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Side of Ranch

Wind ensemble blows through Peace Presbyterian in Lakewood Ranch

A talented saxophone musician says the group has exceptionally high standards.

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It isn't likely Mel Davis will have to worry about anyone in the audience at Peace Presbyterian Church throwing an eraser at him during the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble's Spring Concert on May 5.

Back when he was a youngster at Marsten Middle School in San Diego, the "cantankerous" music teacher, Mr. Henneberg, would fire erasers at students who would fall short of his expectations.

It was a major part of Davis' introduction into the world of music.

"Mr. Henneberg had high standards," Davis said at his Greenbrook Preserve home. "He pushed you to improve and he was a true teacher. He was an older guy, and he threw those erasers at people. It made an impression on me.

"But I always felt supported in what I was doing."

Mel Davis practices on his lanai in preparation for the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble Spring Concert May 5 at Peace Presbyterian Church in Lakewood Ranch.
Photo by Jay Heater

Davis, who describes himself as an "accomplished" musician, will play sax for the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble at the Spring Concert, which begins at 2 p.m. While erasers won't be filling the air, Davis, 69, said the expectations for the band's musicians are much higher than even Mr. Henneberg would have imagined.

"The expectations are the highest of any band I have played in," Davis said about the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble. "The music is so technically challenging and they want to push the envelope."

Davis had read about the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble in the East County Observer three years ago and then reached out to its founder, Joe Miller.

"If you are in this band, you are part of an organization that expects you to perform well," he said. "I bring my 'A' game every time I show up."

During season, Davis plays or substitutes in eight bands other than the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble, including the Manatee Community Concert Band, the Suncoast Swing Big Band, the North Port Concert Band, the Venice Wind Ensemble, the Sarasota Concert Band, the Sarasota Jazz Project, the Oceans 11 Big Band and the Manasota Sax Quartet.

But he firmly says the Lakewood Ranch Wind Ensemble is the most talented group.

He hopes that music lovers in Lakewood Ranch take a few hours out of their schedule to discover the group, which continues to hope Manatee County eventually builds a theater or events center in the Lakewood Ranch area.

The group appreciates Peace Presbyterian hosting the concerts, but it limits the audience to approximately 250 people.

The Spring Concert will offer music by John Philip Sousa, Robert Sheldon, Alfred Reed and Paul Hindemith. Tickets are $10 for adults and $5 for students.

"We are trying to do more marketing," Davis said. "The goal is to continue to grow. These are great musicians playing challenging music ... music you won't hear often ... at a great price."

One person who will be in the audience is his wife of 42 years, Margaret.  She still takes notes during his concerts to offer a critical review afterward. Although she doesn't play an instrument, she has heard a lifetime of concerts and she knows the good from the bad.

"I trust her," he said.

Davis said his parents weren't musical at all, but he grew up in San Diego trying all kinds of instruments with their complete support. He first played the clarinet and also learned the piano and trumpet.

As a junior at Clairemont High School in San Diego, he started playing the saxophone by chance. His music teacher, Kenneth Ritchie, told him that one of the sax players in the jazz band was sick and couldn't play in a concert. Ritchie told Davis that he could take his place.

"I was loaned a tenor sax," he said. "It was a more powerful instrument, but subtle in that it could cover a range of emotions. When you play the sax in some songs, it can touch your heart. You feel connected."

Although he never had played a saxophone, he played the instrument in the concert.

"The fingers are the same," he said. "And it is a reed instrument."

It became his instrument of choice.

Although Davis always played in a band or two, he began his working career as an industrial engineer, before going into medical device project management, commercial and consumer printing and eventually into engineering pharmaceutical plants.

When his daughter, Malorie Jones, had children, Mel and Margaret moved to Florida to be closer to her and their grandchildren. They moved to Greenbrook in 2019.

All through the years, despite his jobs and his family role, he continued to play in bands.

"Music is my passion," he said. "There has to be a balance in your life. I would never push it aside."

His wife never objected to that passion.

"I have an angel of a wife," he said. "She is my roadie, my critic."

During the upcoming spring concert, Davis said he will play the baritone sax, which will make him "anonymous." 

"I have been out front (in a solo), and I have been behind the scenes," he said. "I just like it when the audience has a great time."

He almost had the opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City when one of his former bands in San Diego invited him to perform with it there during a festival. However, COVID-19 led to the cancellation of the festival.

His favorite all-time moment came outside a church in a small village in the Swiss Alps. He doesn't know the name of the church or the village. He was on a tour with his San Diego bandmates of Switzerland, Germany and Austria in 1995 when some nuns saw the instruments and asked the band members if they would play.

They set up outside the church and played three songs.

"To this day, I can picture where we stood, on the grounds of that church, with people coming out of their wonderful homes in that calm village," he said. "It was perfect.

"Throughout my life, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to play music."



Jay Heater

Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.

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