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updated: 2/7/2014 7:59 AM

Longtime Walter Sundling Junior High band director dies

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  • Sam Malambri spent more than 30 years teaching jazz to teenagers who called him the "Pied Piper of Palatine."

      Sam Malambri spent more than 30 years teaching jazz to teenagers who called him the "Pied Piper of Palatine."
    Courtesy of the Malambri family

 
 

To his students, Sam Malambri was the "Pied Piper of Palatine."

The goofy band director turned Walter Sundling Junior High concerts on their head -- inviting parents onstage to take his baton.

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Malambri found ways to connect with teenagers. Tuning into MTV was never beneath the saxophonist who played with the biggest names in jazz.

Many of his students would become professionals and credit Malambri for their own love of music. But they learned something more.

"You can still get through just about anything with a smile," his son Dean Malambri said.

Malambri, who spent more than 30 years as the Palatine school's band director, developed a little-known neurological disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth. He lost his hearing, movement in his hands and his music.

Even through the pain, he still cracked jokes.

"He always wanted to make people happy," his daughter Julie Malambri said.

Malambri died Jan. 22 from kidney issues. He was 80.

Born in Chicago, he earned a music degree from DePaul University. Malambri's high school sweetheart noticed him picking the best songs off the jukebox at an ice-cream parlor. The couple would be married for nearly 60 years.

On weekends, he toured across the country performing alto sax for Frankie Masters and Jimmy Dorsey. Closer to home, his gigs landed him at the Empire Room in Chicago and the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis.

When entertainers like Bob Hope or Sonny and Cher came to town, they called Malambri, known for his warm, sweet sound.

"They would specifically ask for him to make sure he was in the band," his son Steve Malambri said.

His dedication to teaching went beyond the classroom. Malambri would offer free lessons to students in their homes.

His "off-the-wall" humor managed to put kids -- and the audience -- at ease, his son Dean Malambri said.

"Junior high band concerts are not the most entertaining thing in the world," the South Elgin piano teacher said. "But somehow he made it entertaining."

Malambri stepped down in the early 1990s, before his illness robbed him of the use of his hands. His retirement concert drew a packed crowd to the Palatine school, Julie Malambri said.

"He just touched so many kids' lives," she said.

A memorial will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Ahlgrim Family Funeral Home, 201 N. Northwest Highway, Palatine.

Instead of flowers, memorials can be made to the Charcot-Marie-Tooth Association, P.O. Box 105, Glenolden, PA, 19036.

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