Back To Dixieland

ffw-gibson-4-15-10.I am a native of Fayetteville. My love of music and cornet began in the fifth grade at Leverett Elementary School. I attended Woodland Junior High where I met one of my mentors, Bill Martin. He taught me how to play Dixieland and gave me the opportunity to play in a Big Band. We played Basie, Glen Miller and others.

In spite of an accident involving my front teeth, I continued playing through Fayetteville High School. During my senior year my mother signed me up for trumpet lessons with Dr. Lawrence Meyer, professor of trumpet at the University of Arkansas. As a freshman at UA, I was like most everyone else, trying to avoid the draft. Studying with Dr. Meyer and occasionally his good friend Carl “Doc” Severensin and with the help of Bill Martin, I made Navy bands.

After completing my hitch as a Navy musician, I went to Tulsa where I met Vernon Howard. Through him I met Ron Predl, director of music at Tulsa University and got a full scholarship to the University of Tulsa.

In 1974 I moved to the mountains outside Eureka Springs. There I met another of my mentors, Sam Routh Sr. Sam and I started a Dixieland band, which made a little money and had a lot of fun. Sam sent me to New Orleans, where I moved in with his son, Sam “Catfish” Jr. and played all-night jobs of Catfish’s music.

During the day I listened to Dixieland bands. One day Frank Trapani was leading an 11-piece band at the Maison Bourbon. As usual, I was sitting on my trumpet case in front of the club. Frank asked me to sit in. He became another mentor.

But New Orleans was a union town. It was expensive and there was a waiting period to play so I decided to go to Houston. There I played with the Houston Jazz Society Big Band, which included such luminaries as John Parks, Jimmy Ford, Kit Reid and Bobby Welbourn. I was reunited with Claudia Burson, whom I hadn’t seen since high school.

Next I went to Austin. I drove down Congress Avenue, parked and walked inside a bar where I sat in with a Dixieland band. When we stopped playing the piano player walked over, shook my hand and introduced himself as Robert “Beto” Skiles. He said he needed a trumpeter for his salsa band Beto y los Fairlanes.

In Austin I met Raymond Crisara, professor emeritus of trumpet at the University of Texas. Ray whipped me into shape by teaching me a modern approach to trumpet. It was no longer a physical, but a mental approach. Life was good. I was playing a lot of jazz and studio work on the side.

New Year’s Eve of 1984, I was driving home, thinking about the weather and whether to drive or fly to Tulsa to play in a big band that Vernon Howard had put together. I never got there. A drunk driver hit me head-on and almost killed me. After a long recovery, I put together a new Dixieland band called the “Dixie Scat Cats.” The Scat Cats played around Texas for four years. But Ray told me that my playing wasn’t what it used to be, I needed a profession and why didn’t I try teaching. I moved back to Tulsa and got a degree in education and taught for two years in Oklahoma.

In 1992 Sonny Gray, the great Tulsa jazz pianist, asked me to play the Eureka Springs Jazz Festival with him. Sam Routh and his wife Lee said my bed was ready. It had been 16 years and it was great to see the man who had sent me on my journey.

After I played with Sonny that night I went walking around Eureka. I heard a jazz band playing from the ballroom of the Basin Park Hotel where Betty Elkins was sitting at the band table. Betty and I had played in a jazz duo in the Montrose area of Houston for two years. At the Basin Park Ballroom she introduced me to the piano player Lee Tomboulian’s sister Necia and it was love at first sight.

I left Oklahoma and came back to Fayetteville where I was co-principal trumpet with North Arkansas Symphony Orchestra. One day I was playing with Jim Greeson when a group of young musicians sat down and listened. When we finished playing they asked me to join them. It was Keefe Jackson and members of Big World Quartet. It became Big World Quintet. I enjoyed writing and playing the eclectic music. After finishing graduate school at the UA, playing with the symphony, Big World and other jazz bands and substitute teaching for Fayetteville Public Schools, I wondered what was next.

I got a job as music teacher at Butterfield Trail Elementary School and taught there for 13 years, then taught at McNair Middle School for three and a half years. Last year, an infection almost killed me and I retired from teaching. I can still play, though mostly while sitting.

It seems that after any major turning point in my life I return to Dixieland. It’s fun music and hard work. Earlier this year I asked Claudia Burson, Nathan McLeod, Steve Wilkes, Drew Packard and Greg Battista if they would like to play my Dixieland book on Fat Tuesday at Teatro Scarpino. They said “yes” and the West Avenue Dixie Ramblers were born. We will be playing at Scarpino’s again at 8 p.m. April 27.

Categories: Features, Music