John Allen Sergenian passed away in Los Angeles at 6:10 p.m. on January 13, 2021, of natural causes (he did not have COVID). He went peacefully, surrounded by family, listening to a selection of some of his favorite jazz and classical music recordings. He was 82 years old.
John Sergenian was born on June 27, 1938, in New York City, to Fred S. Sergenian and Marjorie V. Sergenian. Fred was an Armenian immigrant who had arrived in Ellis Island as an infant. Immigration records show that the family of six had two dollars to their name. Fred was a talented painter who had a career in advertising, eventually becoming the head of the art department at Young & Rubicam. (He designed the packaging for Pond’s cold cream, All detergent, and Kent cigarettes, among many other products.) John’s mother Marjorie had grown up in the Dakota Apartments in Manhattan and traced her roots to the Mayflower. John and his beloved younger sister Susan were raised in the village of Briarcliff Manor, New York, some 20 miles north of New York City.
John was brought up in a household infused with ideas, politics, and culture. His parents were known as brilliant conversationalists, a trait he inherited, and they were smart, sociable, hilarious raconteurs, family traits that he also inherited. John and his childhood friend, Brice Marden (who was mentored by Fred and would later become a well-known painter), were known as raucous troublemakers. John became a football star in high school. During his teenage years in the 1950s, he went through a “greaser” phase, although he later claimed to his children that this was untrue. Despite this, he had a gentle, sensitive, and shy personality. In his teens he got a tattoo on his shoulder: SOY, which was a nickname his friends had given him because he was as tender as a soybean. He had many interests but the focal point of his young life—and what became his lifelong obsession—was jazz music.
John’s mother was a lover of music, his father was a talented amateur musician, and he and his sister Susan were both extremely gifted musicians. Eschewing rock and roll, John became obsessed with jazz music, which was then in its heyday, and he took up the saxophone in his early teens. He would reminisce about traveling to New York City as a teenager, going to 52nd Street, and hopping from one jazz club to the next, listening to the greatest jazz musicians in the world.
He enrolled in Boston University in 1956, where he met his future first wife, Gail Kaplow. While in college, he joined the Jaki Byard Big Band. Byard was a mentor, friend, and lifelong hero of John’s. Byard was a Massachusetts native who had played in Herb Pomeroy’s band as a saxophonist, and would later play piano and record with Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Roland Kirk, Art Blakey, and others, and as a leader. John landed the first tenor saxophone chair in Jaki’s band, meaning he took the majority of the sax solos. He made several lifelong friends during his stint with Jaki’s band.
He briefly contemplated making a career out of music but opted instead to become a social studies teacher. He and his fiancée Gail, who had also received a degree in education, settled for while in Massachusetts, where John taught middle school social studies. He received a master’s degree in Education from New York University. He and his young family (his wife Gail, daughter Dana and son David) briefly lived in Yonkers, New York, then Elmsford, New York, and then back in his hometown of Briarcliff Manor where he would live for most of the next three decades. He taught social studies at Dobbs Ferry Middle School in Dobbs Ferry, New York, before becoming a seventh-grade social studies teacher at Byram Hills Middle School, in Armonk, New York. He taught social studies for close to 35 years.
As in all things, he left his indelible stamp on teaching, which he approached creatively. Instead of sticking to the standard social studies, he used his background in anthropology to add another dimension to his class. He would take his students on archeological digs. He was always passionate and earnest about current events, and he tried to instill his values in his students. Unabashedly leftist, this did not always sit well with his students, or their parents, but he believed that part of his job was to teach critical thinking to his students and challenge their assumptions.
One of his defining characteristics was his sometimes-offbeat sense of humor. He loved laughing with friends and family. He took delight in humor about the absurdity of life and in observing people’s foibles, including, if not especially, his own. In one story about his teaching days, which he told with a smile, he had been fed up with other teachers smoking in the teacher’s lounge while he was trying to eat. He tried to get the school principal to change the smoking policy but failed. Undeterred, he made a trip to the local tobacco store where he bought the strongest, most disgusting cigar he could find. The next day, while other teachers were eating, he took out the cigar, lit it, and smoked it down to the end. (He later became violently ill.) None of the other teachers seemed to notice.
In the 1970s, he pursued a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology at the New School for Social Research, where he thrived. His aunt was an expatriate living in the expatriate community in a small fishing village near Guadalajara, Mexico, called Ajijic. He took a sabbatical from teaching to perform anthropological field work in Mexico, moving the family to Ajijic for what was supposed to be five months, but ended up being close to a year. They rented a house that had just been vacated by a hippie commune. The hippies left behind a laidback collie mix who almost certainly had inhaled second-hand fumes of some sort on a daily basis. The Sergenians renamed her “Cinco” and took her back to Briarcliff at the end of the sabbatical.
His first marriage ended in divorce. He married a second time, to Diane Johnson. His second son, Marc, was born in 1986. His second marriage later ended in divorce as well. Although John had chosen to pursue a career teaching social studies, he never stopped playing music. Throughout his life he played in countless jazz groups, including big bands and small combos. In the 1980s he began playing regularly as a semi-professional musician on the weekends and at night. Music was his passion. He was deeply serious about it, spending hours listening to music, reading about music, and hearing live music. At one point, he took lessons from saxophonist Frank Foster, and others, to deepen his mastery of the saxophone. He was widely respected and admired by other musicians. He cherished his friendships with his fellow musicians and reveled in his time playing and socializing with his musician friends.
He also began providing private music lessons in the 1980s, which he continued doing until his early 80s. He loved mentoring young musicians. He took a unique approach to teaching, and he spent hours researching pedagogical methods and finding new ways to connect with and inspire his students. He was always excited and proud when one of his gifted students was accepted to an All-County or All-State orchestra, band, or jazz band. Some of his students went on to careers in music. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, after he retired from teaching social studies, he opened up a music school and yoga studio in Briarcliff Manor. Although it was short-lived, he was passionate about providing first-class musical instruction, and he insisted on paying his teachers generously.
In addition to the family he leaves behind, and his music, one of his biggest legacies will be the many endearing friendships he struck up throughout all stages of his life. Although he was often shy and retiring, he could be gregarious and would strike up friendships in random places. Not surprisingly, he had made quick friends of the doctors who cared for him in his last days, and they talked sincerely about how much they liked him and how he had a great sense of humor to the end. He was highly intelligent, well-read, and loved to talk about philosophy, history, anthropology, and politics, among many other topics. He had an offbeat charm and a big heart. He was deeply passionate about his interests and core values. Above all, he believed that all people should be treated with dignity. The highest compliment he could pay someone was that he or she was a “really decent person.”
In 2019, John moved from Westchester County, New York to Los Angeles, where he stayed with his son David’s family until his passing. He remained incredibly informed and passionate about current events. He was constantly expanding his horizons, ordering new books from Amazon on a weekly basis. And of course, he never stopped playing music. Although he was unable to play saxophone in his last years due to dental issues, he continued to play his flute every day, effortlessly creating lovely, masterful jazz improvisations, mini masterpieces.
John is survived by his daughter Dana Sergenian-Hingtgen, her husband D.J. Hingtgen, and their children Pierce and Hayleigh; his son David Sergenian, his wife Sunyoung Kim, and their children Julia and Davis; his son Marc Sergenian; and his sister Susan Werner, her husband Keefe, and their children Elizabeth and Jessica.
Due to the pandemic, a memorial service will be postponed until it is safe to congregate. In lieu of flowers, or if you would like to remember John by making a donation to a charitable cause in his name, please consider Save the Children. https://www.savethechildren.org/us/ways-to-help/ways-to-give/donate-childrens-charity
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