By Elizabeth Zakaim
To many, he was a composer and arranger, and to others, a teacher or mentor. Those most close to him thought of him as a family member, father or brother. But to all, alumnus Jerry Nowak (’58), who died two years ago, was an inspiration and a beloved friend who will be missed by many.
On Saturday, March 4, a concert in Mayo Concert Hall paid tribute to him and his many accomplishments.
Nowak graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education and later received a master’s degree in music composition. He was internationally revered for his music and teachings in different universities worldwide.
He formed the Philadelphia Saxophone Quartet in 1968 and founded and directed the Delaware Valley Wind Symphony in 2006.
Both of these ensembles performed some of Nowak’s thousands of musical arrangements, and all proceeds benefitted the Jerry Nowak Scholarship Fund of the Delaware Valley Wind Symphony, a registered nonprofit organization, according to the College’s Lion’s Gate webpage.
Nowak’s son, Christopher Nowak, helped put together the event and chose to hold it here at the College to honor his father’s memory.
“He was a teacher and a mentor first,” Christopher Nowak said. “So, it was appropriate to honor him not in a professional concert hall, but at his alma mater.
From an early age, it was clear that Nowak was destined to be more than a musician — he was a leader, as well. He had a knack for teaching and a passion for music, something his older brother, Henry Nowak, noticed early on in their lives.
Although he could not attend the memorial concert, Henry’s niece and Christopher’s sister, Amy Novak, read her uncle’s eulogy to the audience.
“Jerry and I got our musical instruments — Jerry a clarinet and myself the trumpet — as birthday presents probably because the kid next door played clarinet,” Novak said, reading her uncle’s words.
In his speech, he described their years in band at Trenton High School, which used to be the largest high school in the country at the time. The school led a yearly week-long competition in which students would divide up into two teams, the red team and the black team, and compete in sports, dance and music.
Nowak led the black team’s band to victory every night, his older brother recalled. Years earlier, when Henry Nowak had led the red team’s band, he did not have the fortune of beating the competition.
“Jerry was consistent about getting things done right. I think Jerry just thought it was the practical way to live,” his eulogy read.
Henry Nowak still remembers the advice of his younger brother when it came to the gritty and sometimes frustrating aspects of arranging music.
“Once he gets stuck, bogged down, trying to figure out how to compose his way out of a difficult modulation, he would simply stop and go mow the lawn,” Novak read.
Jerry Nowak knew that once his attention seemed to be elsewhere, the back of his mind was busy working his way through the roadblock.
“When Jerry returned to the piano, the solution came up effortlessly,” Novak read.
Nowak’s dedication and focus on his music were not fruitless efforts.
Early on in his career, he toured and played with renowned artists like Burt Bacharach and Stevie Wonder, and according to the event program, Nowak’s writing career began in the ’70s as an arranger for Paul Simon’s companies, Charing Cross Music and Big Bells.
Nowak’s other arrangements were tailored for both professional and youth ensembles, such as his composition “Suite for Three Muses.”
The Delaware Valley Wind Symphony performed one of Nowak’s last pieces, which he dedicated to his granddaughters, who were present in the audience. The piece symbolized his love for his family, mentoring and music education.
He taught everything from high school students at Hunterdon Central High School from 1959 to 1969 in Flemington, N.J., and college students at Bucks County Community College thereafter until 2005. He also taught classes in conducting and phrasing at different universities in the northeast and around the world, Christopher Nowak said.
According to the event program, he also taught graduate level courses in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and at schools in the states, such as The University of the Arts at Villanova University.
“He left behind a style that everybody is going to miss for his depth of musical understanding,” said alumnus Stephen Hudak (’82), a longtime friend, coworker and percussionist.
The two played together for more than 30 years, and Nowak even played at Hudak’s wedding.
“Jerry would think about musical color quite a bit when he was doing an arrangement,” Hudak said. “He would explain the arrangement and say, ‘Well, this isn’t the color I want, I want this color.’ And he would tell musicians how to get what he wanted.”
Hudak said his perfectionism rubbed some people the wrong way, “but that was one of the things I enjoyed about Jerry.”
Hudak admired his level of commitment and instructiveness when it came to his music.
“His arrangements were outstanding,” Hudak said. “He truly was a remarkable man –– a genius at arranging and composition and a heck of a nice guy, too.”
According to the event program, Nowak also returned to his alma mater as an adjunct professor for a couple years before his passing.
Music alumnus Ron Pruitt (’15) was a part of the wind ensemble his sophomore year, where Nowak was his conductor. Now a professional saxophonist and music teacher in the Matawan-Aberdeen Regional school district in Monmouth County, N.J., Pruitt appreciates what Nowak has taught him.
“It’s the kinds of things that stick with you wherever you go, wherever you’re teaching, and it sticks with me until today,” Pruitt said.
Pruitt recalls Nowak’s motivation was evident, especially to his students.
“It goes so much past his conducting ability or ensemble rehearsals,” Pruitt said. “He really wanted people to sound good.”
The last piece of the evening, “Sinatra in Concert,” arranged by Nowak was especially poignant for Pruitt.
“That was the last piece I played in high school,” Pruitt said. “I’ve known and loved Jerry Nowak’s music for many years.”
Nowak has left a legacy behind him: His arrangements are likely to fill the music folders of high school band students and professional musicians around the world. Even those who did not know Nowak personally may still know him through his teachings and through his music.
“He entertained people very well,” said Al Seioer, an extended family member. “He was a very sociable, very giving and very nice person.”
Nowak’s influence was widely known, and he touched the hearts of those closest to him, as well. His son acknowledged all he had learned from his father’s career and character.
With his voice growing thick, Christopher Nowak recalled his father’s values.
“The reliance on self and the commitment to excellence and drive and independence,” he said.
Nowak has inspire others and left a long lasting legacy behind him for both his family and the rest of the world.
“He has always been an independent thinker, but still a very strong collaborator,” Christopher Nowak said. “Everything from his values, his work ethic, his dedication to excellence set the bar and a standard for how I live my life.”