One unfortunate phrase that is too often uttered when referring to older jazz musicians who come to town for a concert is “You better go see them now, because you never know if you will have the chance to see them again.”
While legendary trumpeter and bandleader Doc Severinsen is 83 years old, I find that phrase hardly applicable after seeing him in concert at the Kirkland Performance Center on October 16th.
Not only are Doc’s chops still in good shape, but the rest of him seems to be just as strong.
After retiring to Mexico, Doc heard guitarist Gil Gutierrez and violinist Pedro Cartas, who head up the band El Ritmo De La Vida, and immediately knew who he would be spending the next few years with touring and recording.
For those who associate Severinsen with big bands, this setting would surprise you. The show featured a quintet with a repertoire of everything from gypsy jazz, music with a heavy influence from Spain and South America, and jazz standards.
Many of the arrangements were done by Gutierrez, who is a world class guitarist, and were absolutely beautiful. The incorporation of the trumpet into these tunes was seamless, not only because of the arrangements, but because of Severinsen’s ability to adapt to the feeling and mood of each song.
There are some things about Doc that haven’t changed. On stage he remains incredibly witty and mobile, hopping up out of his stool and constantly cracking jokes. His wardrobe hasn’t slowed down either. In the first set he showed off a wildly printed collared shirt with purple pants and black and white striped socks. The second set boasted a pink blazer with black lace, and pink leather pants, which he stated that “every woman in the audience would die to own a pair.”
His range on the trumpet, as well as the speed of his fingers were still impressive, but what was truly mind-blowing was how great his tone still was. Severinsen boasted long, full lines with pitch that didn’t waiver in the high register.
I didn’t walk away from the concert worried that it would be the last time I would see Doc. He presents the attitude that he doesn’t feel like aging, and his body seemed to accept that.
Even if he does retire again sometime soon, he jokingly invited the whole audience to visit him in Mexico, where and the band would play host. Something tells me that I, at 31 years old, might have a tough time keeping up with him down there.
SEATTLE, WA (KPLU) – Grammy Award winning trumpeter Doc Severinsen comes to the Pacific Northwest for a concert next weekend. Probably best known as the flashy dressed bandleader for Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” Orchestra, Severinsen had a career that spanned sixty-five years, and is back on the road after a very brief retirement. KPLU’s Kevin Kniestedt caught up with the eighty-three year old musician while on tour. Kevin: For 25 years, Doc Severinsen was the best known trumpet player in America, as his band played the theme song that brought Johnny Carson out on stage to begin The Tonight Show. But Doc’s career began long before he was on television. In fact he still remembers his first paid music job.
Doc: It was during the depression the Great Depression. I played at the Blaylock Grange Hall out in the middle of a bunch of wheat fields. They had what they called then a Hard Times Dance. I got fifty cents for it, and I thought to myself, “wow”.
Kevin: Severinsen never looked back, touring with some of the best bandleaders ever, including Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Barnet.
Doc: It was sort of like being in a rock band sort of is today. You know, you go to a ballroom or a concert hall, and they were always jam packed. They knew everybody in the band, they knew every song we were going to play. It was like riding a huge wave. It was wonderful.
Kevin: In the early fifties, Doc decided it was time to settle down.
Doc: I had a wife and a daughter. It was time to get off the road, and I had a life long love affair with New York. So I settled there, and pretty soon through some things that occurred, I got some notice, and was hired to work at NBC as a staff musician.
Kevin: That staff musician job led to being hired as a trumpet player for the Tonight Show band when Steve Allen was hosting the show. Jack Parr became the host after Steve Allen left, and the NBC decided to hire a new host by the name of Johnny Carson.
Doc: After about a year, the producer of the show came to me (he also produced Johnny’s road shows) and he said “You know, Johnny wants you to come in and take over the band on the show. He’s not happy with the way things are going, and he’d like you to come in and try it and just see how it goes”. I said “Absolutely.” And it was the single biggest break of my life.
Kevin: Doc offered more than leading the band. He would fill in as an announcer when Ed McMahon was off, and he and Johnny Carson would often take part in some quick-witted banter:
Johnny: Get that Mickey Mouse outfit together and have them sit down. What are you going to do tonight, doctor?
Doc: Well we are going to stand around and wait for you to decide whether we are a band or an orchestra.
Johnny: What would you prefer to be called?
Kevin: Severinsen was also known for his loud wardrobe.
Doc: My first night on the show, I thought “Wow. What am I going to wear?” So I was walking down a street in New York, and passed a place that sold ties. And they had some really wild ties. And (I) wore one on the show that night. And I come out, and it was like throwing raw meat to a lion. He just went right for it. And I would come out every night in something that was pretty far out. And after I had been on the show for a lot of years, one night I just said “Aw, the heck with it. I am just going to wear a blue suit tonight.” Well, I gave a cutoff to the band, and went up to my dressing room, and there was an immediate message from Johnny: “What in the hell was wrong with your outfit tonight?” And it never happened again.
Kevin: When Johnny Carson retired from the Tonight Show, Severinsen left NBC as well. He took a good portion of the Tonight Show Band on the road, recorded a few albums, was a guest conductor for a few symphony orchestras, and then headed to Mexico to retire or so he thought.
Doc: I had been told by a next door neighbor “You’ve got to go hear these guys play at the so-and-so restaurant.
Kevin: “These guys” were guitarist Gil Gutierrez and violinist Pedro Cartas, who make up the band El Ritmo de la Vida, or “the rhythm of life”.
Doc: I think I dropped my cutlery and looked up and thought “Holy Cow! These guys are great. They’re not just good, these are world class musicians.”
Doc: So I made some calls to the states to see if we could get some dates up here for them. And they said “Yeah, but you’ve got to play with them too.” That hadn’t really occurred to me. So after a couple of months of trying to integrate the trumpet in with the guitar and violin, it worked.
Doc: Somebody asked us what kind of music we called it. I said “I don’t know.” They said “Well it sounds like world music.” I said “Good, then it’s world music”.
Doc Severinsen and El Ritmo de la Vida perform Saturday, October 16th at the Kirkland Performance Center at 8 PM.
Trumpeter and bandleader Doc Severinsen recently celebrated his 83rd birthday. After an extremely brief retirement following the end of Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, Doc can be found back on the road again teaming up with the group El Ritmo De La Vida. At 83, his chops are still in great shape, and his wardrobe is still flashy.
Here is a video originally from a program called The Subject is Jazz from 1958, where we see Doc in a rare setting outside of a big band.
Well it all comes down to this. The musicians are in place. All that they wait for now is some direction.
If you haven’t read any of the previous “Dream Big Band” blogs, let me fill you in. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve pieced together my own personal dream big band, section by section. Five trumpets, four trombones, five saxes, guitar, bass, piano, drums, male vocalist, and female vocalist. The only criteria for musicians to make this band is that I personally would want to see these people up on stage, all together, at one time. Alive or dead, it doesn’t matter.
LET ME REPEAT: this is not a “Top 10” or “Best Ever” list. It is simply who I would get the most joy out of seeing on stage at the same time. While I have received lots of positive comments on the band, I have also heard from others who disagree with some of my selections. I completely encourage everyone to share who they might like to see in their own dream big band…in fact I would enjoy it. The wonderful thing about jazz is that there has been so many great musicians that there is no way that one persons dream band would look the same as another persons band. If one legend of jazz is not selected, it should not be considered a slap in a face to the legacy of that musician. Just a personal preference. That is exactly what makes this project fun and interesting, as opposed to trying to make it an exact science. And I hope it has encouraged you to think about your dream big band, and who might participate in it. And again, thanks so much for your feedback.
Here is how the band was sectioned together:
Lead: Arturo Sandoval
2nd Chair: Wynton Marsalis
Third Chair: Freddie Hubbard
Fourth Chair: Miles Davis
Fifth Chair: Thad Jones
Trombones (selected by former KPLU host Troy Oppie):
Lead: Bob Burgess
Second Chair: Frank Rosilino
Third Chair: Al Grey
Bass Trombone: Bill Hughes
First Alto: Charlie Parker
Second Alto: Cannonball Adderley
First Tenor: Michael Brecker
Second Tenor: John Coltrane
Baritone Saxophone: Cecil Payne
The Rhythm Section:
Guitar: Charlie Christian
Piano: Herbie Hancock
Bass: Jaco Pastorius
Drums: Jack DeJohnette
Female Vocalist: Carmen McRae
Male Vocalist: Lou Rawls
And now, the bandleader.
I probably pick, and then scratched of the list a dozen or so leaders, and more or less for all the same reason. If they were the band leader, as legendary as they might be, would the band sound original, or would it sound just like the band of that leader? For example, if I picked Count Basie, would it just be the Basie Band with a bunch of charts by Nestico and Hefti? Same thing if I picked Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman. If I pick Glenn Miller, is this all-star band limited to playing charts from the late 30’s to early 40’s like Tuxedo Junction or In the Mood? Buddy Rich might be a reasonable option, but there is always the chance that he would fire the entire band on the tour bus before it showed up to the show (because, well, it has happened before).
One of the things that made the previously mentioned band leaders great is the fact that their band had its own unique, identifiable style. With the versatility of the band I constructed, I wanted someone different, someone who wasn’t necessarily defined by an era, or a band that was defined by a certain sound. I also wanted someone no one else would think to pick. And so, my band leader is:
Band Leader: Doc Severinsen
Did anyone see that one coming? Sure, laugh, but how much fun would that be? And don’t think that Doc doesn’t have his credentials in order. Severinsen was likely the best know band leader and trumpet player in America for 25 years, heading up the band for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show, widely considered one of the best big band jobs ever. He’s recorded nearly every type of music, making him extremely versatile.
Doc’s experience with big bands is far from limited to television. Dating back to 1945, Doc was a featured musician with bands headed up by Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman, and Noro Morales, while also backing the likes of Dinah Washington and Anita O’ Day.
His album sales as a big band leader and as a small group leader have all proven well, including a Grammy win in the big band category. Bands he directed contained members with a vast background of big band experience, including Conte Candoli (Woody Herman, Stan Kenton), Snooky Young (Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis), Ed Shaughnessy (Charles Mingus, Benny Goodman), Ernie Watts (Buddy Rich, Oliver Nelson), Bill Perkins (Woody Herman, Stan Kenton), and Ross Tompkins (Benny Goodman).
And finally, Doc is a whole lot of fun. A flashy, bright (be it a tad tacky) wardrobe and sense of humor would make him a great leader for this or any band. Add the fact that he is a true trumpet virtuoso, it would be fun to see him pick up the horn and play a solo too. I’ll just mention that he also recorded with Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, Gene Krupa, Chris Connor, Tito Puente, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Ruth Brown, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Stan Getz, Milt Jackson, Mundell Lowe, Billy Taylor, and Tony Bennett.
My band leader needs to have the ability to direct a top notch band with creative arrangements, entertain the audience between songs, and wear a flashy outfit. Doc has that all covered, and then some.
So that is the band. Check out videos from Doc Severinsen below, and look see a layout of the entire band. And dont forget to let me know who you would like to see in your band!
Watch Doc Severinsen conduct and play Stardust in this video:
Watch Doc and the gang team up with Buddy Rich for We’ll Git It:
Watch a fun little sampler of Doc performances, concluding with Doc playing for Ronald Reagan:
And finally, Doc leading a band, way back in 1965, playing Blues in the Night: