At 91, Doc’s Trumpet Still Inspires

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Doc Serverinsen, readers of a certain age will remember, was the music director of NBC's Tonight Show Band for 25 years. Some may remember him as much for his often-outlandish dress as his amazing musicianship.

In Knoxville, TN, on our annual spring RV, Elaine caught a mention on the morning news that Doc was going to perform that night on the University of Tennessee campus.

Too great an opportunity to miss.

Since we had never set foot on the campus, finding the James R. Cox Auditorium was an adventure. We found our way to a back door used by the student-musicians. As we exited a stairwell, there he was. Doc, dressed in colorful shirt and jeans, just standing there all alone.

I couldn't resist stating a conversation that took us back 55 years – when he was 36 and I was 21 – to a cold February night in Moorhead, MN (a twin city with Fargo, ND).

I was a member of the University of Iowa Symphony Band (principal bass clarinet) and Doc, principal trumpet of the Tonight Show Band but not yet its director, was Iowa's guest soloist.

The occasion was the annual Northwest Band Clinic, organized by Nels Vogel, a big promotor of bands and music education who owned a music store. To be invited to perform at his clinics was a high honor for any band.

The performance is seared in my mind as the highlight of my college playing days: 8000 people, including band members and their leaders, packed a venue on the Moorhead State campus. When they turned down the house lights, I could no see the back wall. And then there was the honor of accompanying Doc in his usual awe-inspiring performance.

Doc remembered the extreme cold. He told the story a one of his visits to Moorhead – there was more than one – when the temperature was 38 degrees below zero. He was tempted to step outside the hotel to experience the extreme cold. Maybe a bit head strong, he decided to ignore suggestions it was not a good idea and opened a door. He retreated after one step outside.

Doc also paid tribute to Fred Ebbs, the director of bands at Iowa, for his stellar reputation for molding a group of musicians – us – into an outstanding ensemble.

Doc teams with his partner, Cathy Leach, professor of trumpet at the University of Tennessee. With his nickname and her doctorate in music, they call themselves "Pair-A-Docs" and feature a wide-ranging repertoire: classical, jazz, Tonight Show standards.

When they entered the stage, the finale to a three-band concert, Doc, had changed to a UT orange blazer, and black leather pants – true to his flare of colorful outfits.

At 91 one, Doc can still hit the high note and play an expressive trumpet. The two played off each other and at one point the eight trumpeters in the UT Wind Ensemble joined in fill the auditorium – to the delight of the audience. Their encore, the schools fight song, brought the house down. It had special meaning because the day before their popular basketball coach had decided to stay.

In a way, Doc hasn't changed. Just like 55 years ago, he is dedicated to his trumpet and spends the hours of practice it takes to play at the top of his game. He also performs regularly, an ambassador for great band music and an inspiration for students with a passion for music.

MCHS: Strike up the Band–Memories and Smiles

Classmates, the highlight of our Mason City High School (MCHS) band experience had to be traveling to Chicago to play for the Mid-West National Band Clinic.


We had the spotlight Thursday evening. The other two feature bands at the clinic were the York Community High School Band, of suburban Elmhurst, Ill., and the United States Marine Band. Not surprisingly, I remember being awed at the performance the Marine Corp’s top band.

The trip, in December 1958, came toward the end of our first semester in high school, at a time when we were still getting adjusted to the move up from junior high and competing for a spot in the band.

The pressure was on us. Ours was the third MCHS trip to the Clinic and director Paul Behm stressed more than once that officials had said it would be Mason City’s last – other bands very much wanted an invitation to the high profile event. (Over the decades, MCHS did get at least two more invitations, but not for the featured evening spotlight.)

The performance behind us, Friday was our day to play. My choices were visiting the Board of Trade in the morning, a matinee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and an evening performance of My Fair Lady.

Memories of this trip came rushing back twice in the last six months.

In December, I got an invitation to attend a concert of the University of Iowa Saxophone Ensemble, which has received national honors, at this year’s convention.

What a contrast. We performed in the 12th clinic in the grand ballroom of the Sherman Hotel, long demolished, the site part of the State of Illinois Building. December marked the 64th anniversary of the group, which now boasts an expanded name – The Midwest Clinic, an International Band and Orchestra Conference – and has spread into larger facilities in a portion of McCormick Place, Chicago’s convention mecca.

What hasn’t changed is the smiles on the faces of musicians who work hard to perform their best on a national stage. When I saw them on the faces of the Iowa students at a post-performance reception, I imagined ours were just as wide 52 years ago.

This month, I was again reminded our our experience when I learned that, for the second year in a row, the winner of the Tatro Family Scholarship, is a vocal music student. (The scholarship, in it’s fifth year, is open to Mason City Community Schools seniors of need who excelled in music or journalism in high school and plan to concentrate their college studies in the same area.)

After doing a bit of Internet research, I learned what my classmates who live in the Mason City and environs may already know: The choral music program, clearly overshadowed by the band when we were students, has performed on national, even international, stages. In March, it sang at New York’s Lincoln Center as part of a featured evening concert.

I can only imagine their smiles were as big as ours more than a half century ago.

That’s what I still bring away from an important high school experience. Fellow classmates, especially those who made the trip, please share yours.