I first became aware of music around the age of two. I was marching around the breakfast table to the music of John Philip Sousa being broadcast over the radio on Don McNeill‘s Breakfast Club. Although I can‘t recall this other aspect specifically, I could very well have been banging on a pot or pan with a wooden spoon as I marched; I‘m quite sure, in perfect step and time.
The next significant musical moment came in seventh grade when my dad brought home a borrowed trumpet.
Practicing a bit, I was able to memorize a piece to play at my first public performance, my graduation that year. The piece was Le Marseillaise, a lingering memory I‘m quite sure that remains in the mind of only one person from my class. How I selected the French National Anthem as my world performance debut will forever remain a mystery to me.
At 15 or so, my brother Bob and I decided to see the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in performance, my first adventure to see a “name” band. After hearing the first note, my chin was planted on the stage for the remainder of the night. At one point during the evening the band played “Well, Git It!,” an upbeat jazz arrangement that featured two battling trumpets. I was overwhelmed. It was then that I knew I was hooked.
Music became the focus of my life through high school, college and four years of service as a musician in the United States Navy. In spite of this interest and devotion to music, it never crossed my mind of pursing it as a primary “occupation.”
After the Navy in 1961, I found myself in San Francisco newly married to my blushing bride, Kazue. As with so many young couples then, we were both working and struggling just to earn enough money to get by. Our marriage continued for nearly 58 wonderful years until she passed away in 2018.
The first of these years after my military service also found me playing music in the evenings for fun, but little or no money. It was probably 1963 when I received a call to join the “hotel circuit.”
In the early 60s big band music was at its height in the Bay Area. Ray Hackett, the band leader who had most of the hotel gigs,‖could have several bands playing at different hotels (e.g., the Fairmont, Mark Hopkins, St. Francis or Hyatt) on the same night. He would simply make an appearance at each venue to show that it was indeed his band performing. He kept a lot of musicians working steady for a long time.
One night stands out in particular. I got a call from Ray to show up at the St. Francis Hotel with my trumpet. A performance had been scheduled with a headline female singer whose name I can‘t recall. In any event, when I went to the bandstand and started to unpack my horn, Ray came up and said, “Pack up and spend the evening anywhere else in the hotel, but not here.”
During this time period, San Francisco was a very strong union town. One of Local Musician‘s Union Six requirements called for a specific number of musicians to be hired based on the room size of the venue. This particular night there was only enough music for 12 musicians, but the union required 13 musicians for that space. Hence, I “worked” that night and got paid as number 13. Unfortunately, I probably spent more money in the lobby bar waiting for the performance to end than I was paid.
In 1964, I began my journey towards becoming a lawyer.
One day during a lunch break walk from my office day job, I happened past a law school where several people were conversing just inside the lobby. My life took a turn when I entered the lobby and inquired of the registrar what the entrance requirements were. When I confessed that I was a music major in college, she replied, “Don‘t bother applying.” Not so easily dismissed, I nevertheless asked for an application. Imagine my surprise when I received an acceptance letter in the mail several weeks later.
San Francisco Law School is a four-year night school with classes four nights a week. With my recent arrival on the hotel music scene, a juggling act was required to maintain living in both worlds. At first, since most of the music jobs were Friday nights and weekends, this worked out fine. That is, until the Rodeo came to town.
The Grand National Rodeo arrived at the Cow Palace and I received an invitation to play in the band. The Rodeo continued for at least a week with shows nightly and added matinees on weekends. Without much thought, I found myself playing hooky from law school, but I knew there no reasonable way out of the rodeo gig without ruining my musical reputation. So, I finished the job.
Well, I made it through the rodeo and resumed my law school studies. But I also decided at that time that music had to take a back seat to law going forward. As a consequence, I packed up my trumpet, graduated law school at the top of my class and enjoyed eight years practicing law with the Public Utilities Commission in San Francisco and 18 years with the Southern California Gas Company (SCG) in Los Angeles before opening the trumpet case again.
In the mid to late ‘80s, I started my second music career. While still active as a lawyer with SCG, I began playing with “rehearsal” bands at night in LA.
Calling these groups rehearsal bands is a misnomer because, for the most part, they were not rehearsing for anything. Musicians simply got together weekly for their own enjoyment and to keep in playing shape. There were a whole bunch of these bands going on at any one time in the LA area (as contrasted with New York and the east coast where such get-togethers seemed to be frowned upon).
One “working” dance band I joined in 1995 played weekly for 26 straight years. Big Band Alumni (BBA) began every Tuesday morning at 10:30 a.m. and played to 12:30 p.m. The band was originally started by Randy Van Horne, whose vocal group backed up Nat King Cole on his TV shows in the ‘50s.
It was comprised mostly of veteran players whose careers dated back to the big band heydays of the forties and fifties. Without any doubt, I was the young kid on the block. BBA was later led by Johnny Vana who recently passed away. The band was very popular measured by the years it lasted and by the large following of dancers and listeners that came each and every Tuesday morning. The band recorded several albums, performed at festivals and concerts, and was featured on several television news specials.
With New Years approaching in 1993, I got my first call to join a “name” band. Alvino Rey was performing New Years Eve at the Avalon Ballroom on Santa Catalina Island and being broadcast nationally on radio. As the band walked into the ballroom for an afternoon rehearsal, Alvino stood in the middle of the room by himself and welcomed each of us individually. He immediately made me feel that I was part of a close-knit group he considered family. Recalling all the many bands I‘ve played in since then, Alvino was the kindest and most considerate leader I have known. What a great beginning for me.
Shortly thereafter, I started to play with many “name” bands including Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Harry James orchestras. I had the great fortune to back many headline acts and singers with these and other bands. This period, which continued until fairly recently, was indeed a fantastic time in my life.
Of all the “name” bands in which I played, Alvino Rey was the only one where the original leader is still alive. The rest were known as “ghost” bands. A ghost band is generally led by someone who was close to the original leader and authorized by the heirs to continue working under that original name.
It was another aspect of big bands, from at least the ‘80s on, the musicians did not travel around the country with the leader. For economic reasons, local contractors were hired to arrange for the musicians when the leader came to town. One leader might have contractors in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles ready to go depending on when and where the work happened to be.
The only band of which I‘m aware that still works with the same personnel around the country is the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Starting in the mid ‘90s, I traveled to venues all over the world. These trips included jobs in Europe, Asia and South America. There were many adventures, but two particular instances come to mind now.
New Years Eve 2000 the Jimmy Dorsey band was performing in Bangkok, Thailand. The King at that time was a huge fan of big band jazz and had recently written a song. He was also thoroughly adored by his people.
It became our honor to introduce his song to the New Year‘s Eve audience and the Thai people. Unfortunately, the King, who was to have made an appearance, was a no-show. But we played his song once every hour and the audience went absolutely wild each time. Thinking back, I can still hear the screaming, cheering and applauding.
Traveling around the world with a band always brought challenges. One of the recurring difficulties involved getting on airplanes with large instruments that would be seriously at risk if checked as luggage.
One day in Brazil with the Glenn Miller Tribute Orchestra and the Modernaires, the band had a local flight from Sao Paulo to Manaus. The check-in personnel were adamant that the larger instruments had to be checked. After several moments of arguing in two languages where I‘m sure neither side could understand the other, one of our group (Larry) simply walked past the airline employee, up the steps to the plane and put his large baritone saxophone in the overhead luggage. Immediately, the rest of the band followed suit. Surprisingly, no one tried to stop us.
Things were not always that easy. On another flight in the U.S., Larry, who always carried the largest instrument, once again got into a scuffle with the airline people at the gate. This time he was kicked off the flight. Fortunately, this episode occurred on the way home from and not to the job. He was able to catch the next flight back to LA.
The highlight of my music career had to be working on a jazz cruise aboard the QE2 in 1999 — a ship full of the very best jazz musicians in the world. I was honored to be part of the Jimmy Heath Big Band. I was especially thrilled to meet and rub shoulders with jazz legends Oscar Peterson and Clark Terry, both of whom were in the twilight of their careers.
In 1993 I began my own band, The Southern California Jazz Company (SCJC). The main reasons for doing so included my inheriting an extensive music library and growing tired of the repetitiveness of the music being played in the other rehearsal bands. I also happened to have met a lot of talented musicians by then who were equally anxious to play different and more interesting band arrangements. Over these next years the band performed frequently at jazz festivals, clubs and special events. In 2001 we produced our first (and last) CD entitled “Open For Business.”
My music life continued until I left LA in 2019. Indeed, I left behind my band and BBA, the two bands in which I played for 25 years. Since my coming to the Vi at Silverstone and until COVID-19 hit, SCJC continued with a new leader. I hope that it gets to restart when the world gets to its new normal.
When I look back on my life, an early TV show comes immediately to mind, “I Led Three Lives” with Richard Carlsen. Except in my case, it was only two lives, a business one and a musical one. I can see there has always been a virtual separation between these two to such an extent that very few, if any, of my friends on either side knew anything about my friends on the other. It was like living in two different worlds. It‘s hard to realize how I survived in both at the same time.
But, not only did I survive; I had the time of my life doing so. I wouldn’t change a thing.
Since resettling in Arizona, I have had the pleasure of meeting so many nice people here at Vi. Most significantly, I met and am now happily engaged to my very special partner, Catherine Klinger. We have been having a ball, over the last year, discovering and planning our traveling adventures to hopefully begin later this year. Our bucket list is full to overflowing and it certainly includes a lot of music.
Editor’s note: John Fick is a resident of the Vi at Silverstone in north Scottsdale. This article originally appeared in fellow resident Bill Brown’s newsletter, “The Doings on 74th Street."