifteen to join Jack Teagarden's orchestra. Both Greenspan and Getz lived in Washington Heights, an area of New York that came to be known as 'Frankfurt on the Hudson', referring to the high number of German immigrants who lived there. Most were Jewish. Between 1933 and 1941, 20,000 German and Austrian Jews poured into Washington Heights, fleeing the Nazis.

Greenspan saw that he was never going to be a great musician. "I mean, I had played next to Stan Getz. I was 16, he was 15. I played for a year side-by-side with him in a band. That experience pretty much determined that I was gonna become an economist," said Greenspan later, though after graduating, Greenspan studied clarinet at Juilliard for a short time before transferring to New York University. Fellow musicians from that period remember bandmate Greenspan as rather abstruse. "He never said anything definitively. It was always double-talk, very much like today," said Hilton Levey, alluding to much-quoted later remarks made by Greenspan, such as: "I guess I should warn you, if I turn out to be particularly clear, you've probably misunderstood what I said," and: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said, but I’m not sure if you realize that what you heard is not what I meant."

Greenspan was a good enough musician to ensure that when the World War II draft board rejected him (a spot on his lung portended tuberculosis), he was able to land a job playing saxophone in a respectable big band, that of Henry Jerome. He began travelling with Jerome's band, and performed as a saxophone and clarinet player for about a year. He also did the band's accounts. The books balanced, of course, and Greenspan helped his musician friends file their taxes.

"I think I hired Alan in the early forties," said Leonard Garment, who was the manager of Jerome's swing band for a while, who went on to become Richard Nixon's law partner. "Alan played baritone sax and doubled on clarinet, flute, I believe, and bass clarinet."

Those were the days of big bands. The Jerome band travelled across America. In New York they played at Child's Paramount Restaurant on Times Square. Later, Leonard Garment recalled Greenspan as a good musician and a 'crackerjack' bookkeeper. At a time when some orchestras were forced to disband because of money troubles Garment recalled that Greenspan tended the books 'with great, great care.'

After his time in the band Alan Greenspan went on to study at New York University’s school of commerce in 1944. Greenspan graduated summa cum laude with a degree in economics. He received a master's degree from NYU in 1949 then shifted to Columbia University to work on his doctorate. "The only thing that was economic, I might say, about my music career, aside from the fact that I did everybody’s tax returns in the band, was the decision I made to leave the music business on economic grounds," he was to say in a later interview. "I concluded that having seen what some of the really good people [musicians] could do, and fundamentally recognizing that it’s not an issue of studying and you’ll learn, there are certain inherent qualities that you’re born with, and if you don’t have them, you’ll never achieve certain levels. Mozart had it when he was four. I never had it, period. I was a fairly good amateur musician, and I was an average professional. But I saw that the big band business was fading. So I made an economic decision. It turned out the best judgment I ever made in my life." Justin Martin, who wrote about Greenspan in The Man Behind the Money, described him as: 'Woody Allen with math skills'.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan appointed Greenspan to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Although Greenspan had quit by January 2006, it was the implosion of the US subprime mortgage market in 2007 that eventually removed Greenspan's halo. Time magazine subsequently declared him the third most eligible culprit for the financial crisis of 2007-2008. One magazine labelled him: 'Al, Your tarnished pal'.

But at least Alan Greenspan has played alongside Stan Getz, and worked with Henry Jerome. For me, Al isn't that tarnished.

John Robert Brown

First published in Jazz Journal, 2015. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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