Albin J. Grden, a violinist, clarinetist and saxophonist who taught in Baltimore public schools for more than four decades and was a longtime member of the Baltimore City Municipal Park Band, died Aug. 30 of kidney failure at Oak Crest Village. He was 81.
Mr. Grden was born in Baltimore into a musical family. His father, a Polish immigrant, played the violin, and his mother played and taught piano.
"I guess Al started playing violin when he was 8 years old, and he'd practice, practice and practice," said a brother, Eugene C. Grden of White Hall.
He later learned to play the clarinet and saxophone, and filled the air of the South Bethel Street rowhouse of his youth with lively music.
He attended St. Stanislaus parochial school and was a member of the Patterson Park High School band.
"He was considered to be Patterson High School's Benny Goodman," said a niece, Michele Grden, who teaches music at Owings Mills and Glyndon elementary schools. "Music was his life."
After graduating from high school in 1944, he was drafted into the Navy and was sent to Washington, where he joined the Navy Band as a clarinetist and saxophonist.
"He played in Washington and later in Panama in a Navy dance band with a lot of famous big band musicians, such as Jack Teagarden, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James and Fred Waring - all top-notch guys," his brother said. "He also marched down [Washington's] Pennsylvania Avenue in a band that played for President Franklin D. Roosevelt's funeral."
Mr. Grden left the Navy in 1946 and earned a bachelor's degree in 1954 and a master's degree a year later from the Peabody Conservatory.
He began his 42-year career as an instrumental music teacher in city public schools in 1955. He taught at a number of schools, most notably Thomas Jefferson Elementary and Beechfield Elementary, where he was on the faculty for 15 years. He retired in 1997.
"The boys and girls called him 'the Music Man,' and when they saw him years later as adults, they still called him that," said Caroline C. Hisey, a retired Beechfield kindergarten teacher and longtime friend.
"A lot of kids went into music because of him. They loved him because he had a lot of patience. He expected excellence and wanted them to love music as much as he did," she said. "He touched so many lives and gave so much enjoyment to so many with his music."
In addition to teaching, Mr. Grden spent his summers playing as a member of the Baltimore park band, which he joined in 1952.
He spent most of the next 51 years playing first clarinet, retiring in 2003.
"I love the music, and it gives me a chance to play," Mr. Grden told The Sun in a 1996 interview. "It is also something to do in the summer when I'm not teaching."
Fellow musician George Gaylor joined the band that tours the city in 1964 and for the past 23 years has been its conductor.
"First of all, no matter what job we ever worked, Al was the first one to show up. He was always extremely punctual. And for as long as I can remember, he always played first chair," Mr. Gaylor said. "He was also a very competent musician, and whatever we played, classical or jazz, he was always very comfortable."
He recalled that Mr. Grden was known for the band's popular "Benny Goodman in Concert" tribute.
"Benny Goodman was his idol, and he did all the solo parts in front of the band. I must say he did a pretty good imitation of Goodman and his music," Mr. Gaylor said.
A member of the Musicians' Association of Metropolitan Baltimore and the American Federation of Musicians, Mr. Grden also played at the old Painters Mill Music Fair, as well as local performances of the Ice Capades and the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
"Whenever Tony Bennett or Judy Garland came to town, he played for them," his brother said. "He had no trouble getting jobs because he was a good read. At the last minute, he'd get a call and go, because he could sight read and play a piece without any practice."
"Al was a truly gentle and genuinely kind person. He was a very soft-spoken and fine musician," said Jack Hook, secretary-treasurer of Local 40-543 of the American Federation of Musicians.
"He was our concertmaster and always took pride in his playing," said Ray Dombrowski, also a longtime member of the park band.
"We go back to 1946 or 1947," said Gordy Miller, a retired Baltimore Symphony Orchestra clarinetist who also played in the park band.
"We also played in some Polish bands, and he was a proponent of trios and small groups. He was a good player, and if I had to pinpoint one of his favorite songs, it would have to be 'Tenderly,'" Mr. Miller said.
The former 50-year Loch Raven Village resident, who had lived at the Parkville retirement community since 1998, was a member of a small group of musicians who performed daily before dinner.
A funeral Mass was offered Tuesday for Mr. Grden at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church.
Also surviving are two other brothers, Marion J. Grden of Fells Point and John T. Grden of Parkville; and several other nieces and nephews.