Sam Weller notes, enthusiastically, that Mr. Pickwick’s heart must have been born about twenty years after his body. Something like the same is true, obviously, about Doc Severinsen. He was born in 1927, or at least his body was. This makes him old enough to have played with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey right after the Second World War. Heck, its been twenty years since Johnny Carson retired and Severinsen stopped leading the NBC Orchestra on nightly “Tonight Show” broadcasts.
So his concert of big band standards, performed last Sunday night in K-State’s McCain Auditorium, ought to have been dusty, historic, and performed at tempos favored by Cream in their recent reunion concert—which is to say, Doc’s sixteen-piece band should have played at a slow walk. Right?
Wrong. In 2006, Severinsen moved to Mexico and began touring with bands which include some talented Mexican nationals. Wearing the loud sports clothes for which he is known, Doc leads them through quick-paced, hard-changing arrangements, joshes the crowd, praises his musicians, and manages to sneak in some trumpet solos of his own—maybe not fast-tongued ones, but still demonstrating his knack with tone and bends.
He struts along when the rhythm goes tight. He singles out soloists for accolades. He refers to his old associates, like deadpan Tommy Newsome, an arrangement of whose the band played. And Severinsen is always positive. Dale Carnegie has nothing on him.
The almost two dozen songs in the concert, five or six of them sung by Clay Center native Vanessa Thomas, were familiar choices, or would have been twenty years ago when big bands weren’t so rare. The McCain audience heard Count Basie music, Lionel Hampton music, “St. Louis Blues,” “Mood Indigo,” “Georgia on My Mind” — “Stardust,” for goodness sakes. But the arrangements were not the familiar ones.
The solos went mostly to Severinsen and three fine and remarkably quick sax players, though the pianist got a top to bottom solo, and the drummer, usually a modest accompanist, turned into a rocket for a lengthy take on “Sing, Sing, Sing.” He favored unaccompanied right hand runs and actually played the melody of the song through developments for his solo. Surprising and delightful.
Thomas sounded a treat and knocked off her first four or so songs before she felt she had to get into noodling embellishments, which meant her “Smile Though Your Heart is Aching” and “When You’re Smiling” were refreshingly clean. Her tone in certain parts of her range reminded me of three octave Cleo Laine, who performed once on the McCain stage with her husband John Dankworth. We saw Basie, too. Hampton was rickety when he danced out into the house and crossed at about row F, a handler following along to catch him if he fell.
And though Laine was also born in ’27, Severinsen’s show wasn’t like hers or Basie’s or Hampton’s. He wasn’t out recalling his musical triumphs, finding grooves to ride in, and performing his old hit records. And if Severinsen has slowed down a little, he wasn’t apparently unsteady on his pins. Though Doc has a history and we have a history with Doc, his McCain show was more like an extension of the swing era than a museum exhibit about it.
It was an entertaining McCain concert. And Doc was the heart and soul of the performance.