Arlen Asher was a multi-instrument maestro who played clarinet, saxophone and flute.
A legend among New Mexico jazz musicians and aficionados, he educated thousands of children over a 42-year teaching career and co-hosted a popular weekly radio show on KSFR-FM, The Jazz Experience, for a decade.
Asher died Friday at 91 from complications from a stroke.
“Arlen was an incredible force in the jazz world,” said John Trentacosta, Asher’s Jazz Experience co-host from 2010 to 2020. “He was a super-sweet guy who didn’t like the spotlight, but he had an incredible strength about him. When he got up to speak or play, the force came out. He was content to be here in this small music community, but he could have been in any big city, in terms of talent.
“He upped the bar for everybody else.”
Milton Arlen Asher, who eventually learned to play nine woodwind instruments, was born in 1929 in a small farming community in Missouri. He started playing music professionally in nightclubs at age 11, and was enamored of Jazz clarinetists Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.
Asher and his family moved to Albuquerque in 1958 so he could take a job with KNME-TV, but he changed careers in 1965 and opened a private teaching studio.
Before his retirement in 2007, Asher led workshops at the University of Missouri and the Hummingbird Music Camp in Jemez Springs, and contributed to National Dance Institute of New Mexico programs.
Among his educational accomplishments was breaking the gender barrier for young jazz musicians.
“When I first taught privately, the thought of a high school girl playing jazz was like, no way,” he told The New Mexican in 2017. “So one of the first things I did was to start teaching girls jazz, I mean from the fourth grade and up. We wound up sometimes with the entire saxophone section all girls in the middle schools, junior highs, and high schools that I had any contacts with, and I was delighted.”
In 1960, Asher played in a quartet that opened for Duke Ellington at the Albuquerque Civic Auditorium.
He formed the Arlen Asher Quintet in the early 1960s with accordionist Hank Chinisci and a few years later founded the Arlen Asher-Bob Brown Quartet with guitarist Bob Brown, which in the 1970s hosted Clark Terry and Gary Burton as guest soloists.
He recorded three albums — Music Is for Sharing (1979), Another Spring (2002) and Lovesome Jazz Woodwinds (2017) — and played on the albums of many musicians. From the 1993 until about 2019, when he was no longer able to play regularly, Asher was a member of Trentacosta’s band, Straight Up.
In 2008, Asher received the Santa Fe Mayor’s Recognition Award for Excellence in the Arts, and in 2017 he was honored at the inaugural Platinum Music Awards, an initiative of the New Mexico Music Commission Foundation.
Asher’s son, Kelly Asher, said his father was kind and compassionate both in his public life and private life.
“Although he was a superb musician who had many professional opportunities, he put his family first, and he was always sure to tell us how much he loved us,” Kelly Asher said. “He had a unique talent for spreading the love of music and he was a gentle and effective teacher. We will miss his sense of humor and his firm support of women’s rights and social justice.”
The elder Asher was preceded in death by Joetha Jean Callison Asher, his wife of almost 60 years, in 2010, and by his son, Terry Asher, in 2016. He is survived by Kelly Asher, daughter-in-law Donna Asher, and granddaughters Melissa (Maxwell Mianecki) and Kathleen Asher.
In lieu of flowers, his son said, Asher would have wanted people to register and vote.