Monday, April 7, 2014


The Chameleon...

I started on piano as a kid, but for some reason it never held the allure for me that it did for others. Evidently my parents had made my sister practice piano (and she became quite an accomplished pianist and teacher), so maybe that's why they didn't have the patience or wherewithal to force me to spend hours of servitude.

But when the trombone came along, the magic hit. I started playing in fifth grade, and by sixth grade had gotten a superior rating at Solo and Ensemble competition. And the game was on. I don't recall being much interested in anything else but music, at least for very long, but I played, and sang in church, glee club, barbershop chorus, and even started my own barbershop quartet. When I asked my high school band director about starting a dance band, because nearby Harriman High School had one, he said he wasn't interested but pointed me toward a file cabinet in his office that had dance band music in it, and said I could start one myself. So I did.

I recruited three trumpeters and another bone player, three saxes and a rhythm section (Alvin Grisham on piano and Doug Henry on drums--there was no bass, and no one to play it if there had been one). The school had no dance-type drum kit, so Doug jury rigged one from what was available in the band room. We rehearsed, and before long had some gigs.

But I digress. My coat started adding many colors when I decided to play clarinet in summer band. I don't remember how that went, but the following summer I played sousaphone (the school had no upright or concert tubas). Then I started at Tennessee Tech as a music education/ trombone major, and somehow one of the other trombone players, Charlie Kirkpatrick, found out I played tuba and asked if I would play in the Dixieland band he was forming. And I was off and running, listening to Dukes Of Dixieland recordings and learning tunes and how to play bass lines. And that first year we won first place in the spring talent show!

Dr. W. J. Julian, the very popular band director at Tech, had left for greener pastures at the University of Tennessee, and most of the upperclassmen followed him. So we 23 music majors endured a disjunct department with an interim Chairperson whom we adored, but who had a commitment for the following year and couldn't stay on. My sophomore year saw the arrival of Dr. James Albert Wattenbarger, a Tech alumnus and graduate of Northwestern University. He had the unenviable task of rebuilding the broken department, and set about doing so by emphasizing performance. He began hiring accomplished players for the vacant faculty positions, including Patrick McGuffey on trumpet. Pat had been in the Army Band and Louisville Symphony and brought a high level of expertise to the department.

Shortly after the beginning of the school year, Mr. McGuffey approached me by my locker and said, and I quote (even after all these many years), "I hear you're the trombone player." And he proceeded to ask me if I was interested in playing trombone in the "faculty" brass quintet he was forming (there were only two brass players on the faculty at the time, Pat and the horn instructor). He planned to augment the group with student instrumentalists. Of course I quickly agreed. Then he asked whom I would recommend for the tuba chair, and after I quickly ran down the list of available players in my mind, I responded, "Well, me," honestly believing I would be the best choice. He said, well then who would you recommend for trombone? I suggested my pal and classmate, Horton Monroe. Kelly Bussell was the best "legit" student trumpeter, and we had our quintet.

The school owned a few tubas, old King recording tubas with front-facing bells, not exactly top pro quality, but miraculously a Mirafone CC and a DuPrins/Walter Sear CC appeared, and they were mine for the duration! Four years of playing with a premier group, rehearsing three days a week and playing for MENC conventions and more, and even a TV series for the Nashville PBS affiliate on the history of brass instruments. When I was ready to graduate, I was prepared to take a local junior high band director job and keep playing with the quintet, but instead I got drafted, joined the USAF band program and went back to being primarily a trombone player. Dr. Wattenbarger hired Winston Morris for tuba faculty, and he has proceeded to create a tuba dynasty at a Tech, with his tuba ensemble having seven Carnegie Hall performances under their belts!

But back to diversity: besides tuba in the quintet, I played tuba or principal trombone in the symphony, depending on which was needed; first trombone in the concert band and jazz "Troubadours;" euphonium in the symphonic wind ensemble, and even drums with a "pop" vocal group.

I have, along the way, delved into strange arenas: E flat cornet, E flat alto flugelhorn, E flat helicon bass, marching trombone and G contrabass bugle with Clare Fischer. E flat valve trombone with the California Gold Rush Band. E flat Alto horn on the soundtrack to the movie Glory. Marching baritone with the Disneyland Band. Alto trombone on the Mozart Requiem. And even trumpet once on a Power Rangers cartoon episode (along with tenor & bass trombone & tuba).

With my partner, Steve, and two friends,
alto valve trombone
Opening Day at Dodger Stadium,
with my E flat helicon

I continue, some fifty-odd years after my little experiments began, to wear many hats. This year alone (2014) I've played first trombone with the Glendale Pops Orchestra, 2nd with the San Fernando Valley Symphony, bass trombone with the New Valley Symphony, and tuba with the Thousand Oaks Philharmonic. I've recorded Dixieland trombone for the Disney Company, played euphonium with the Royal Hawaiian Band (America's only full-time municipal band), and I regularly play bass trombone or tuba (or tenor trombone) with the orchestra or brass ensemble at Grace Community Church. I played polka band tuba for a convention in Las Vegas, several Dixie gigs on helicon tuba with the Angel City Dixieland Band, trombone with the Smithsonian Masterworks Jazz Orchestra and a high school production of Cabaret, and bass trombone on American Idol backing Harry Connick, Jr. I've played lead trombone with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra for 19 years, and at age 95, he's still going. Amid all that chaos, I found time to play with various big bands and small groups, and try to keep up with the few "rehearsal" ensembles I play in, and find time to practice in between. And in the interest of further diversity, I've applied for instructor certification training in Body Mapping, a system for musicians based on the Alexander Technique. I'll travel to Flagstaff, Arizona later this month for training.

Besides nurturing my sanity, all this diversity has kept me working, in a time when many musicians are complaining about business being very slow. I guess I always wanted to do it all, rather than stick with one instrument and wish I could have some of the fun I saw others having. I’m not setting the world on fire, but those seeds I planted so long ago have definitely born fruit, of many varieties and colors. And it's still fun and challenging. Winnie the Pooh asked Piglet, "What day is it?" "It's today," squeaked Piglet. "My favorite day," said Pooh.