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Blast from the past Doc Severinsen's back, with his trumpets and flashy suits, to kick off the BPO's pops season

The cat came back!

This weekend, when the musicians of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra kick off their pops season, Doc Severinsen will be with them.

Severinsen, the flashy maestro who led Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" for years and was the BPO's principal pops conductor from 1992 until 1999, will be leading a program called "A Night in Old Italy."

You can call him "maestro." But the starched term hardly seems to fit the restless Severinsen, who with his sequinned suits and witty gregariousness was for years a popular part of the Buffalo scene.

"I was snowed in a couple of years, just like everyone else," Severinsen brags.

Did he stay home with a six-pack?

"A six-pack doesn't do it," the conductor cracks. "It'd be more like a 25-pack."

Our city might occupy a cold place in the world, but we enjoy a warm place in Severinsen's heart.

"Buffalo gets kidded because of the weather, but there are lots of good things there," the conductor says. "It felt like home. It still feels like home to me. I had a lot of friends there. I had places I went."

He elaborates: "A little Greek restaurant, right behind Children's Hospital," he says, alluding to Ambrosia.

Then sounding like a true Buffalonian, he mentions someone's in-laws who had an Italian restaurant. "I went there," he says. "All kinds of Italian places, I went. I get in a car and drive right to them.

"And every time I turned on my car radio -- I'd have it on the classical station -- they were always playing something I wanted to hear. That's the way Buffalo was for me. It could be the middle of winter, and I didn't mind it at all."

Severinsen's official association with the BPO ended because of a management dispute. His successor, Marvin Hamlisch, has proved a big hit with the local audience.

But people have a lot of love for Severinsen, who remains handsome and flamboyant at 78.

Jazz trumpet player Jeff Jarvis has performed frequently with the maestro, many times as an extra in the BPO's brass section. Doc, he says, is "fantastic."

"He's the trumpet player's trumpet player," says Jarvis, now the director of jazz studies at California State University at Long Beach. "He's got all the bases covered. I see him as someone who's the perfect marriage of big-band jazz and classical trumpet player.

"We love working with him," Jarvis adds. "He's demanding, but in a very friendly and respectful way. And he has a tireless work ethic. He's the type of person who spends six hours a day on his instrument, two hours a day in the gym.

"That's why, when most people are slowing down, at a certain age, he's coming on strong."

> Bands on the run

Severinsen, also speaking from California, isn't the complete cut-up a fan might expect. There are occasional silences. When he finds a subject he likes, though -- like Buffalo -- he talks eagerly.

"Buffalo looks good to my eye. It feels good inside me," he says. "I'd be driving along in some of the neighborhoods, and I'd see houses and think, 'Wow, I could live in that house.'"

Severinsen is anticipating his his Buffalo gig. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like to be back there, walk out there, step out on the podium. It's like coming back to family," he says.

He adores the BPO. "They have wonderful, wonderful players. And they set a tradition. For a city of its size, Buffalo has always been right up there with the best of them."

BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta also pleases him. "I just knew she was going to fit beautifully with that orchestra and that community. And from what I understand, she's done that," Severinsen says.

"She ain't bad to look at, either."

Italian music is something of a break in his routine, and he's looking forward to that, too.

"We have a really fine singer, Joseph Wolverton," he says. "The name is not Italian, but when you see him, hear him, you'll say, 'He's Italian.' He is a fabulous tenor. I mean, he's a tenor! You know he's a tenor before he opens his mouth."

It could be said that Severinsen was a musician before he even picked up a trumpet.

"I started at age of 7," he says. "I never took it too seriously, but I was doing extremely well. My dad was an extremely good teacher. He taught me by rote. I was taking all this stuff in on a subconscious level."

When he wasn't quite out of college, Severinsen began playing with the famous big bands of the 1940s, traveling with Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey.

Dorsey was a special influence. "If you wanted to be a bandleader, he's the guy you needed to work with," Severinsen says. "You could learn a lot from him. As a brass player, it was like going to college. Every day, it was like private lessons."

In those youthful big-band days, though, Severinsen learned some harsh realities. Barnet's band included black musicians before integration was the norm.

"We were run out of a diner," Severinsen says. "What happened, we were in our bus -- we had played some place in mid-South, and were headed back to New York. Finally we got into New Jersey, somewhere around Lambertsville. We figured we were OK now, and we walked into this diner, and this redneck chef we hadn't expected to encouter said, 'You white guys can eat out front, (black guys) go in back.'

"We said, 'No, uh uh, this isn't the way it's going to be tonight.'

"He got a very large meat cleaver and made us get back on the bus. That was heartbreaking," Severinsen sighs. "Maybe an hour's drive from New York. I'll never forget it."

> 'I'm a bit of a rebel'

Severinsen absorbed new inspiration in the late '50s and early '60s, when he was part of a loose circle of other big-band veterans, such as as Bob Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis and Clark Terry, gigging around New York.

"Everyone was close friends," Severinsen says. "I remember thinking, 'This is really a Who's Who here.' Naturally, your expectations were high -- you'd think, making music with you guys, it has to be good.

"As I look back now, some of those dates, the players -- I think I didn't realize how fully significant that all was. My God, some of the playing you heard. You had to take it in, and it had to do something to you."

As leader of the band on "The Tonight Show," Severinsen became a household name.

"Johnny was really responsible for the general tone of his show," he says. "He was a classy guy, and we had classy things on the show.

"We had a very varied audience. I remember walking into a truck stop in the middle of Georgia, at 2 a.m., and all these old truck drivers were there. They all said, 'Hey, Doc!'"

He seems to shrug off credit. "Johnny did his job right."

But Severinsen did his job right, too, even adding his own note of style with the flashy suits and ties that became his trademark.

He came up with his unique fashion statement by accident.

"One night, I had on something wild. And Johnny, he just went for it," he says. "He went after it verbally, and just tore me up. So it happened again and again. And people got to expect it.

"I do enjoy it, but it helps to remind me that underneath it all, I'm a bit of a rebel. I'm slightly irreverent. If you can take that attitude on the stage that you don't have your head in clouds, you have your feet on the ground, you're enjoying the day, I think people respond to that."

The big question: What will Doc wear next weekend in Buffalo?

"I don't know." Severinsen pauses, as if happily considering the question. "I honestly don't know," he muses.

"But I'll come up with something."

WHAT: "A Night in Old Italy," the BPO with Doc Severinsen

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday

WHERE: Kleinhans Music Hall

TICKETS: $25 to $70

INFO: 885-5000, www.bpo.org or Tickets.com

e-mail: mkunz@buffnews.com

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