Whether he was conducting the session with his saxophone or a tennis racquet, Percy Hughes was a gentle, knowledgeable leader.
Saxophonist Dave Karr recalls when he landed in Hughes’ 13-piece band at the Flame nightclub in Minneapolis in 1954, fresh out of the Korean War, and he played a wrong note during a performance of George Gershwin’s “ ’S Wonderful.”
“He knew all about harmonies, and he said: ‘You should maybe use this chord,’ ” Karr recalled. “He had the approach to be a mentor.”
Hughes, a figure on the Twin Cities jazz scene since the 1940s and a much-awarded tennis instructor of seniors, died Dec. 30 of natural causes. He was 93.
“His first love was music,” said his son, Percy Hughes III of Maplewood. “Then tennis. And he loved fishing. We went to Lake Mille Lacs so much that he would call it Percy Mille Lacs.”
At age 11, Percy got a clarinet. Three years later, he started saxophone lessons. A family friend introduced him to tennis when Hughes was a student at Minneapolis Central High School.
While in the Army in Kansas in the mid-1940s, Hughes played infield on the regiment baseball team against pros from the Negro leagues, including Satchel Paige and Jackie Robinson. But he turned down a chance to pursue baseball because of racism he’d experienced in the South.
The military afforded him a chance to play in a jazz band with musicians who’d worked with Duke Ellington and Count Basie. When Hughes returned home in 1946, he formed his first jazz ensemble in the Twin Cities and studied at the Minneapolis College of Music.
Hughes led a group at the Flame for six years, then at the Point Supper Club in Golden Valley for 17 years and next at the Ambassador Motor Lodge for a decade. In the 1980s, he joined Echoes of Ellington, a Twin Cities combo featuring the jazz great’s music.
“He had a sweet, warm sax sound, a very classic style,” said Lowell Pickett, proprietor of the Dakota Jazz Club.
But Hughes couldn’t support his family as a musician, so he also worked as a mail carrier for 27 years, starting in 1955.
In 1960, he discovered there was no tennis program for employees, so he started a tennis league and took lessons. A few years later, he became a volunteer and eventually a certified instructor for the Senior Tennis Players Club and for the InnerCity Tennis program.
“He called me his mentor, but he was my mentor,” said Roger Boyer, former executive director of InnerCity Tennis. “I taught him about tennis, and he taught me about handling people.”
Marcia Bach, former executive director of the U.S. Tennis Association/Northern, had known Hughes since she was a child when he delivered mail to her family’s south Minneapolis home. “My mom and dad used to go dancing to his group,” Bach said. “He was so genuine and kind. He played [saxophone] to walk my daughter down the aisle at her wedding 11 or 12 years ago. She was so touched that he would take the time to learn the song and he wouldn’t let me pay him.”
Hughes received awards for his work in tennis and was inducted into two Minnesota music halls of fame. He recorded a couple of albums, including “I Remember Judy,” dedicated to his late wife, singer Judy Perkins, who died of cancer in 1975. He was the subject of a 2011 book, “Sports and All That Jazz: The Percy Hughes Story” (which included a music CD) by Twin Cities writer Jim Swanson.
Even though he had hip replacements, Hughes continued to play tennis and music until about three years ago, his son said.
Hughes is survived by his third wife, Dolores, of Richfield; five children, 21 grandchildren and 30 great grandchildren.
Services will be held at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the Cremation Society of Minnesota in Edina.