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Innerviews: Esquires horn player hits the high notes

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He plays trumpet, saxophone and flute with the Esquires. He isn't flamboyant. He doesn't hog the limelight. He just stands there on the side of the stage and plays those horns for all he's worth.

That's who he is, how he sees himself, how he wants to be remembered. The title he chose for a recent resume says it all: "Biography of a Trumpet Player Named Bob Smith."

A serious musician and a veteran member of the popular oldies dance band, he spent much of his life in dogged pursuit of the elusive double C. Inspired by his idol, Maynard Ferguson, he eventually mastered the complex physiological nuances behind the high note.

He's 64, quiet and soft-spoken, a retired school music teacher, computer specialist and librarian. On stage with the Esquires, the passion behind his never-ending quest for perfection shines through.

On Feb. 4, he brings his horns to the Charleston Moose for the Esquires Super Bowl Saturday Dance, a benefit to raise funds for Gazette's Charities.

 

"I grew up in Belle. My dad worked as millwright at DuPont. I loved baseball. I loved throwing things. I got in a lot of trouble doing that. I delivered newspapers and would throw the paper and crack a window. I probably broke about half a dozen.

We won a state baseball championship when I was 14 and we went to Tennessee. I could throw real hard, which is why I was on the all-star team. But I couldn't hit. The last inning, coach says, 'OK, we are losing this game, and nobody can hit this guy, so you are up.' Me? The worst hitter on the team? I hit the ball over the second baseman's head and started around the bases, and we won the game.

"In grade school, a music teacher came by the school and said the school was going to start a band. I wanted to join the band. Dad put a banjo, violin and trumpet on the bed and told me to choose one. The band wouldn't take a violin or banjo, so I picked trumpet.

"I took lessons. The guy taught me everything he knew which, looking back, was pretty much all wrong. What I learned was that of all the teachers I had, about 1 percent knew about embouchures. An embouchure consists of the 13 muscles of the face and how you utilize them while playing.

"If you don't get those just right, you've got problems. A poor embouchure will get you a high C, but to go to double C, you need to be doing most things correctly. Most teachers don't know that because the teachers before them didn't know it.

"I picked up the saxophone and, in just a few months, I could play it and became very proficient with very little practice. Trumpet is a very tough instrument unless you are just a natural player.

"Trouble with trumpet is the harder you try to play a note, the worse it gets. The key is to relax. I got frustrated because I couldn't play the upper register. I was a pressure player. They burn out after 5 or 10 minutes.

"A salesman in one of the music stores told me about a teacher named Bill Carmichael. I told him, 'I don't care anything about slurring, tone, articulation or all that stuff. I just want to play high.' He said I was his first honest student. He said they all tell him they want to do this and that, but what they really want to do is play high.

"It starts with the diaphragm. Carmichael said the first thing you want to do is lie on the floor. He said to pretend he was an elephant. He started to stomp on my stomach. He said, 'You tightened your stomach muscles, and that's where the compression begins.'

"Teachers said over the years to tighten your diaphragm, but they didn't explain it like he did. You push the diaphragm out a little bit, then shove it in, and it's compressed. You use air from the diaphragm instead of the lungs. If you use air from the lungs, it creates an over-vibration of the lips. After doing that for 40-some years, it was tough to correct.

"When I got to seventh grade, I played in the high school band with guys who were way above me. When I was 17, I started with a band called the Escorts, and we played in local clubs like the Man-Tiki.

"The singer went to Cleveland and the band broke up, so we formed another band called the Showmen, and I played with them another year. I got drafted.

"In the military, I would go out for the post bands. If you are used to playing six nights a week and you love playing and somebody says, 'Give me your trumpet, and here's your rifle,' my first response is, 'No, give me my trumpet back.' They didn't see it that way.

"The put me in the infantry. I auditioned and made the post bands at Fort Ord, in Hawaii and in Vietnam, but they wouldn't let me out of the infantry. The said they had too much invested in me. So I was stuck.

"When I got home, I went to West Virginia Tech and majored in music. In the fall of 1969, I joined the Esquires and I've been with them ever since.

"I can remember walking in a fraternity house and everybody said, 'You have to hear the Esquires. They're the best band around.' They had a fantastic drummer, Jimmy Neal. He could keep the beat and throw up at the same time.

"When I was about 17, I bought a Maynard Ferguson record. 'Danny Boy' was the first song. He went up to a double C and it was incredible! I wanted to be able to do it. That started the challenge. It's like a rock climber. We are going to present you with a challenge and you have to do all these things to get there.

"In college, a bunch of us trumpet players went to see Maynard Ferguson playing in Ohio at the Brown Derby. We got to sit about 10 feet from the stage. None of us was the same after that.

"Maynard did this inner-circular breathing on the last note of 'Hey Jude,' which was a high F. I think he went to India to learn the breathing. It's where you breathe in and out at the same time.

"He was playing this high F. After 20 seconds, you would think any human would falter, but he kept playing it -- one minute, two minutes, three minutes. All this time, his stomach was gyrating. He definitely was my inspiration. I went to see him maybe 15 times.

"I taught music as an itinerant teacher in Boone County for five years and went to Marshall at night and got a degree in elementary education. I taught at my old school, DuPont Junior High. I got into computer science and got a library certificate. I became a librarian for 20 years and ran the computer lab at Pratt Elementary. I retired nine years ago.

"I played with the Esquires until 1971 when the band broke up. In '82, they had a reunion concert at the Civic Center and we've been playing together all these years. Butch Evans joined the band before me and Phil Martin joined a few months before I did. So we're the veterans.

"The Esquires play music that allows a trumpet player a lot of opportunities to play high notes. But the upper register has one drawback with this band. Every time I play a note between a high C and a double C, Kevin, one of our singers, starts to sing like Yoko Ono.

"So I at least have fun when I play. The main focus, the only reason I play, is to have a good time. I watch other bands, and you can tell by looks on their faces if they're having a good time. Regardless of how good you are, you have to be into it. You can't do things mechanically.

"There's a sense of satisfaction knowing you have pretty much accomplished your goal. But you hit that genetic wall. Even though you know what to do is right, you can only do it so well.

"Even though I made the military bands every time I auditioned, that doesn't mean I'm good enough to make the big Army band. There's a difference. A lot of people can play semi-pro football, but they can't make the big league.

"Ideally, I would have been brought up near North Texas State. They have the One O'Clock Lab Band there. They play big band music, and I would have just fit right in.

"It takes money to go down there, and it's a little late to go and say, 'Will you teach me to play this stuff?' Music is a continuous learning process. If you don't strive to get better all the time, you stagnate.

"I'm the only trumpet player I know of who also plays saxophone and flute. When I retire from the huffing and puffing of horn playing, I will pick up acoustic guitar. I love acoustic guitar. I just never have time to do it."

Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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