Once in awhile, I have the opportunity to participate in a very special musical event. That was the case this past week when Susan and I both were hired to be part of the orchestra accompanying Frank Sinatra, Junior.
Almost thirty years ago, Susan had the opportunity to play with Frank Sinatra, Senior, which was a life-changing experience for her. Mr. Sinatra, the “Chairman of the Board”, appreciated Susan’s playing so much that he had her place her harp with him in front of the rest of the orchestra. Because Susan electrifies her harp, Mr. Sinatra was probably hearing the harp part better than he ever had before. Following that validation, Susan realized that she could never again tell herself that “she wasn’t good enough.”
Frank Jr. had worked in his twenties as Frank, Sr.’s conductor. So he had been intimately involved with the music from an early age. Frank Jr. has been touring on his own for decades, singing many songs of his father’s with those famous big band arrangements that everyone loves. He looks somewhat like his father and sounds very much like him, though I think the father was the original pioneer, setting a high standard for a jazz vocalist with a big band that has not been surpassed.
The musical arrangements sometimes include a string section. But in this show, which was presented at the Atlantis Casino, we were a 20-piece big band, augmented by guitar, harp, one French horn, and an extra percussionist. Most of the local musicians are members of the Reno Jazz Orchestra of which I’m a member. Since we just played a fantastic concert last week, the music from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, everyone’s musical “chops” are up. Frank Jr. travels with a core group of musicians: two saxophonists, a lead trumpet player, two keyboardists, a bass player, drummer, and his conductor. I played the second tenor sax folder, sitting next to a fabulous lead alto player from Chicago, who said he had been playing more or less continuously with Frank Jr. since 1975.
We had a three-hour rehearsal the afternoon of the show. We played through the whole show as well as the encores. Frank was present most of the rehearsal, testing the sound system, and getting comfortable with the stage and the room. He was very skilled at working with the band. For example, he stopped the band one time to say, “I didn’t hear all five notes in the saxophone chord in that section…Could we play it again please?” Some big star artists are aloof and withdrawn. Not Frank, he joined the musicians during the coffee break and was open and friendly toward the musicians.
The show was sold out. The audience consisted mostly of people older than us. Frank Sinatra, Jr. is sixty-eight years old. Playing his show was like going back in time. The repertoire consisted of popular standards that I heard as a kid listening to my parents chosen “easy-listening” radio station. The only other comparable musical flashback occurred several years ago when I played a show led by famous bandleader Cab Calloway’s grandson, leading his father’s big band songbook.
Whenever a musician is put into a situation where he/she is playing a songbook for the first time, sitting beside fulltime top professional musicians who probably know the music by heart, we feel a little nervous. Susan was more nervous than usual because she hadn’t played a casino show like this for several years. She loaded her harp to the stage sufficiently early so that she could look through all the music in advance of the rehearsal.
For me, when I heard the lead alto player warm up on piccolo, flute, clarinet, soprano saxophone, and alto saxophone, playing each instrument beautifully, I was inspired to simply try to keep up, following his lead, and playing in rhythm and in tune. One challenge in reading a songbook like this is to count the measures of rest, to carefully read the parts which are often in difficult keys, while glancing as often as possible at the conductor. When I went astray a couple of times, the lead alto player quickly stopped me and told me where we were in the music. This happened a couple of times in rehearsal but luckily not during the show.
The show was a great success, receiving a standing ovation. Everyone felt relieved that we had played the show without any “train wrecks.” There is an element of local pride, since we know that Frank Sinatra Jr. and his musicians work with top Hollywood musicians, seasoned New York show musicians, top London musicians, etc. We wanted them to have a good impression of the high quality of Reno musicians, and apparently we succeeded.
Personally, it was gratifying to be a part of musical “history”, by playing with a jazz icon and being reminded of the rich musical legacy established by Frank Sinatra, Sr. Reno doesn’t host as many music superstars as it did in decades past, when casinos regularly had big name entertainers, who always hired many local musicians to back them up. However, we do have “tribute” shows in which young musicians reproduce the performances of past musical greats. In that spirit, next week I will be in the orchestra of the “Rat Pack” show, celebrating the music of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. We will probably play some of the same songs again. I don’t mind…I look forward to it!