My father died Wednesday. It was sudden. Unexpected. And mercifully quick. RF asked me if I wanted to pen a tribute to him here on the TTAG site. And so I’m taking this opportunity to tell you about a remarkable man . . .
Eddy Kozak was born in 1925 in Chicago, growing up a couple of blocks away from Al Capone’s home. He came from a musical family, and he took his place in the family business at the tender age of six. He was a star on the Vaudeville stage, as Cadet Kozak, Wizard of the Xylophone.
At eight years old, he was a member of The Century of Progress World’s Fair 100 Marimba Band. He was a peer of guys like Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo and other great jazz mallet instrumentalists. And he was a regular on the WLS Barn Dance radio show, alongside Arthur Godfrey, Francis O’Connor, and Pat “Mr. Haney” Buttram.
Then the Pearl Harbor atack changed everything.
Durring the war, he served in the U.S. Navy, and although he’d trained to be a radio operator and was selected to pilot a Higgins Boat for the D-Day invasion, fate had other ideas. He was hand-picked by Commander Eddie Peabody to become the personal musician and soloists for Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, the commander of the Pacific Fleet.
During his service, he served on the U.S.S. Missouri, with a berth directly under the 21″ guns. As a result, in his final years, he suffered progressively more severe hearing loss. (There’s a lesson right there. ALWAYS wear hearing protection around guns.)
When he returned from the war, America was a vastly different place. Vaudeville was dead. The music business was changed forever. He put together a niteclub act, and toured the country, playing with Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Burl Ives. He toured North and South America with famed Latin bandleader Xavier Cugat.
As the influence of jazz and pop gave way to rock and roll, he saw the business changing again. So he relocated from the colder climes of Chicago to Shreveport, Louisiana, the city where he’d met his wife, Marjorie.
In Shreveport, he quickly built a reputation as “Mr. Music,” opening a music studio where he taught an estimated 20,000 students music over a 55+ year teaching career. Along the way, he authored a groundbreaking music theory book, obtained patents for several inventions, and became the musical director for not one, but two musical theaters in the area. He authored a number of religious musicals and penned countless arrangements for singers, soloists, and pageant contestants. He was a guest lecturer at Julliard, NTSU, and a number of other prominent music schools.
But aside from his contributions to the world of music and North Louisiana fine arts, he was also a family man, with a clear idea of his task as husband and father. It is because of him that I am both a musician and a marketing guy. Dinner conversations frequently revolved around discussions of commercial messages from an analytical point of view. “Why would having a washing machine that’s 10 feet tall be a good thing,” he’d ask, thus sending me down the road of thinking past slogans and getting to the heart of the matter.
My dad was a big believer in teaching me the skills I’d need to be a good husband and father. Woodworking, when you think about it, is kind of a weird hobby for a musician – lopping off a finger is a risk every time you pick up a power tool. But he felt it was important for guys to be able to ‘fix stuff around the house.’ In point of fact, he taught me not just how to fix things around the house, but to build and remodel them. He also gave me my early training regarding firearms.
He taught me to respect guns – not fear them. He taught me basic gun handling and safety. And he taught me that when it comes to self-defense, a gun is your last resort – not your first option.
Interestingly, although he served with the Navy, he was never issued a sidearm durring the war. That’s kind of ironic, as my early fascination regarding the 1911 semi-auto stems from thinking that it must have been the gun he carried in the war. As it turned out, he was fascinated with my 1911, the few times I was able to take him to the range in the final year of his life.
His years in the Navy left him with a love of boats and boating. I practically grew up on a succession of power boats, learning seamanship and navigation along the way. His personality was such that he never did anything halfway. When he discovered a love of shrimping (!), he studied and passed the test for a commercial skipper’s license and bought a shrimp boat. (Frankly, the attraction of shrimping escaped me, and does to this day. Love eating ’em. Hate catching ’em.)
When you strip away everything that is non-essential about a person, what’s left is the core of their being; their core beliefs. At the core of my father’s belief system was the idea that he had to excel at everything he did. He had a laser-like focus on anything he set out to do, coupled with an iron will.
Like many of his generation, he was a smoker. Unlike many, though, he threw himself into his habit to the point of wretched excess. He told me that at one time, he would go through a carton of cigarettes per week, a can of pipe tobacco per month, and a box of cigars per month, all at the same time. When his doctor discovered a pre-cancerous condition in his mouth, he quit. Cold turkey.
When he got into boating, he became a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, and the United States Power Squadron, becoming something of an expert on safe boating, navigation, and meteorology.
When he performed, he would accept nothing less than perfection from himself, and he held those around him to nearly as high an exacting standard. He instilled in me a desire to excel, and to be motivated more by striving for personal achievement than by external factors like fame or fortune. Not a bad lesson to learn, when you think about it.
If you measure a man’s worth by the number of lives he touches and influences positively, my father’s life was priceless. Like everyone, he had his faults, but his virtues far outweighed them. If there is anything good in me, you can look to my father as the one who nurtured, grew and directed it into something positive.
Musician, teacher, inventor, patriot, mentor, author, and father, Eddy Kozak was one-of-a-kind. A consumate professional in everything he did, he left his mark on virtually everyone he knew. I’ll miss him, of course. But I’m not alone. He’s left thousands of friends, students, and fellow professionals that will never forget him.