Thursday, July 7, 2016

Happy Birthday, Doc and Gus

Stepping back from writing today to celebrate a couple of birthdays of people who have influenced my life in various ways, though I can’t say I really know either of them. One I never met.

Doc Severinsen was born 89 years ago today in Arlington, Oregon. I’ll not waste your time
filling you in on his details. As bandleader of the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, he’s probably the best-known and certainly the most easily recognizable trumpet player since Louis Armstrong. When I was in grad school and freshly married to The Sole Heir’s mother, business associates of hers would sometimes ask me if Doc—the only trumpet player they knew off the tops of their heads—was as good as people said, or was that all Hollywood hype. I had a standard answer: “No matter how good you think he is, he’s better.”

A good guy, too. For several years I played first trumpet in the McLean Orchestra, led at the time by Colonel (retired) Arnald Gabriel, for years the legendary conductor of the Air Force Band in Washington. Doc and the Colonel were friends, so when the Colonel asked Doc to headline a concert for us as a way to balance the orchestra’s budget, Doc was happy to oblige.

There was a catch: Carson’s (and Doc’s) tenure on the Tonight Show was nearing an end. NBC didn’t want him to take any more Fridays off for weekend gigs, as had been his custom. So Doc, in his middle 60s at the time, taped the Tonight Show early Friday evening and caught the red eye to Dulles Airport to make a 10:00 Eastern Time rehearsal with a local amateur orchestra. Took a nap and a shower at the Colonel’s house and came back and nailed the concert that night. It was a privilege to play behind him.

After the gig was almost a lot of fun, too. Some rich McLean swell volunteered his house mansion for a reception. Eager to show what a patron of the arts he was, he allowed the orchestra to attend without making us serve drinks or bus tables. Doc made every effort to hang with the trumpet section and a couple of abortive conversations began only to be struck down when yet another suit grabbed Doc for a picture with a kid who sat next to another kid who played trumpet in his sixth-grade band. The kid had no interest and couldn’t have spelled “trumpet” if you spotted him both Ts and the vowels, but Doc knew the suit was a potential benefactor to the Colonel’s orchestra and came through every time.

Best wishes and happy birthday, Doc. I hope you have many more. It was a highlight of my life to play behind you and your work has given me more pleasure than I can recite. You’ve been an inspiration to trumpet players everywhere, even after they hung up their mouthpieces.

*  *  *

Sixty-seven years to the day before Doc made his first appearance in Arlington, Gustav
Mahler was born in Kaliště in what is now the Czech Republic. I’ve read quite a bit about Mahler and have no reason to believe he would have been other than a prick most of the time, one of those whose idea of his art trumped all other personal concerns. To be fair, he did inspire great loyalty and affection is those he took a liking to, such as Bruno Walter and Arnold Schoenberg, and he did marry one of the most remarkable women of his time. (Alma Maria Schindler, who lived until 1964 and, after Mahler’s death in 1911, married architect Walter Gropius, novelist Franz Werfel, and was the consort of several other prominent men.)

To say Mahler was a bit of a prick is not to say he was anything like the bastard Richard Wagner was. (Wagner may well have been the most detestable person ever to walk the earth. I’d rather spend a month cleaning Donald Trump’s bathroom than ten minutes doing anything with Wagner.) He was also the greatest conductor of his time and among the first trans-Atlantic musical phenomena, accepting positions with the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic near the end of his life.

Mahler was primarily renowned as a conductor in his time, his symphonies noted primarily for their length. I know of no recordings of Mahler as conductor, so no one alive today can speak to its brilliance first hand. His orchestral music, especially the symphonies, became more prominent after his death, especially in the 1960s thanks to the efforts of Leopold  Stokowski, Dimitri Mitropoulos, John Barbirolli, Aaron Copland, and, most famously, Leonard Bernstein.

Mahler’s music is not for everyone, but I find it an almost constant comfort when I need to
excuse myself from the world as I find it. Bits of the Second, Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Symphonies are not uncommon earworms, and I sometimes enjoy listening while reading over the trumpet parts. Mahler was 45 years dead when I was born but I’m happy to be able to play Four Degrees of Separation with him: Me to Charlie Schlueter (retired principal trumpet of the Boston Symphony and my teacher at New England Conservatory) to William Vacchiano (former principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic and Charlie’s teacher at Juilliard) to Bruno Walter (whom Vacchiano played for in several NYPO recordings of Mahler symphonies) to Mahler (to whom Walter was a trusted assistant and friend).

Happy birthday, gentlemen. In your unique ways you have both made my world a better place.


Scott D. Parker said...

Growing up, Doc was the only famous instrumentalist that I knew because he was on TV so often. I'm a sax player and love big band music and Doc and the Tonight Show Orchestra was the last vestige of that wonderful musical group. Their Christmas CD is still standard fare around here. And, when Carson left and Leno brought in Branford Marsalis, I was happy that a jazz band was still on the Tonight Show, but sad that it wasn't a big band. I still love big band and Doc's band remains my modern favorite.

Dana King said...

I discovered big bands in high school when I started playing in our jazz band in 10th grade. That spring Stan Kenton brought his band to my high school for clinics and a concert and I was hooked. I'd travel 50 miles or more to see Kenton, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie and Woody Herman. I even got to see the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra once, and they rarely toured. My one regret of those times was not getting to see Don Ellis and his band. Maynard had a nine-piece group on the road until he died about ten years ago.

I periodically check out the bands on You Tube and mentioned to my wife last week that, even though I'm not one of those aging men who waxes nostalgic about the good old days, I do miss being able to go to a concert hall, club, or high school and listen to Buddy, Maynard, or Stan's bands tear it up. I love that shit.