This is a post I've been meaning to do for a long time. If you've read my "About Me" page, and made it to the end, you would know that at Springdale, Pennsylvania, High School, I played in a jazz big band that was then known as the "Mellowmen" and for every member it was the musical equivalent of being a star athlete. I made it into this group my sophomore year and by the time I graduated in 1970, the continued presence of females meant the band would eventually have to find a new name since "Mellowpersons" just wouldn't cut it so later editions were known simply as the Jazz Ensemble.
It's not a stretch to say that being a part of this outfit is what got me through high school. (Most memories of these years that don't involve music cause a state that can only be relieved by judicious applications of medicinal spirits.) Of all my life's experiences, playing in the Mellowmen has probably had the most lasting and profound effect, except for the ones that filled me with bitterness and resentment so I guess I should say it had the most positive effect. It helped to create a passion for music, particularly jazz, that's never left me and was a big part of the reason I retired early to earn the music degree I'd wanted all along. Most of this was thanks to one guy in particular.
|Note dorky trombone player 4th from right, 2nd row|
In 1958, the band director at Springdale, Duane Wareham, whom everyone called "Duke", started "The Mellowmen" because he wanted to pass along his love of big band jazz to his students. Duke was a damn good trumpet player and I don't think there was any instrument he couldn't play competently. He was also the elementary school band directory when I decided to join the band in 4th grade. Like most people, I had no interest in playing the trombone, but one of my cousins had an old one so that's what I showed up with my first day. Duke took one look at this thing, which looked like something Arthur Pryor himself might have rejected, and called my father to tell him just that. He found me an old student model Getzen that probably set the old man back no more than ten bucks but at least it was playable.
When I showed up for my first lesson, I noticed a model of a B-24 sitting on Duke's desk and he told me, like it was no big deal, he'd flown one during the war. I got to high school probably about the time he started working on his PhD and turned the band, including Mellowmen, over to Jack Lapato. Jack was a Springdale grad, a trombone student of Matty Shiner's at Duquesne and my first trombone teacher. (This, by the way, gives me a direct line to Arthur Pryor so I guess I've been pretty lucky all the way round.) Duke continued to be a presence, particularly at summer band camp where he'd spell Jack occasionally to rehearse the stage band. His enthusiasm was infectious and I have a particularly fond memory of him giving the band a lesson in how to swing. He had us all put our instruments down and we spent enough time clapping on two and four and singing rhythms for the concept to stick. Plus, it was damn fun.
Duke got his PhD, became the principal of the whole district and died way too young at the age of 55 in 1979. His wife, Betty Jo, also taught music and his son, Barry, just retired after a successful career as a school band director and music teacher so there's no telling how many kids have had a Wareham teach them how to play or sing. His daughter Wendy is a musician, too. So whatever the gene is, they all got it.
But the band Duke started means as much to everyone who ever sat behind those red stands as it does to me. And before I forget, the band from 1964 played at the New York World's Fair. In 1969 a band I was in went to Harrisburg and won the first statewide stage band competition in Pennsylvania. The '72 edition played in London, although I don't think the Queen could make it, and in 1980 they went to Berklee, so we were damn good, too. I'm sure I'm leaving out some other milestones.
We were all lucky to have grown up being taught by this wonderful musician and I think I speak for everybody. Regrettably, I no longer have the album the '69 band cut. There's a few others floating around out there somewhere. I think the '64 band recorded and I know they did in '72 as well but there's nothing I can share with you. So I thought something from Pops and another well-known Duke would sum things up nicely.
Thanks again, Duke. And if any former Mellowmen happen to read this, please leave your own comments and memories.
Trombone solo: Trummy Young