Doc Severinsen has worn a lot of hats, all of them glittering.
The world knew him for years as the bandleader for “The Tonight Show.”
Buffalo knew him throughout the 1990s as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Principal Pops Conductor, brightening our dreariest days with his sequinned suits.
Before any of that, jazz fans knew him for his nervy trumpet-playing in bands led by Charlie Barnet, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Talking to Doc Severinsen now, you sense the hep cat he was back then.
Asked where he was, he shrugged: “Some town in North Carolina.”
He referred to Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director JoAnn Falletta, hilariously, as “the young lady that’s been leading the band there.”
Suave and bombastic at 86, Severinsen even showed a boyish love for life on the road with his big band. He and his wife live in Mexico, and love it there, but he also loves the adventure of playing.
“These are very seasoned musicians,” he beamed. “When I call them up and tell them we’re going on a road trip, open up the schedule and get on a bus … we do things that people have been complaining about for years, and we love it! Riding the bus, eating questionable food. I’ll bet they’re going to serve us pizza tonight. They always have a meal for us. Tonight, is it the ubiquitous pizza? The unidentifiable pizza?” He laughed, happily.
Severinsen’s band will be with him this weekend, along with two singers, for two concerts with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, dubbed “Solid Gold Doc.”
The concerts should prove memorable. When Severinsen ended his tenure with the BPO in 1999, it was because of a management dispute, and he retained his affection toward our orchestra and our town. Still, we don’t get much chance to see him, let alone his big band. And this big band is, by all accounts, incredible.
“Doc Severinsen Blows Out Auditorium,” ran a recent headline in Burlington, Iowa.
The reviewer, Bob Saar, wrote that the arena crowd was cheering for Doc “like prison inmates for Miley Cyrus.” He elaborated: “There isn’t a touring country or rock act that can generate the raw music power of Severinsen’s group. They were super-tight, super-hip and super-grooved. They were pumped, bad and loud, the way big-band jazz should be.”
What a big, bad band to hear at 10:30 a.m., which is when the Friday Coffee Concert kicks off. Isn’t morning a weird time to absorb such excitement?
“Not if you’ve had a good cocktail first,” Severinsen cracks.
“Solid Gold Doc” pays tribute to music that figures personally in Severinsen’s life. He will also pay tribute to people who have had an impact on him.
One of them is Johnny Carson, longtime host of “The Tonight Show.”
Severinsen’s admiration of and gratitude to Carson run deep. Talking last week with The News, he candidly spoke out against the new book on Carson, widely described as a hatchet job, written by Carson’s attorney, Henry Bushkin. Severinsen called the idea of Bushkin writing the book “beyond disgusting.”
This weekend, he will explore a few memories of Carson. Other legends, too, loom large. One song pays homage to Severinsen’s friend Henry Mancini. There might be a classical piece. Severinsen loves Puccini.
A number grittily titled “Well, Git It!” will be a nod to Tommy Dorsey.
Severinsen was 14 when he went to play for the great trombonist.
“They neglected to tell Tommy I was only 14 and small for my age,” he reminisces. “It was the Second World War. They were so desperate for guys to play, and they said, ‘Come on down.’ I came down, got into his dressing room. He got a load of me, and a smile went over his face.
“He said, ‘What have you got in your case?’
“I said, ‘I’ve got my cornet.’
“He said, ‘Let me take a look at it.’ He looks at it, played two old concert cornet solos to perfection. He said, ‘Well, son, you’re just too young for this. You stay here in practice.’”
Dorsey went on, though, to get his young fan a seat in a front row to the concert that night. “The lights go down, absolutely pitch black, and they tore right into a tune called ‘Well, Git It!’ It was Sy Oliver’s version of ‘Bugle Call Rag.’
“I thought to myself, yep, that’s what I’m going to do for a living. And I’m going to be with that band one day! And I was!”
Dorsey was a big influence on Severinsen as a performer and a band leader.
“All band leaders had something to offer,” Severinsen says. But Dorsey was unique. “Tommy was a perfectionist. He wasn’t interested that you gave your best that night. It was about, ‘It wasn’t quite good enough, tomorrow’s had better be better.’”
“When he stood up in front of the band, he led by what he did. His playing was so fantastic that he never asked anyone to go anyplace he wouldn’t go. He was the true meaning of the word ‘leader’: I’ll go first, and you’ll follow right behind.” Dorsey, he acknowledged, was something of a roustabout. “Like a lot of rough characters he had a big heart underneath it all.”
Severinsen, as head of his own big band, is also big-hearted, though more overtly so.
“This band is precision and artistry that can power,” he says. “Not loud. Strong! Strong players! We’re all on the same page. Most of the band is from Minneapolis. It goes to my long association with the orchestra there. I still had some other guys I brought along. It just morphed into this thing.”
He also overflows with Buffalo love.
On the phone, he praises our architecture. He has a fond memory of how Herman Trotter, News Classical Music Critic Emeritus, persuaded him to conduct the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. And he likes Falletta. “I knew she’d be a good fit!” he said, with fatherly pride.
“I’m so looking forward to being back in town,” he said. “I love Buffalo! People say ‘Buffalo. Oh, my God. It snows a lot.’ Let me tell you, that is a beautiful town. Lots of beautiful people there.”
Doc Severinsen and his big band join the BPO for “Solid Gold Doc” at 10:30 a.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. For info, call 885-5000.