Thom is the youngest of three brothers that grew up in Northwestern Ohio, sons of a father who, during his 89 years in the quick, realized all of his major earthly aspirations. He married the girl of his dreams, sired sons to carry on the family name, was recognized as a respected design engineer, and become a 33rd-degree Mason. I dare say not many men pass beyond the veil of this life as fulfilled. I know I won’t. In addition, the father possessed the artistic ability of Norman Rockwell and was blessed with a lifetime golfing partner for a wife. The only shadow upon his years was the too soon passing of his spouse, a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. He remained mentally astute until the very end. All-in-all; a good life just as he designed and lived it, complete with daily martinis and chain pipe-smoking. |
The two older boys followed in their father’s footsteps—or at least earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering. Ah, but Thom, the youngest, heard an uncommon beat to a different tune, a pure harmonic tone, a tune that someday would be recognized as the only sound that could bring men’s hearts to joy; and he went a different direction—as it turned out for much too short a time. His dream was truncated just like his mother’s life, but we’ll get to that.
Meanwhile, the eldest boy admired his kid brother’s chosen course secretly wishing he had pursued something similar. But while the firstborn had desire, he lacked fortitude, talent, and constancy-of-purpose. For local citizens paying attention during the boys’ formative years, the second son seemed to possess the lion’s share of blessings for the trio, earning honors from primary school through college in numerous athletic and scholastic endeavors. He was the “nice” son, not a so-called smart aleck like the other two. It followed, therefore, that he was the favorite of townspeople and parents—but that was all on top. Underneath there was a more menacing nuance, which manifested itself in the unceasing bullying of his younger brother and cousins.
But this essay is about Thom...
At an early age, probably as a fourth-grader, Thom picked up a trumpet that the middle brother discarded. It was an immediate love affair. At first he could barely blow the brassy horn that looked much too large for him, but through youthful perseverance quickly learned the technique. Two years and many lessons later he blew that trumpet in the grade school band. But he didn’t stop there, he kept on through junior high and high school, continuing his lessons and honing and perfecting his technique. Somewhere along the line he purchased a used King Trumpet built in 1937, which he had refurbished and still possesses today. By his sophomore year, he and four contemporaries reorganized a sixteen-piece dance band called the Mad Anthonys and got a young assistant music director to be their mentor and protector. Why a protector? Well, it turned out that the high school marching and concert band director did not approve of a radical new venture when the boys converted The Mad Anthonys into a true jazz band even though the young musicians were mainstays in his bands. The five played everywhere they got a chance, marching band, pep band, concert band—you name the opportunity, they jumped on it. For three years, the Mad Anthonys played all over the local area for proms and other special events—once for a university in another state—and while they were at it cut two albums. They made enough from their gigs and album sales to pay for transportation, purchase band stands, and obtain tuxedos—the latter were actually freebies from a local clothing store. Thom’s senior year they placed a close second in the state jazz band finals only because the trombone section let the Anthonys down when performing a mandatory chart. They took top spot in two optional charts each band performed, but unfortunately were third in the mandatory number.
Before Thom left high school, he and a fellow trumpet playing classmate were asked to join Bud Widmer’s Rube Band, a regionally famous irreverent group of adult musicians who dressed in crazy clothes and played parades and saloons all over including the Mardi Gras. Occasionally the Rubers were said to over imbibe. Suffice it to say, the boys’ parents were a bit uneasy about them hanging out with such a rowdy bunch of older men. While still in high school, Thom also learned French Horn and Baritone Horn, which he sometimes played in the concert band. BTW on concert programs those two instruments are usually referred to respectively as Horn and Baritone.
By the time Thom graduated from high school, his eldest brother had relocated to the South Bay area of Los Angeles for work. Thom’s parents agreed to let him attend a college near his brother where he majored in music. That’s when Thom’s journey as a musician took root and grew to a level most musicians aspire to but never realize. He said it was mostly because his college mentor had him study and play classical trumpet, which much improved his jazz chops. Somewhere along the way Thom also purchased and played Flugelhorn; and learned to play piano and ukulele. During that first year, he auditioned for the Andy Williams Show and the West Coast Jazz Ensemble, the latter an eighteen-piece band that played venues from the west coast to as far east as St, Louis. They were a familiar attraction at most western university campuses and the Las Vegas scene. Thom said they were also quite popular with coeds who surrounded them after concerts and followed them (heh-heh) to their buses.
The WCJE had two (of four) trumpet seats open and Thom was selected for one of the ensemble / solo spots. The band was led by Roger Brown, a well-known studio musician (drummer) in California, and a contemporary of Buddy Rich. Brown was 42-years-old at the time, but the rest of the musicians ranged from 18 to 22. They traveled in three buses—six musicians per bus—and had two trucks, one hauling recording equipment, uniforms, and instruments; and the other roadies and food. Each bus had six cubicles, one bedroom, and a keyboard. Brown expected—no required—every musician to write and arrange music. It was rumored that he was a taskmaster and could be hard to please.
The WCJE always started their Spring Tour at the Hollywood Bowl, and the last one in which Thom played, Doc Severinsen was a guest performer. When the WCJE remained in Los Angeles they had regular weekends at the Hollywood Palladium and special dates at the Beverly Hilton. Thom also was a member of WCJE trombonist Stu Undem’s Sentimentalists, another jazz band, and a Dixieland band that played a Hawthorne, CA pizza joint. Though Thom mostly blew his trumpet for the Dixieland group, he occasionally played piano. He also played behind the angelic Julie Andrews at Grauman’s Chinese Theater who Thom said was less than heavenly to work with; and in pit orchestras at the Pasadena Playhouse and El Camino College. In fact, I saw a production of "Guys and Dolls" at El Camino’s Theater with Thom in the orchestra, and attended a performance when he played in that college’s jazz band as well. He recently reminded me he also was a member of the Long Beach Junior Concert Band a parade band 256 strong, and the official halftime band of the Los Angeles Rams. All was going well for the young trumpeter. He was at the top of his form, and had the musical contacts to be a top studio musician on the west coast. It was not his goal to be a touring musician long-term. Then fate intervened, and his note turned blue.
It all started when Thom’s parents, mainly a well-meaning but controlling mother, called his apartment day-after-day while Thom was on the road touring with the WCJE. His roommate, who later became a lounge singer in the Hawaiian Islands, made excuses for him until the frequency of telephone inquiries got the better of him. He admitted Thom was on tour, and provided an itinerary. Keep in mind this was before mobile telephones were common.
I need to interrupt the narrative at this point for a sidebar… Here’s the deal: See, I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit that I imagine I received from a grandfather I never knew. He owned one restaurant, half of two others, and operated a chicken ranch specializing in Capon roosters—damned things are huge; look like turkeys. I’ve not been nearly as successful as my granddad, but I keep on keeping on, and I suppose I will until I drop. In other words, I’ve screwed-up more than I’ve succeeded. But I’m one happy guy pretty much void of stress because I’m doing what I want. I love the journey. Sooo, my advice to my children was very much different than the advice I received as I approached adulthood. I was told to get an education, find a good job (whatever that is—mainly a euphemism for financial security no matter how bleak and unfulfilling), and stay there until I retired. However, if one examines my parents’ advice from a worldview forged out of the Great Depression, you understand where they were coming from. Nothing was more precious to them than a regular job no matter how much crap one had to eat. On the other hand, I told my kids to find something that makes them happy, that they’d approach with a volunteer’s zeal, and they would never “work” a day in their life; but instead be delighted in following their life’s passion. I told them NOT to focus on money, but upon happiness. Back to the story…
Thom’s parents noticed from the itinerary that the west coast band was appearing at a St. Louis jazz club within the following week. They invited another couple—golfing buddies—from Ohio to accompany them and attended the performance. Thom had no idea they were there. The two Ohio couples were astounded at the quality of the performance and rushed backstage and into the parking lot to tell Thom how wonderful the music was. Thom was surprised, but happy, to see them. He also told them his music was not a hobby, but his obsession and intended career. This was bad news to people raised during the Great Depression. Anything but music, they said; better to be a shop rat and get a job in the foundry of General Motors. They refused to support him. A music career didn’t fit their paradigm of what people did for a vocation. Now it’s easy for me to say that Thom should have persisted anyway. His California brother would have helped being proud of Thom, but I’m being simplistic, which is easy to do decades after-the-fact. It’s telling to note that Thom also kept his brother in the dark to (in his words), “protect the innocent”. The three boys were raised in a loving home, and in those days young men from such an upbringing didn’t want to disappoint their parents. In fact, that was THE major factor in the eldest choosing a safe engineering career path and why he so admired his kid brother for having the courage to chase his own dream. Today Thom occasionally travels from San Diego to Ohio to sit in with the Bud Widmer Memorial Rube Band, but I can’t help but wonder what kind of career he would have had if only…
I thought wistfully of another horn player who left too soon. Louis Armstrong often told about the man who inspired him: a wonderful, wonderful cornet player by the name of Charles Joseph “Buddy” Bolden from New Orleans known as the Father of Jazz, and for good reason. The term “jazz” was not used until after Bolden’s prominence. That’s right: he was there when that first note turned blue (in 1902). Bolden was known for his very loud sound and constant improvisation. He was the top New Orleans draw from 1900 until 1907 when he was incapacitated at age 30 with schizophrenia. Sadly, he was admitted to a mental institution where he died in 1931 and was buried in an unmarked grave in Holt Cemetery, a pauper’s graveyard. How many of you have heard the music of Buddy Bolden? I’ll answer that for you. None of you; because Buddy Bolden never made record one. Think of the cruel irony: what a loss for music lovers like me! I am more fortunate when it comes to Thom. I have recordings of the Mad Anthonys and the last recorded performance of the West Coast Jazz Ensemble of which Thom was a part. It was recorded live at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. Fittingly and ironically, the last cut is entitled, "Farewell and Goodbye", which was written and arranged by Thom.
He told me recently that he and others are putting together a big band in San Diego made up of veterans like himself with Thom as the front man. I hope he dusts off his horn, practices, and really commits to the quest whether or not he can ever regain his former talent. Don Quixote taught us that life is all about having the courage to wage a noble battle, not whether one wins or loses. With that in mind, old fart that I am, I’m running a marathon in several weeks; and when it comes time for me to lay down for the last time, I’m going to be kicking and screaming to stay one more hour. If I can do that don’t you think Thom should make one last, noble stand? I really hope he does.
Moral: Help seekers find their path or get the hell out of the way.
Copyright by Gene Myers, author of AFTER HOURS: ADVENTURES OF AN INTERNATIONAL BUSINESSMAN (2009), Strategic Publishing Group, New York, NY – a hilarious account of the author’s overseas travels; and SONGS FROM LATTYS GROVE (2010), PublishAmerica, Fredericksburg, MD - a mildly sinister, but amusing work of fiction. Both are available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and available in Kindle and Nook eBook formats.
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trumpet, West Coast Jazz Ensemble, Bud Widmer Rube Band, Mad Anthonys, Buddy Bolden, Julie Andrews, Doc Severinsen, Golden Nugget Casino,