My Only In America Story
Where’s to picket? Afro-American performers outdid us whites at Biden’s Capitol Hill celebration. Singers and combo-players outnumbered us, too. Great musicians who played their hearts out.
I was nine years old when my father took me to a 2nd floor music school on 125th Street in Harlem. He told me to pick out an instrument so I chose a nickel-plated alto saxophone that cost $35. During the Great Depression Pop ran his tailor shop on 128th Street and Convent Avenue. Pop paid a buck, weekly, for it. My lessons were 25 cents the half hour.
Without my sax, I’d have turned out badly. How many Jewish boys spent their boyhood in Harlem? Nobody I knew of. During the Great Depression, the concept of a teenager didn’t exist. That began, late forties, an outgrowth of the radio series The Aldrich Family.
Absent a consuming goal, life’s progression then was you started as a dirty-snot nose, then on to a young punk and later a hood and finally an old “F.” My musicianship clearly saved me from the slammer.
I did it all, progressing from the upstairs music school to lessons with radio musicians who were the best in the business. I turned into a serious woodwind player - alto sax, clarinet and flute.
Mayor Fiorello La Guardia in 1936, at the height of the Depression, created five new special high schools, including the Bronx High School of Science, Stuyvesant and the High School of Music and Art which I was admitted to in 1944. I progressed to sideman in a major dance band and played Mozart’s Concerto for Clarinet from memory. My nickel-plated sax was replaced by a gold-plated Selmer. Throw in a Haynes flute, then $200, now serious money in the thousands. The French made the best woodwinds for tonal quality. You needed them to stay competitive.
In my teens, I had turned fiercely competitive. When Leonard Bernstein came down to Music and Art to conduct “Rhapsody in Blue,” I auditioned for the clarinet solo, a long glissando that opens the piece.
Bernstein turned me down because my tone was slightly flat. Obviously, he possessed perfect pitch. At that time, I owned a clarinet with a small crack in its neck section which created the flatness. I then vowed that my next $200 would go towards a Buffet clarinet and so it did.
Then, my career in music hit a stone wall. Ironically, my father was the catalyst here. Dizzy Gillespie, the great jazz trumpet man was a customer at Pop’s tailor shop. My father was bragging about his son, Martin, a great alto sax man. Dizzy was picking up his dry cleaning. So Dizzy told Pop to send me down to Nola Studios in Times Square. “Martin can sit in and riff with Charlie Parker, me and the boys.”
When I arrived at Nola, Dizzy’s group was deep into bebop, fast and furious. Dizzy asked if I’d like to sit in, but I had to tell him that I didn’t as yet do bebop. This was 1947 or so. Then, I was amazed when Dizzy sat me down on the couch and explained the derivation of bebop.
It grew out of the atonal symphonies that a handful of Jewish composers created in the mid-forties, Dizzy explained. Suddenly I realized Dizzy and his musicians were very serious operators. They donned berets and heavy black-framed glasses, but it was just for show. Alas, I realized I’d never be a Charlie Parker. My God! He’s got different genes than mine, I can never step into his shoes with my Eastern European genes.
This was a good call. After college, I put away my instruments in their cases and closeted them, permanently. Then, I got lucky. I’m a great believer in the power of serendipity. I landed on Wall Street late fifties quite accidentally. My friend, Bob Stovall and I were in the same military government-reserve group. Bob wanted me down on the Street because I could write a full sentence. Many of his securities analysts dated back to 1929, tongue-tied statisticians.
I’ve never looked back over sixty years, but my pursuit of excellence began with my nickel-plated sax for one buck, weekly. My first lessons were on the 2nd floor of the music school. Over head on the 3rd floor was a dance studio filled with a bunch of kids being drilled, stomping together in rhythm, their feet shuffling on the floor above. I’ll never forget the irrepressible rhythm, the connection of the shuffling feet and their joyful exuberance.
I recalled all this as I watched Biden’s evening celebration, punctuated with singers belting out above vibrating guitars, irrepressibly. What a joy to partake in. Growing up in America, for sure was the greatest gift the country bestowed on its younger generation. It enabled us to walk the walk and talk the talk.
I ended up on Wall Street with not even the usual $10,000 in your pants pocket. Boeing had just produced its four-engine 707 which ushered in the Jet Age. I took my first $10,000 to a money broker who financed convertible bonds for 10 points down, marked to market, daily.
Ironically, I owned a bushel of Boeing when the first 737 crashed. I banged out my position and never looked back. Boeing’s $500 price tag was no longer in the cards. I’ll leave looking back to historians and songwriters like Irving Berlin.
And, yet, I couldn’t leave Boeing be. When something serious and upsetting happens in a company, there’s always a hidden enabler. I focused on the ultra-liberal enrichment of management, particularly its headman, now gone. Boeing’s proxy statement was set in nearly illegible small-sized type. Obviously, intentionally.
I played the advent of the Jet Age in 1961 with convertible debentures. First, Boeing, then United Aircraft and Eastern Airlines, which I sold at $400. You do the arithmetic. All were financed by money brokers at 10 points. Meanwhile, McChesney Martin, our FRB head, put up margin requirements to 90%. He called it taking away the punchbowl, but I didn’t care.
The pursuit of excellence that began with my $35 nickel-plated alto sax had made me rich. When I called Pop to tell him I was a millionaire, he said “Bah! Martin, I don’t believe it. You’re exaggerating. It’s not possible.”
What does my $35 saxophone have to do with making money in the market? Plenty! Not infrequently, I receive posts from readers asking me how do you turn $10,000 into $100,000.
My response is simplistic. You have to take enormous risk and be early in a stock’s history. First, you have to perceive the company in a way few others perceive it. This is known as challenging the consensus.
One example, years ago, when cellular telephony was just introduced, the industry and therefore Wall Street projected the saturation rate of usage at 15%, not the 100% plus level we have today.
Nextel was a $4 stock that everyone ignored, but it was a serious factor in the business. The stock was considered a $4 ragamuffin, but it went around the clock 10 times. I sold my position at $34.
You gotta learn how to stand alone. Just 12 months ago, stocks like Halliburton, Freeport-McMoRan, U.S. Steel, Alcoa, General Electric and Macy’s sold under $5 a share. All this paper has at least doubled or quadrupled. You had to believe they were good candidates to survive for at least a year or longer.
No major Wall Street house actively recommended this paper as a legitimate speculation. Why not? They buried themselves trying to figure out the next quarter’s numbers for Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet, but missed badly. These are big-capitalization stocks you can do a lot of business in, right or wrong.