Was raised in Harvey, Illinois. Studied initially with Frank Derrick Jr. on Saxophone and with Don Kramer on Clarinet. These two gentlemen were the main reason I became a musician. They were very supportive and helpful throughout my career. Without them I am not sure what would have happened to me.
Frank Derrick Jr. was director of our Jazz Band in Thornton High School. He was a well known free-lance musician in Chicago and had spent part of his career with Duke Ellington on lead alto, replacing Hilton Jefferson.The first time I heard him play, I was a freshman in high school at a rehearsal when our lead trumpet player, Gene Graddy, did not show up.There was a trumpet solo in the waltz section of a suite we played called “Jazz Kool.” Frank played the trumpet solo on alto; it was a turning point in my life. I was totally astonished, and the sound he got out of the saxophone made me breathless. I had to stop playing and just sit there with my mouth open. Even now, it still impresses me as the most unbeleivable musical experiece I have ever had. I had never heard anything like it. When we went on break, I walked over to where his saxohone was and compared it to mine…trying to see if all that beauty came out of a “trick” saxophone.
Don Kramer also was a great inspiration to me. He got me involved in different types of gigs around the city…including orchestra playing. And I have to say that Don made me see how much fun music could be — there was never a more enthusiastic person. No matter what kind of a situation we were involved with, it was always an enjoyable time. I still use the basic principles that he taught me. He stressed the importance of warming up every day, which I still do. Over the years, I would sometimes have a lesson over the phone when I was in some God-forsaken place on the road. He saved me on more than one occasion when a problem would creep up. He was also instrumental in getting me my first real road gig in the Russ Carlyle Band.
Playing in Russ Carlyle’s Band was a trip to music’s past. It was a small big band: Trumpet, Lead Alto, 2 Tenors, Bari, Piano, Drums and Bass. Russ and Patty Clayton sang. We barnstormed around the country doing one-nighters in a van playing mostly in the Midwest in long forgotten ball rooms. The music was soft and sweet. Some of the people that came to see us (and the places we played) gave me the impression that the 1930’s had never really left. The great thing about this gig was the ten weeks we played in Las Vegas at the Dunes Hotel, replacing the Russ Morgan Orchestra. Things were really great in Las Vegas at that time. First of all it had a Musician’s Union that was open 24 hours a day, and it even had a bar in the main rehearsal hall! After our gig was over (3:00AM), we would generally get a bite to eat and head over to the union hall to see what was happening. There were fantastic bands of all types rehearsing all night — nearly every night. I stayed with Russ for 2 years and then became bound for New York City.
I had always wanted to live in New York City. As a teenager I had seen the movies “Barefoot in the Park” and “Bell, Book, and Candle” and they had left an impression about New York (to me) that I found irresistable. As I got older and read about the history of jazz (the Swing Era, Charlie Parker, Lennie Tristano, ect.) I really got hopped up about the idea of actualy being there. I saw my chance when my roommate, Bob Semrad, mentioned to me that he had thought about it. I said to him, “What’s stopping us?” and before I knew it we gave our notice to Russ and we were on a plane heading east. Talk about excitement!!! We got off the plane at La Guardia with all of our worldly possesions (horns and clothes), hopped in a cab and said “Take us to Mid-Town.” The cabbie dropped us on the corner of 51st and 2nd Ave.. Bob and I looked at each other and a thought came to our minds…”Where do we go now?” Luckily we found the Pickwick Arms Hotel. We checked in and that became our home base.
The Picwick Arms was one of those really old New York Hotels, the kind that have the super-small rooms and the bathroom is down the hall…perfect for the Beatnick Musician that I was trying to become. You could hang out on the rooftop where there were lawn chairs and a small garden, I WAS IN HEAVEN!!!Unfortunately I was not good at managing money. After several weeks of eating out, going to clubs to hear music and just general partying, my money was running out. When I got down to about $100 I decided to look for a job, I had no luck in finding one. I made a decision to go back to Chicago. Strolled to Grand Central Station to see how much a train ticket cost ($45), got back to the hotel and I swear this happened; my roommate Bob was on the phone telling this guy that he did not want to go on the road again. I asked him who it was and he said “Ringling Brother’s Circus.” I asked him to let me speak to him. To make a long story short I told him I needed a gig and the rest is history.
I had never considered working for a circus but I really needed a gig. On the train to Philadelphia, where my audition was to take place, all I could think about was what it was going to be like to play marches all day every day. Other than that I didn’t have a clue about anything. I got to Philly and checked into the hotel and waited. At around 2:00AM there was a knock on the door, it was the guy that I had spoken to on the phone, Keith Greene, the music director of the Circus. He was about my age…for some reason I thought musicians in the circus were all old. We went out to eat and all the while he was telling me about his life on the circus. He told me that I would love it: Lots of girls, parties, camping trips, the train, the music was only part of the story, the real perk was “Life on the Circus.” I only half listened because I didn’t believe any of it. I told him flat out that I would only do the Philadelphia date and then head back to NYC. He agreed but told me that I might have a change of heart.
The next morning I went to the Spectrum to play the rehearsal. Keith introduced me to all the traveling members (there were 5). I learned that at each town we played in there were 10 local musicians hired, which meant that there was basically a new band in each town. When I got to the bandstand the first thing I noticed was the size of the book, about three inches thick, a ton of music for one show. The rehearsal went well, but there is no rehearsal like a Keith Greene rehearsal…FAST!!!. There was 2 hours 59 minutes and 30 seconds of music but the rehearsal lasted only about 30 minutes,alot of that was talking, not playing. I knew I was going to have to hang on for dear life during the show.
After rehearsal we went out to eat and I got to talk to the other traveling members in the band. They impressed me as being truly fun loving, nice guys. They welcomed me with open arms.
I ended up leaving the diner early so I could find the dressing room and check things out, it was about an hour before showtime. As I walked thru the hallways in the arena I got the impression that I was in a Fellini Film…but this was real life!!! Clowns in makeup, showgirls in feathers, people talking in all sort’s of different languages and guys with no necks wearing spandex! I was wondering how I would ever fit in to this.
To be continued…
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