I first met Bill Fanning in 1982. I’d just moved up to Scotland to serve in submarines at Faslane. I had long held a wish to learn to play Alto, particularly dreaming of producing a sound like Paul Desmond. I bought a cheap Alto on a trip to London. On return to Glasgow I popped into Biggars Music on Sauchiehall Street. I asked the assistant running the wind section if he could recommend a tutor, especially one who taught Jazz. Bill Fanning was the name he gave me. He didn’t have a contact number but advised me that Bill frequented The Glasgow Society of Musicians. This was housed in a large Georgian House in Berkeley Street. I phoned the place a couple of times before I managed to get hold of Bill. I asked him if he’d take me on as a complete beginner. Initially I struggled to understand his gravely Glasgow/Clydebank accent, roughened by years of smoking. However we arranged to meet at The Society one afternoon.
I didn’t have a clue what to expect as I turned up with the Alto and a copy of ‘Tune a Day’. The Glasgow Society of Musicians had obviously seen better days since it’s formation in 1888. The building interior was in need of new décor, and there was a fustiness about the place. However at the rear of the building was a superb high ceiling hall and bar. This was used for performances by members and also invited visiting musicians to Glasgow. Bill took me to the front first floor room that housed the large Committee table and an old upright piano. We had the first of many lessons which continued on and off for the next six or seven years.
One of the first things Bill tried to impress on me, and no doubt all of his students, was maintaining tone. He detested the breathy trailing off of tone at the end of a note. The other advice was to ditch ‘Tune a Day’ and to buy a copy of ‘Otto Langey’. The lesson lasted about half an hour by which time my ‘chops had gone’. This was one of Bill’s favourite expressions to describe cheek muscle fatigue that comes from not playing enough. I think the technical term is embouchure. I asked whether he felt I’d ever get anywhere with Alto. His advice was to do at least one hour a day for 100 days. At the end of that I’d know for myself whether it was worth carrying on. Bill gave good advice on the choice of instrument and soon arranged for me to upgrade to a Yamaha YAS32. His own instrument was a Conn. This was an aged and solid Alto with worn mother of pearl keys. The action was however very light which gave a great edge to Bill’s at times lightening solos.
When teaching, Bill would pass on his tips for learning a piece. A complex passage he would liken to trying to play a currant cake. He would mark tricky areas with the symbol of a pair of specs implying close concentration was required. If I struggled with a part he would encourage by saying ‘it’s just under your fingers’.
We worked away on a weekly basis for the next weeks, months and then years and became good friends. Bill had