Mr. Harmon is celebrated here by Chris Stella, RHS 1973
“If you attended the George Washington Junior High in the late 1960’s, you knew who Mr. C. Bertram Harmon was. He held one of the more difficult civilian jobs on the Eastern Seaboard. He was the only African-American teacher in the middle school which enrolled students from the Country Club side of the rather conservative, Protestant-Catholic-Republican town of Ridgewood, teaching music.
His classroom was a large, and well-lit place, with tall windows overlooking the rutted, caged ballfield. I believe there were some risers, towards the back. On one wall, was a framed, ornate, latinated ancient page of music. On the other side, was a piano, and during Eighth grade, a stereo phonograph in a walnut case appeared, of the sort that normally would belong in your grandmother’s parlor.
He always dressed extremely well. He wore well tailored suits, with a perfectly knotted tie, and the cravat was backed by a gold pin, which served to emphasize his high, well-formed and prominent larynx, from which emanated the most interesting observations, in a distinctive, sonorous voice. His facial features were strong, and unambiguously African. He projected a ferocious, active and self-confident, yet fastidious “look”.
During my first year, Mr. Harmon was very adamant about his dislike for rock ‘n roll music. He thought it was childish, and said so frequently, in theatrical tones of mock horror.
However, the next fall, he had a dramatic announcement to make. He said that over the summer he had considered the matter carefully. He decided that such music was a major cultural force, and that some of it, though not all, was of excellent quality and had a great deal to teach.
He informed his astounded audience of junior high school students, who were used to having their musical tastes derided by every authority figure in the universe, that he had decided that he was going to completely revamp a major part of his method of teaching music. We were going to study rock ‘n roll music in a serious way. We were going to learn about where it came from. We were going to develop good rock ‘n roll taste. Furthermore, as an assignment we would all have the opportunity to choose a song, play it for the class on the walnut-cased phonograph, and analyze its content and musicological qualities, for our teacher and peers.
Mr. Harmon showed us how our favorite songs were rooted in decades and centuries of jazz, blues, and yes, continental African rhythyms. Analyses of popular music now well accepted or even cliche, were heard in very early iteration, in Mr. Harmon’s room.
But, my favorite day was the day he showed us that the familiar Beatles Penny Lane” trumpet solo, heard so frequently on the Cousin Brucie WABC top 40 music show, was less George Harrison and John Lennon, than George Handel, and Johann Bach. Mr. Harmon was able to prove that this piccolo trumpet “riff” had been lifted, more or less intact, from Johann and this other George, another Brit who had honed his craft in Hamburg, Germany, though in the 1700’s. The proof-by-listening was made so convincingly, that fourty-two years on, I cannot hear any of these compositions without smiling and thinking of Mr. Harmon.
A wave of excitement passed over the class. Surely Mr. Harmon loved, and would have something provocative to say about the last song on the first side of the Magical Mystery Tour album by the Beatles. (This is the one where John Lennon sings about the “elementary Penguins singing Hare Krishna”.) But, here, his love of precision and focus took over. We were disappointed:
“During the next class, we will study what is so terribly wrong about ‘I am the Walrus’.”
For my analytical presentation, I chose the Classics IV tune, “Traces.” A sweet little song, but my presentation was disastrous. I was able to demonstrate to the world only my 45 RPM, Five and Dime store musical sensibility.
Others scored wonderful successes. My friend Bill Walstrum, picked “Thinking is the Best Way to Travel”, a song by the early Moody Blues. This music was classically based, but also featured numerous interesting electronic effects, which was what you noticed first.
“So, William”, Mr. Harmon said. “This music supports the psychedelic drug culture, does it not?” Bill became quite forceful. No, it is anti-drug. The song is saying that your own thoughts can be much more exciting than any substance.
The prominent larynx bobbed, and for once was silent. Mr. Harmon smiled. We had all learned something. Bill had the made the point with power, and succinct elegance.
C. Bertram Harmon’s past, was a complete opacity, and he never spoke of it. There was one exception to this. This was the day when he told us, semi-conspiratorially, that in HIS day as a young high school student, when on the dance floor, he’d been known as THE jitterbug King. It was a highly plausible claim.
I do not have a complete sense of what the adult town thought of him. The more liberal tendencies of the people who lived in Ridgewood at the time were in part an abstraction, as there was precious little direct contact with people of ANY different color. At a minimum, I would think, at their core, parents of that time would feel a private need to be convinced. To his 1968 students, having an African-American man as your music teacher, was a cool and exotic thing.
However, I do have one 1971 grown-up data point. A friend’s mother, a woman of conventional Ridgewood character, once whispered quietly to me that she felt that “the man is a saint, an absolute saint.” By this she was not directing my attention to the fact that Mr. Harmon was able to gracefully bear the stress of being the only African-American teacher, or that he was able to master the loneliness which must have been present. Rather, she meant that it had become known that Mr. Harmon cared about his students as people, that his good influence went way beyond his effect on our musical sensibilities.
A boy, it was rumored, had stolen a car. I believe that this boy was a Caucasian. I do not think he could have been a musically-oriented boy. The word was, that Mr. Harmon had used his good agency, to see to it that although the proper penalty was paid, the boys’ future prospects were not destroyed.
As for me, during ninth-grade, he taught a music theory course, extremely advanced in scope. It included the requirement that the students compose original music. I took this course, and displayed no talent or aptitude whatsoever. At the end of the year, Mr. Harmon signed my yearbook with a long, carefully written, unique paragraph, in which he hoped for, and had great EXPECTATIONS of, my future success and happiness. It seemed at once so formal, and yet so heartfelt, that I remember it to this day.
The June, 1970 Assembly was memorable. The large chorus, of which I was not a member, performed for the departing students. Their final work, conducted by Harmon, was spectacularly intricate in its construction. In the manner of a baroque fugue, the various voices repeated and interwove, underlining, emphasizing, strengthening.
Mr. Harmon, had advised the student audience to listen carefully to the WORDS that had been set to the music.
“The words need to be listened to, as they will be quite relevant to the contemporary scene.”
And, Bach-like, the words were not! In a glorious fugue-like style, each section of the chorus hurled family-type criticisms at a solitary, unseen adolescent. The refrain was:
“What do you have to say for yourself,? Speak up, speak up, SPEAK UP !!”
First the basses took the role of the father, leveling all the usual complaints about poor grades, back-talk, and rudeness. Then the altos played the role of the mother, SINGING the familiar words about neatness, sloppy and provocative dress, rooms not tidy, all sung in perfect fugue way, in gorgeous harmony and high style, directed tightly by Harmon. Finally the tenors and sopranos sang the stock role of the younger siblings harassing the unfortunate, solitary young person. Finally at the conclusion of the choral work the “Speak Up!” refrain was again re-presented in repetitive order, followed by sudden silence.
Then, one student hand-picked by Harmon, someone who fit the role quite precisely, someone who everyone knew was not doing very well, would weakly gulp in a perfect stage whisper just loud enough for the audience to hear, HELP! Everyone laughed.
There could not have been a more appropriate coda to my junior high school years, and so my career at George Washington ended.
If I could have only one Magical Mystery wish with Mr. Harmon, I would be quite selfish. Sure, the guy was a pioneer in several ways, do anything you want with that, retire all names starting with the letter “C.”, if you want, I’ll back you !
But with Mr. Harmon, I would want only one thing. I would want to sit in the back of his class, perhaps on one of the risers, and just listen to his wonderful voice, as he described the beautiful things that he loved, speaking of how they were constructed, how they worked. I’d stay as long as they let me.
No doubt, after a while Mr. Cobb, or Mr. Egli would come by and tell me that I had to leave, as my presence had become a distraction. Who is that gray-haired Ridgewood man, sitting on the riser, perfectly still, in the back, they would have begun to ask. And, like the man in the song, I wouldn’t give any answers!
But, inside, I would want to shake the kids forcefully. Don’t you see?
C. Bertram Harmon, the man, with his knowledge, and devotion, and commanding stage presence, at a minimum he could have been a major success as a university-based musicologist.
However, there he was, by his choice, with us.
He had been been placed there by a town, some of whose residents might have denied how well they were doing by us. The Ridgewood adults had been wise in their placing him before us, some, maybe, without knowing the degree of their wisdom. He was a stabilizing aesthetic and personal presence. He is remembered standing, not sitting, in front, as our Junior High School worlds spun ’round, in varying states of control.