A Friend of God

|   By Thomas Hicks
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Msgr. John Sanders died January 6, 2019 (Feast of the Epiphany).

John Sanders was always known as the priest who played with the Duke Ellington Band. His relationship with Duke Ellington went much deeper than that.

Here are some words Duke Ellington wrote about John Sanders: “John Sanders was always, as a musician, as a man, as an ambassador, a major credit to our band, right from the beginning when he joined it in 1954. A valve trombonist, he played solos that were the nearest we ever had to Tizol’s originals. He was a brilliant musician and an irreplaceable aide when we were orchestraiting en masse with a devastating deadline at our heels. In addition, he was a gentleman in every sense of the word—in manners, ethics, and appearance. I love John Sanders and think that just about everyone else who knows him loves him for the great human being that he is. He is from a beautiful, gentle, educated family. His total intent is absolute, unadulterated good, and I tried but could not find a better or more fitting word that that—good.

Here are some words John Sanders wrote about Duke Ellington: “While Duke is one of the great creative people of our times, he is above also a very fine human being. You could tell by the way he treated the men in the band and his audiences that he lived the Gospel message. He never once was above anyone— everyone mattered to him, from celebrities to the average person who would ask for one more number beyond the time to quit. No one-night-stand ever was unimportant to Duke.”

After he left the band, Elkington and John remained in contact with frequent phone calls. John would play an occasional show or recording session with Duke.

John Sanders began his musical career in high school in Harlem, New York. After some time in the Navy, he studied at Julliard on the GI bill. He later played with Lucky Thomson’s orchestra, and occasionally with Mercer Ellington, Duke’s son. It was the younger Ellington who put John in touch with the Duke.

John Sanders once said about himself: “More than anyone, I thank God for allowing me to live such as blessed life: growing up with my wonderful family in New York, my Navy experience, Julliard, playing with Duke, and the priesthood.”

I am among the few people who actually saw John play in the Duke Ellington band. John occupied the middle chair in Ellington’s 3-man trombone section. It may be hard for many people to imagine this quiet, humble, bit shy man playing songs with names like “I Got it Bad and That Ain’t Good,” or “Don’t Mean a Thing if You Ani’t Got that Swing,” and other Ellington classics.

John Sanders and I were friends for more than 60 years. The Catholic spiritual writer, Garrigou-Lagrange, said that continuance of friendship for twenty years or more is a sign that the friendship had a divine origin. I believe that. John was the sweet friend of my youth who aged along with me. We passed down the same corridors of time together. He was the companion of my pilgrimage, a journey that would have been much bleaker without him. My friendship with John has been one of the enduring influences of my life; one of the most unfailingly helpful and delightful relationships of my life.

He was a loyal friend to me in joy and in sorrow. He never let me down. I was always cheered and comforted by his presence. Being with him was restorative. He was always a tower of strength and a place of refuge, the comprehending companion whom I count with some of the happiest hours of my life. I came to hold his wisdom in respect, and loved how he could dispense the joy of life; he could be a very funny man. He was probably the most guileless person I have ever known.

John could look with pride back over the years of his priesthood. So many people can recall how this gentle priest touched their lives, was their faithful priest and loyal friend. There’s a saying that goes: “Some people touch our lives and quickly go. Some leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never ever the same.” Like Duke Ellington said, John radiated goodness. I know no one else who did so as simply and unselfconsciously as he did. He was incapable of bearing a grudge. He seemed to keep getting gentler as he grew older.

The Book of Wisdom (7:27) states that “in every generation Wisdom passes into holy souls and makes them friends of God.” John Sanders was one of those friends. His whole life was a sermon.

As Duke Ellington pointed out, John came from “a beautiful, gentle, educated family.” I first met John in the 1960s in South Jamaica, Queens. Soon after I met his family. There was his incomparable mother. “Incomparable” is a feeble word for what that lady was. Every inch of her was charged with an energy; she was quick to laughter. There was a joy that came from the depths of her soul. She was filled with generous kindness

His father was an obliging, rare and wonderful man, a sweet, gentle friendly man.

And there were the five sisters, only two of them still with us. All of them were so generous and sweet-tempered, dispensing the joy of life; all of them so very tender in their humanity, women of uncommon perception, intuitive and kind. I never knew anyone who resembled sunshine more than those girls.

John lived to be 94. In his last years John fought the long fight, always filled with the steady virtues of loyalty and kindness.

I count it one of the great graces of my life that I befriended this man; there is gratitude for all that he brought into my life. And now he’s gone. I think of some words the poet Wordsworth wrote after he stopped to listen to a young reaper singing at work in a field. Wordsworth noted:
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.