Remembering A Boy With A Horn

Originally posted January 11, 2008

As I prepared today’s album share, I got to thinking about my horn-playing days. I’m not sure why I chose to play cornet. I think the band director at St. Cloud Tech suggested trumpet when he stopped by Lincoln School in early 1964, as I was completing fifth grade. He said my straight teeth – I would not need braces – would allow me to play the horn more easily than would my classmates whose teeth were less straight.

I was game, though I’d thought vaguely of playing the clarinet. It really didn’t matter much to me, as long as I got to learn to play a wind instrument. I’d already taken piano lessons for about three years and was beginning to realize that music would occupy a large portion of my life.

Not long after that, my parents and I went one Friday evening to Weber’s Music, a store in downtown St. Cloud that went out of business long ago. There, we looked at cornets and trumpets. Reassured that the two horns had the same fingering and essentially the same sound, we bought a cornet (perhaps because it was slightly less expensive than a trumpet although I’m not certain of that). I do recall the price of the horn: $165. That doesn’t sound like much, but according to an online inflation calculator, items that cost $165 in 1964 would today cost $1,049.98. In 1964, $165 was a hefty chunk of change.

I played the horn for about a bit longer than seven years, through my first quarter of college. I was pretty good at it – not as good as I could have been because I didn’t practice as much as I might have. But I was all right. One of the things I learned through playing cornet is that I have near-perfect pitch. I realized that when I listened to music, I knew instinctively what the fingering on the horn would be. I worked with that, and eventually became able to listen to a song and know what key it is in, as well as – most of the time – sort out its chords. It’s a useful tool for a musician – even an amateur one – to have.

I was in Boy Scouts at the time, and became – by default – our troop’s bugler. The couple times I went to summer camp, I took my horn with me and played “Taps” as the sun set each evening. (The more rapid morning call of “Reveille,” however, was one I never mastered.) In addition, as we sat around our campfires in the evenings, the guys in the troop sometimes asked me to play, and I’d offer my versions of popular songs to the wooded night. One of my cherished memories is the look on my fellow scouts’ faces as I finished my version of Nino Rota’s “Love Theme from ‘Romeo & Juliet’” (also titled “A Time For Us”) and the last melancholy notes faded into the August darkness.

Around that time – 1970 or so – I got a call from a man with the quintessentially Minnesotan name of Axel Olson. He was a member of the Disabled Veterans of America and was responsible for some of the funeral arrangements when members of the local chapter died. He’d gotten my name from my scout leader and wanted to know if I were available to play “Taps” at funerals. For two or three years, I’d get a call every couple of months. I’d put on my scout uniform and Axel Olson would take me to a funeral, where I would stand off to the side, cornet ready, for his signal.

This was the era of the Vietnam War, but the veterans for whom I played my horn had not died there. These were the veterans of World War I and World War II – possibly the Korean War – who had been injured or otherwise disabled and had come home to live out their lives. There was grief enough there; even at the age of seventeen and standing off to the side, I could feel it. I was grateful, and remain so, that I was not helping to lay to rest young men.

I let go of my cornet after high school. I played in a freshman band at St. Cloud State and – like a small-town pitcher in training camp – realized that the competition had gotten tougher. There were lots more good horn players at college than there had been in high school. I shrugged, put the horn in its case and kept on playing the piano.

And I thought today of my horn-playing days as I reviewed and zipped the 1971 self-titled album by the group called Chase. As I wrote last August:

“Bill Chase took his stratospheric trumpet into the Top 40 with ‘Get It On’ in the summer of 1971. It’s a good track, but it’s a bit frenetic, even for the time; I prefer the group’s version of ‘Handbags & Gladrags’ from their self-titled debut. The group’s time was brief; Chase and a few others were killed in a 1974 plane crash, heading for a gig in Minnesota.”

Chase might have been the most talented – in terms of virtuosity – of all the horn bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The self-titled debut sold well enough to reach No. 22 on the album chart, and “Get It On” reached No. 24 as a single. (Later releases were not as successful.) Moderation in instrumentation was not Bill Chase’s style: every track is packed, making the album better as a series of tracks, to me, than as something to listen to as a whole.* Still it’s fun.

Chase’s personnel was:

Bill Chase, trumpet
Ted Piercefield, trumpet and vocals
Alan Ware, trumpet
Jerry Van Blair, trumpet and vocals
Phil Porter, keyboards
Dennis Johnson, bass and vocals
Angel South, guitar and vocals
Jay Burrid, percussion
Terry Richards, lead vocals

Open Up Wide (Terry Richards, lead vocal)
Livin’ In Heat (Terry Richards, lead vocal)
Hello Groceries (Jerry Van Blair, lead vocal)
Handbags and Gladrags (Ted Piercefield, lead vocal)
Get It On (Terry Richards, lead vocal)
Boys and Girls Together (Ted Piercefield, lead vocal)
Invitation to a River (Terry Richards, lead vocal)
a. Two Minds Meet
b. Stay
c. Paint It Sad
d. Reflections
e. River

Chase – Chase [1971]

*I originally wrote here that Chase had a unique sound in part because there was no lead guitar, an erroneous statement that stemmed from my simply missing a line when I was typing in the credits. There are all kinds of ways to make errors, as I’ve learned during my years of blogging. Note added June 4, 2011.


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