Never meet your heroes, they say.
Not sure where I first heard those words. You’ll be disappointed if you actually get to know them, they say. It’s better to keep your idealized vision of them from a distance.
I don’t know who first uttered those words but they sure as hell weren’t talking about Sam Pilafian.
On a hot July morning in 1988 I got to do just that, meet my hero. I was still a few weeks shy of becoming a teenager and the Empire Brass had just blown my mind with an intimate performance at Tanglewood. My parents encouraged me to go up to Sam afterwards and introduce myself. I was scared as hell but really just wanted to shake his hand. Maybe if I got just a little closer to him I could figure out how he was able to play the tuba with that much personality. I’d never heard anything like it.
My mother actually snapped a photograph just moments before the encounter that would change my life forever. My back is to the camera, my shoulders are slouched and I’m looking up at him with complete amazement. For the record he was wearing robin egg blue pants and totally rocking them! He could have just looked at me and said “Thanks for coming” and immediately moved on to the next person and I would have cherished that moment forever.
But I was about to meet Sam Pilafian so you know that’s not what happened. He spoke to me and even looked at me in a way I'll never forget. Like we already knew each other. Like I, some random gobsmacked kid, was destined for greatness just like him. He seemed as excited to meet me as I was to meet him. I suddenly felt like I had a friend who happened to be a tuba god. And because of how he spoke to me that day, I didn’t think, I knew, that I could play in a group just like Empire Brass someday. That’s the kind of gift parents would pay just about anything to give their kids at that age. And he gave me that gift just because he could. That was Sam.
If Sam never accomplished anything in his career except playing the tuba, he would still be lauded as a legend. The guy played with Pink Floyd, Lionel Hampton and the Metropolitan Opera. That’s the absolute pinnacle of the rock, jazz and classical worlds. No one in the history of the tuba has ever had that kind of career.
But it wasn’t just his versatility. When he was playing in a Dixieland band, he sounded like Kirk Joseph or Matt Perrine, someone who had been gigging in New Orleans their entire life.
When he played in the back of an orchestra, he sounded like Chester Schmitz or Gene Pokorny, someone who had been sitting back there full-time for decades.
I once saw him play a free jazz gig at a sleepy bed and breakfast in the Berkshires on a Sunday morning. This gig was way out there! Again, he sounded like a full-time experimental jazz musician from New York City or Berlin.
And he was of course the greatest brass quintet tuba player to ever live and if anyone disagrees with me I’ll fistfight them in the courtyard after this service. But seriously, he wrote the book on how to hold down the low end of a chamber ensemble. Like Mischa Schneider in the Budapest String Quartet or Bootsy Collins in Funkadelic, Sam was the glue, the swagger, the style, the drive that made Empire Brass so magical. I’m in awe of the legacy he left for the rest of us who followed in his footsteps.
My question is this: How can any musician always sound like they are playing the exact style of music they were put on this earth to perform? If you can play any one style as well as Sam played them all you will have no problems paying your bills as a musician. And yet he did it all. He was a musical chameleon the likes of which this world rarely ever sees on any instrument. And he was a tuba player! We in the tuba world got to claim him as our own. A true musician’s musician. Equal parts inspiring and mystifying.
Then there was Sam, the teacher. A master pedagogue. His ability to push students out of their comfort zone while simultaneously making them feel safe and supported was the essence of his teaching.
There’s a reason why so many people who only spent a master class or two with him still feel such a strong connection with him to this day. He had an unwavering passion for teaching that permeated every encounter he ever had with a student, no matter how brief. That always present passion was contagious and it ignited something in you when you were around it.
As with all great teachers, he always taught the student in front of him. Not just the student, but whatever version of that student happened to walk in that day. We all strive for that but it is hard to pull off 100% of the time. He just always seemed to know exactly what to say and when to say it.
Sam was also an incredible entrepreneur. He was of course one of the founding members of the Empire Brass, one of the most successful brass groups of all time. He founded Travelin’ Light with Frank Vignola. They were so good he made the world realize we had been lacking a completely smoking tuba/guitar duo the entire time and just never knew it. With his main partner in crime, Patrick Sheridan, they turned decades of breathing teachings into a wildly successful line of products called The Breathing Gym.
He was the consummate example of a musical entrepreneur long before every school of music started throwing the term around. I never once heard him utter the word entrepreneur while I studied with him. He didn’t talk about it. He showed me. That’s the best possible teaching. He was always cutting edge no matter what he did. As a player, as a teacher and as a businessman. And he always led by example.
I could stand up here until Tuesday listing the incredible things he achieved in his career, but I think what sums up the unbelievable impact Sam had on the world best is that there are literally hundreds of people who could be standing up here today delivering a tribute to him. And I don’t just mean people who looked up to him as a musician and an artist. I mean people who he fundamentally changed as humans.
Those people posted tributes on social media from all over the world as soon as news spread that Sam had passed. Here is a small sampling of those tributes:
"I miss him already. Met him literally twice. Changed my playing and my life."
"Even more than anything he taught me about tuba playing or music, he was a model of positivity, passion, purpose, and a can-do attitude."
"The world is forever different because he was in it. A true giant of a human being and musician."
"He epitomized everything that music means to this world."
"The world was a better place because of you, your passion for teaching, your commitment to your art and just your talent to lift and inspire anyone who was around you. You are a special soul and your legacy lives on."
"He taught me not just to play, but to play with enthusiasm and passion. But he was more than a teacher; he was a friend, mentor, even a make-shift therapist during some of my most confused days of youth."
"Having only met you twice I can say that you fully redirected my belief of what a consummate professional and musician should be."
"In a time of my life when I thought I was a terrible musician because of insecurities this spectacular person of high esteem made me feel legitimate."
"Never has anyone influenced or impacted my direction as a young musician more than he."
"The world just lost one of the most genuine, amazing, and generous human beings ever, and we are all better people for having known him.”
So the next time someone tells you you shouldn’t meet your heroes, tell them about Sam Pilafian. And rest assured, if you didn’t ever have the privilege of meeting him in person, he would have made you feel special too, just like he did for me as that awkward kid at Tanglewood over 30 years ago. That’s just what he did. That was Sam.
Rest easy, Sam. You left the world a far better place and we’re all better for having known you.