Recently, my wife Noelle and I had the distinct pleasure of hosting a reunion for two old friends at our home. One of them inspired countless young people to become great musicians, many of them professionals. The other one was Doc Severinsen! The phrase “living legend” gets thrown around a lot, but in this case, the description is apt. Doc is now 90 years old and is still performing and sounding great.
For those who grew up watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (who was succeeded by Jay Leno and now Jimmy Fallon) between 1962 and 1992, the notion that some people don’t know the name Doc Severinsen is hard to fathom. Doc has been called the greatest trumpet player of all time and he had the sound, power, virtuosity, and the charisma to match the rock star status he enjoyed through his exposure every night to millions of Americans while leading the NBC Orchestra, which was actually a big band.
The talk show template that Johnny Carson perfected for late-night TV entertainment (after the likes of other pioneers like Steve Allen and Jack Paar) is still being used today, whether it be Jimmy Kimmel, Fallon, or anyone else. To get a taste of what those shows were like, there are hours of clips available on YouTube.
Here is one when Johnny asked Doc how high he could play – on national TV!
As influential as Doc has been to millions of musicians, the other “old friend” was my first trumpet teacher and high school band director, Gerald Knipfel. Gerry was the reason I became a musician. He was a virtuoso trumpet player in his own right and was recruited from his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada to study at Butler University in Indianapolis. While a student of Max Woodbury’s, he played 2nd Trumpet in the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, a section I would later be a part of for several seasons nearly 50 years later! Gerry went on to become the band director at Arlington High School in Indianapolis and later, at Elkhart (IN) Central High School, where I was his student.
Doc was recently in Indianapolis for appearances at The University of Indianapolis Trumpet Conference, thanks to the great efforts of my friend Larry Powell. I knew that Gerry (83 and still teaching trumpet students) had not seen Doc in many years and I urged him to come down for the day for a visit. You see, Gerry knew Doc before Doc was “Doc!”
We spent a wonderful couple of hours reminiscing and listening to Doc tell stories from his amazing musical and personal past. The one that will remain with me was Doc describing getting off the tour bus in Washington, DC with some of his colleagues who happened to be African American. Because of that, they were denied service at a restaurant, all within view of our nation’s capital. Doc never forgot those difficult days.
As for how they met, Gerry first heard Doc at the 1964 Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. Doc was a member of The Tonight Show band, but not yet the leader. (In another full-circle moment, I, along with thousands of privileged others, heard Doc play at that same convention just this past December.) Gerry was so amazed at what he heard, he immediately introduced himself to Doc and asked him to perform with his band in Indianapolis. Doc agreed and Gerry had Doc as a guest soloist three times over the next several years.
In 1967, Doc was promoted by Johnny to lead the band after a series of successful live concert “auditions” when Johnny would “take the show on the road.” One of those appearances was in Indianapolis during the Indianapolis 500 Race festivities and Gerry was asked by Doc himself to assemble the best band he could find for those concerts. The concerts went well and it’s not too much of a stretch to say Gerry played a role in Doc’s promotion. The only problem was, as Doc’s fame increased, Gerry could never get him back to play with his band because he was now booked out for years at a time!
Finally, in 1985, Doc and Gerry came to an agreement for a concert in Elkhart. The show sold out in no time and the whole town was excited to know that Doc was finally coming to Elkhart. But fate can be cruel and the concert never happened, nor could it be rescheduled. Doc was to fly in from his previous show in Buffalo, NY and a blizzard made travel impossible for several days. When reminded of this, Doc just looked at Gerry and said with smile, “So I guess I owe you a concert!”
The day was another reunion of sorts as Doc’s friend, Cathy Leach, accompanied him and helped with all the arrangements for the weekend. Cathy, Professor of Trumpet at the University of Tennessee and current President of the International Trumpet Guild (it helps to have friends in high places!), is an old friend of ours as well. My poor wife, a violinist, was clearly outnumbered that afternoon!