Itâll be 70 years this spring since a 17-year-old Gabriel Kosakoff shouldered his trombone and marched out of the High School of Music and Art, dreaming of fame and fortune in the worldâs top concert halls.
But soon it was a rifle he was shouldering â” it was 1944 â” and by the time the war was over, the would-be virtuoso was on a different career track that would put him in front of an orchestra, conducting promising young students in what today might be called Mr. Kosakoffâs Opus.
Which is to say he became a passionate teacher, inspiring generations of future classical and jazz headliners set to salute him at a gala concert next week.
âI felt I could make a better contribution to music teaching than behind a trombone,â Mr. Kosakoff, a gangly 87-year-old six-footer, said this week in the alumni office where he shows up regularly to assist in events.
Passionate he certainly still is. âNo child left behind? Are you kidding?â he snorted. âWithout the arts, all children are left behind.â
Many of his former students speak of him with reverence. âYou could really feel the love in him,â said Kim Laskowski, associate principal bassoon at the New York Philharmonic, a 1972 graduate of the high school and a teacher herself now at Juilliard. âHe loved the job. He loved the kids. He loved the music.â
Mark Sherman, a 1975 alumnus, award-winning vibraphonist and percussionist now also teaching at Juilliard, called Mr. Kosakoff âalways a positive force.â
âEveryone ended up with careers,â he said.
So when a constellation of jazz stars takes the stage Monday night for the second annual jazzfest at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and the Performing Arts on Amsterdam Avenue at 65th Street, near Lincoln Center, the spotlight will fall on Mr. Kosakoff as honoree, the first school graduate to win a permanent appointment to the schoolâs teaching staff.
That was in 1956, when the school, founded 20 years earlier by Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia as âmy most hopeful achievement,â occupied Gothic towers at 135th Street and Convent Avenue. Mr. Kosakoff went on to become chairman of the instrumental music department starting in 1969, and he retired in 1991.
He forged the cityâs top student instrumentalists into the All-City High School Band and recruited a leading jazz educator, Justin DiCioccio, to run the schoolâs jazz program.
While continuing to take part in school functions, Mr. Kosakoff also became a board member and consultant on the Mr. Hollandâs Opus Foundation, which raises money to distribute instruments to poor schools across the country. The foundation was organized in 1996 by another of his students, Michael Kamen, from the class of 1965, who composed the score for the 1995 movie âMr. Hollandâs Opus.â
Mr. Kosakoff was born into a musical family. His father, Reuven, was a prolific American composer of Jewish liturgical music who studied with the Austrian classical pianist Artur Schnabel in Berlin and returned to New York where Gabriel and his twin brother, Raphael, were born on Dec. 24, 1926.
Both boys were admitted to the fledgling Music and Art school in 1940. Apart from the piano, Gabe chose to study the trombone. âThey always seemed to march first in the parade.â
He was struck by the school spirit. âEvery student wore a pin,â he remembered. âYou were so proud.â The principal was Benjamin Steigman, a Swedish-born teacher who wore cuff links and a boutonniere. âWhen he walked into the classroom, you stood up,â Mr. Kosakoff recalled. âHe left me his cuff links. Iâll wear them Monday night.â
Two weeks after getting his diploma, with soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy, he enlisted. The Army tried to make him an engineer. âThey figured out pretty soon that was not what I was good at,â he recalled. So he was assigned to Paris â” Paris, Tex. â” for heavy weapons training. âI fired bazookas, cannons,â he said. âIt was fun.â
Landing in Manilla after the Japanese surrender, he was made fourth trombone in the 396th Army Ground Forces Band. Unfortunately, they needed only three trombones. So, as he recalled, âThe colonel decided, âYouâll be the band leader â” youâre tall.ââ
âWho said you canât learn a trade in the Army?â Mr. Kosakoff said.
âI want you to know,â he confided, âmy presence in the Army didnât make the war any shorter.â
Back home he studied music education at New York University and with his brother worked as house managers of the Kaufman Concert Hall at the 92nd Street Y where he met one of the music ushers working for $1 a night. That was Carol Lenhoff of North Adams, Mass. âShe decided she liked the music,â Mr. Kosakoff recalled. âI came with it.â
Sixty one years later, they have a son and a daughter and five grandchildren.
His students kept him young, he said. Year after year, they were always the same age, so he had to be. âIâm on whatever level theyâre on,â he said.