Even with an award-winning medical career, Stanley Sagov
always makes time for his music
As a jazz pianist, Stanley Sagov spends most of his time in his home studio; as a doctor, he meets with
patients. (Josh reynolds for the boston globe)
By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / October 11, 2008
Stanley Sagov, family doctor and jazz pianist, begins a beat on the kitchen table with his hand: Wham.
Over a dinner of homemade curry, Sagov has just turned talk toward the urgent interplay between
rhythm and harmony in jazz.
"It's like what the rhythm says to the body is, 'Now! This is happening now!' " Sagov says.
"You know?" Wham!
"Not another time." Wham!
"Right now." Wham!
Sagov, 64, who by day practices family medicine in Arlington and teaches students, residents, and
fellows from four Massachusetts medical schools, is in the midst of his own compelling "right now"
musical moment. After years of self-chosen rhythmic solitude, he has assembled a band of prominent
musicians that includes, among others, drummer Bob Moses and flutist, saxophonist, and singer Stan
Strickland. They have recorded two albums - dynamic, largely unrehearsed improvisations of classics,
Sagov originals, and South African songs - and will perform Tuesday at Scullers Jazz Club.
For Sagov the jazz pianist, the collaboration is about the joy of jamming, to be sure, but also about
expressing an optimism that transcends music.
"It's saying, 'Here's this representation of how it could be,' across cultures in the case of jazz," Sagov
says, "where we listen to each other and we end up with something more powerful, more synergistic,
more moving, more sexy, more intriguing, than anything that could have been done if we stayed in
our little boxes."
On a recent weekday morning in Arlington, Sagov, the family doctor, leans against an examining table
at Family Practice Group, which he founded more than 30 years ago, and he listens to a woman who
has fought breast cancer and faces uncertain troubles from diabetes. They talk of past surgeries and
current medication, and Sagov says, "The other thing is your mood. Chronic depression. The
employment thing . . ."
"I feel a little bit more energy," she tells Sagov. "I've been taking the dog to the park."
Then it is on to a young man who arrived with a violin case - he plays mostly fiddle music these days,
he says - and explains that a rash has spread. Sagov examines him, then, hands clasped, looks the
young man in the eyes and explains that even with ointment the rash will take time to clear. He turns
to a computer and types in hunt-and-peck fashion what he has found, then gently asks about the
breakup of the patient's parents, whom Sagov also knows.
"Do you want my two cents?" Sagov asks.
He encourages the young man to open a dialogue. The son does not need to accept what he hears, or
even believe it. But such a conversation, Sagov says, could lead to deeper un derstanding of a difficult
I'm very optimistic that truth creates possibilities," Sagov tells him.
Starting a musical, medical path
When Sagov talks, whether about medicine or music or life, his voice is soft and sure, often delivering
evolving sentences that occasionally end in a slight gasp, as though he has given all. His gray-bearded
face is welcoming of the world. Yet, seen in profile, it stares sharply into it. There is something in this
- an openness to engage, and a confidence to challenge - that seems to define Sagov and his medical
and musical passions that have spanned a lifetime, yet thrive in the moment.
It is like this over the dinner he cooked in his Chestnut Hill home, when conversation turns toward his
native South Africa. Sagov was born in Cape Town to Jewish parents whose families had emigrated
from Russia to the tip of a new continent. Though he suffered from Gordon syndrome, a skeletal
condition that requires major surgeries through adolescence, as a teenager Sagov took up
photography and began capturing vivid black-and-white portraits of joys and sorrows of life under
apartheid: a black man holding a guitar on the side of an empty road; well-dressed whites passing
before a palm tree; two barefoot children standing behind a chain-link gate, and two others hawking
Sagov started playing violin at age 6 and later, during a year recovering from surgery in London,
learned guitar, which he played in a popular Cape Town band covering Little Richard songs and more.
When Sagov was 16, the band pianist got sick, and so he sat in to play hits by Jerry Lee Lewis. Like
that he was off for years wandering from Cape Town cafes to clubs in Johannesburg and in the black
townships, along the way playing with the likes of pianist Dollar Brand (now known as Abdullah
Ibrahim), singer Miriam Makeba, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, and many more.
It was an individual adventure.
"I'd wake up with broken glass under the piano and not sure how I got there, you know," Sagov says.
"Drugs, sex, and jazz. It was wild."
And it was a chance to challenge cultural conventions.
Jazz "had this moral dimension to it, this political dimension to it, that was about integration," Sagov
says. "It was about white and black coming together to do something that wasn't apartheid, that
wasn't about oppression, that wasn't about pejorative distinctions between people on grounds of their
color or anything else about them."
Sagov simultaneously studied in medical school at the University of Cape Town. Then, as thousands
were leaving South Africa in protest, to avoid persecution, or to find a better scene, Sagov in 1967
followed his dueling beats to New York's hospitals and jazz clubs. "I used to go to lectures and type my
notes, and if I was working in hospitals, do my shift," Sagov says, "and then I would hang out almost
exclusively with musicians and philosophers and poets and street people, and I needed . . . that other
part of the human expressive range that is different than science and service and a particular kind of
He moved to Boston, where he studied jazz piano and oboe at New England Conservatory, graduating
in 1973. But a desire for family and a disdain for life on the road helped solidify a decision to join the
emerging family practice program at Harvard Medical School. In the decades since, Sagov has treated
families from across the state, including some who have moved away, yet return just for his care. In
2002 he was honored as Family Physician of the Year by the Massachusetts Academy of Family
Physicians, and three years later was inducted into the academy's teaching hall of fame.
Staying busy in the home studio
On a Thursday evening, Sagov is home in Chestnut Hill after another day at the office and settled in a
makeshift recording studio upstairs from the kitchen. It is cluttered and cramped. On the shelf are
stacked manuals, including "Home Recording for Musicians." On one wall, a poster advertises a
"Sagov" concert, in 1976, at the Boston Center for the Arts. On another wall, a copy of Cape Times
Magazine, from 1966, features Sagov photographs: a woman brooding, boys eating sugar cane, people
gathered for drinks at an outdoor bar.
During the past two decades, Sagov has played the occasional wedding or bar mitzvah, for friends,
and the annual staff party of Mount Auburn Hospital. But Sagov has made most of his music in the
home studio, using electronic keyboards and computer programs to play everything from penny
whistle to piano on dozens of self-produced solo albums. One five-song collection, dated Jan. 1, 2000,
is titled "One for the Millennium: Monk, Miles, McFarland, Mingus and Me." (His record label: Try
This at Home.)
As Sagov turns to his computer, his wife, Elivia, and daughter, Sadye, settle in a room next door to
watch political speeches.
Sagov searches iTunes and plays "Country Cooking," by South African pianist and composer Chris
McGregor. He clicks again and goes back to the 1950s with "Kwela Claude," by Spokes Mashiyane, a
South African penny whistle player and master of kwela, the street music that Sagov heard as a child.
The speakers pulse as notes trip and skip one upon another. Sagov's eyes squeeze shut, his head rocks,
and his foot keeps a heavy beat. His cheeks crease and release, his lips purse then smile, and
suddenly, on hearing a particular note, his eyes spring open and brows arch, as if to say, "cool, eh?"
© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.
Practice makes perfect
for jazz-loving doc
By Bob Young
Monday, October 13, 2008 -
Dr. Stanley Sagov’s patients should be relieved he
doesn’t like the traveling life. If he did, the jazz world’s
gain would have been their loss.
“They’re my village,” the pianist and family doctor said
from his home in Newton. “I love them, I care about
them, so as a family person and a doctor, being on
the road doesn’t make it for me.”
Patients and fans won’t have to travel far to hear the
64-year-old composer and multi-instrumentalist
showcase his musical side when he leads a band
featuring Bob Moses, Stan Strickland, John Lockwood
and Mike Peipman on Tuesday at Scullers Jazz Club.
In a rare concert appearance, he celebrates the
release of two new CDs, “Looking Forward to
Remembering the Future” and “African Jazz
For decades, Sagov has quietly pursued his twin
loves of music and medicine. Chief of family medicine
at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge and head of
his own practice in Arlington, Sagov follows a routine
of spending evenings and weekends practicing and
recording in his home studio.
“I’ve always been compelled to do both things
passionately,” the Capetown, South Africa, native
said. “I’ve been unable to give up either one.”
Sagov, the son of Russian-Jewish
immigrants, understood at an early
age the trials that life can bring and
the joy that music can offer as an
antidote. He was born with Gordon’s
syndrome, a rare genetic disorder
that forced him to wear iron leg braces
in his youth. He underwent 16 surgeries to deal with
two club feet.
Sagov also witnessed first-hand the ugliness of
apartheid, a grim reality offset by the uplifting South
African music surrounding him. Those sounds course
through his piano playing and scores.
“As I’ve gotten older,” he said, “I feel like I’m returning
to some of the things I heard on the streets and on the
radio when I was growing up. Any South African
musician listening to my music would hear that it
wasn’t exactly township jazz or Afrikaners music or
the kwela that buskers played on the street. But it’s
got all those elements, plus American jazz, in it. I love
He also loves being able to mix it up with high-octane
company on recordings and at Scullers.
“What we’re doing is as close to my idea of heaven on
earth as I can engineer,” he said.
Stanley Sagov and the Remembering the Future Band,
Tuesday night at Scullers Jazz Club at 8 and 10.
Tickets: $15; 617-562-4131.
The doctor is in
Stanley Sagov’s jazz remedies, plus
By JON GARELICK | October 8, 2008
That Stanley Sagov plays jazz at all is impressive.
That he plays it at such a high level is stunning.
Sagov — a Boston family physician whose band visits
Scullers this Tuesday for a CD-release show — is
from South Africa. The son of Russian Jewish
immigrants, he was born with Gordon’s Syndrome, a
genetic disorder that left him with two club feet. By the
time he was 13, he’d endured 16 different surgeries in
London, New York, and Boston. He spent much of his
early years walking in iron leg braces. Yet through all
the extensive medical care, he found himself bonding
with the doctors who treated him. Inspired as well by
family members in the medical profession, he decided
that he too would become a doctor.
But he was also drawn to music, and a variety of
instruments. “I played guitar a lot and played in a band
that did covers, R&B — Little Richard, Jerry Lee
Lewis,” he tells me when we get together at his
Chestnut Hill home. When the piano player left the
band for a time, Sagov was tapped for the job. “I must
have driven my parents insane, trying to teach myself
to play these boogie-woogie and R&B things over and
over and over. Then the piano player came back, but I
Hanging with older musicians, getting into jazz, he
acquired mentors. “Bob Tizard, a bassist and
trombonist, decided he was going to teach me how to
play ‘Perdido’ — a 32-bar song form — and he was
going to make this rock-and-roll musician understand
about playing more than three chords and how to
remember the form. We played the song from midnight
until six in the morning.” By morning — “after around
the 30th time” — Tizard had Sagov improvising.
This was Cape Town, during the depth of apartheid,
about which Sagov had his own epiphany. At about
the age of nine, he recounts in his press biography, he
was walking uphill, wearing his leg irons, from a violin
lesson when he “suddenly understood the parallel
between my being stigmatized for looking unusual and
the terrible way that black people in South Africa were
being treated by whites.”
Later, he tells me, he was among a group of
“iconoclastic young South Africans” who experienced
the music as a bridge across races. “We had this
fantasy about America that the jazz community was an
integrated community, white and black people
demonstrating across the color bar that you could
make great art together.” In the meantime, as a
medical doctor, he worked in the segregated
Fast-forward to Sagov moving to New York in the ’60s
and falling in with its vibrant jazz scene. By 1970, he
was studying at New England Conservatory, having
been recommended by the esteemed trumpeter Ted
Curson and one of Sagov’s heroes, the great pianist
Eventually Sagov had his own band, and they worked
often, playing the clubs and opening concerts for acts
like Gary Burton. But once he had a family, he had to
make a choice, and working as a touring musician was
not it. So he practiced medicine during the day and
piano and composition at night in his home studio,
maintaining his friendships from the NEC years with
people like sax/flute man Stan Strickland and
drummer Bob Moses, both of whom are on his new
self-released double-disc, Looking Forward To
Remembering the Future.
The CD mixes every strain of Sagov’s experience.
There are standards like the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is
Here To Stay,” Miles Davis’s “Blue in Green,” and
Evans’s “Nardis”; there are lesser-played jazz pieces
like Gary McFarland’s “Gary’s Waltz.” Sagov’s
arrangements reconfigure the familiar tunes — the
melodies of “Blue in Green” and “Nardis” are merely
passing shadows. You can hear the music of the
South African townships in “Stanley’s Kwela,” his
Jewish background in Middle Eastern–tinged pieces
like “Chord Too Bad” and the traditional “Avinu
Malkkkeinu.” (His comment on the region’s “fratricidal
conflict: the music from both sides is the same!”)
The playing from Strickland, Moses, and veteran
trumpeter Mike Peipman is, as you might expect,
stellar, with strong support from electric-bassist
Tommy Lockett and percussionist Sean Mannion. On
Sagov’s idiosyncratic “Blooz for Another Time,”
Strickland, who can blow with Coltrane-like complexity
and ferocity, settles into a Ben Websterish fat-toned
melody before doubling the time on top of Sagov’s
chords. Meanwhile, Sagov’s writing and playing
surprises everywhere. He stretches out the melody in
his introduction to “Our Love Is Here To Stay,”
exposing inner voicings, wringing the song for emotion
without sentimentality. His “Regular-Irregular” recalls
one of the airy forms from the Miles Davis/Wayne
Shorter book, with its rising horn fanfare, 12-tone-row
middle section, and use of space. Sagov’s solo here
takes one unpredictable turn after another, sticking
with the form but mixing up odd, varied patterns,
quizzical and joyful.
Sagov says that even NEC couldn’t get him to
“unlearn” the bad habits of his early self-training. “I’m a
jazz musician who learned how to play piano on the
street. I never learned to play scales properly, I just
scrabbled around in my own way.” That rough
technique might account for some of his individuality. “I
don’t consider myself a pianist in the way Keith Jarrett
or Jacky Terrasson is. They’re consummate players,
well schooled. So I think of myself more as a
composer who happens to use the piano as a means
Although he hasn’t toured, Sagov has played regularly
over the years in Boston and New York. The new CD
(he released one with some of the same musicians in
2006, and another has just been completed)
represents a special bond with long-time friends and
colleagues. “This is how it used to feel when I started
playing in South Africa — music that combined head
and heart and had rigor and sexiness to it, that’s got
formal elements. But what makes it come alive in the
moment of playing is the immediacy of feeling other
people being in the game with you.”