Still blowing hard

Famed Tonight Show band leader Doc Severinsen at Schuster

Photo: Doc Severinsen performs for his Birthday Bash at Schuster this weekend

By Tim Smith

In the world of jazz and popular music, there are musicians, and then there is Doc Severinsen. Doc has been entertaining audiences with his trumpet artistry for more than 70 years, and he’s making a return visit to Dayton on Nov. 17 and 18 as part of his 90th birthday celebration tour with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.

Carl “Doc” Severinsen was a child prodigy on the trumpet. At age 12, he won a Music Educator’s National Contest and began playing professionally while still in school. After serving in the Army in World War II, he joined the NBC broadcasting network as a staff musician. He also launched a recording career that’s still going, and began playing in The Tonight Show band in 1962. He was named bandleader a few years later, and gained notoriety for his flashy fashions as well as his musical style. He was the second trumpeter whose recording of the fanfare “Abblasen”, composed by Gottfried Reiche, has been used as the theme for the CBS News program Sunday Morning.

The Dayton City Paper recently talked with Severinsen about his long career, beginning with why he’s still performing and touring at the age of 90.

“I ask myself that question every morning when my eyes open,” he says. “Why am I gonna play the trumpet today? Who cares? I do it partly out of habit but also because I’m interested to see what results I can get on that particular day. I’m always in the process of trying to find an answer to that question. I start out with a warm-up and play all day long, looking for new ideas, how to form the embouchure and get more out of the sound. I’m trying to get more information that I can pass on to other trumpet players.”

He has spent much of his career passing on those discoveries to younger players through clinics. He also embarked on a quest to find the perfect trumpet.

“I’m starting to do more and more of that because starting back at least 30 years ago, I decided to make my own trumpet,” Severinsen says. “I couldn’t find one that would play the way I wanted. I’d look for older trumpets and spent a lot of time getting these things rebuilt with a guy who really knew what he was doing. I had a room with at least 30 trumpets in it, and every day, I’d play one and think what am I looking for?”

Severinsen admits that much of his recognition resulted from the years he spent as bandleader on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

“We had all of the great jazz players,” he says, “but even with how good they were, it was kind of a repetitious thing we did, and they started to lose interest. I’d see the slumped shoulders and lousy breathing techniques. I’d see all this panoply of misery creeping up and I’d say well, boys, it’s time to do a little Boy Scout session here and get back to the basics, and then I’d just rehearse their asses off. One rehearsal went on for over eight hours. They’d see that look in my eye and know that the old man was gonna hit them with a big rehearsal.”

Severinsen still takes the art of making music seriously, and he doesn’t rely solely on his name to draw an audience.

“I don’t ever play just for fun,” he says. “I try to play for serious. If I’m playing for fun it only lasts for a little while, then I want to make it better. I’m finding that the longer I’m involved in music, whether its conducting a symphony orchestra or playing the trumpet, I’m looking for a sort of inner intensity. I want to know what’s inside the phrases and notes. What’s the song about? What is the meaning of the piece? Why are we even playing this piece? I’m a lot more sensitive about the music I play. If I’m playing a song that has a message of loss or loneliness or sadness, I feel it to the point of being in tears, especially if it’s a song that I’m conducting. I’m just more particular about each piece that I play.”

He has made several stops in Dayton over the years, and has some surprises planned for his upcoming gig.

“I have a few pieces that rely on people I bring along, like two wonderful girl singers,” Severinsen says. “I have to shape the program so that what they can do fits in. They’re both opera singers, and they’re very good, but then they hit the switch and can sing the wildest blues you’ve ever heard. I want the audience to think what the hell are they gonna come up with next? I have a wide variety of things that I can bring to it. I have to remember don’t be selfish and try to design it for how you feel, but think about what’s best for the orchestra. Neal Gittleman is an old friend, and I just want to make sure that when we finish the program, he has a smile on his face and says thanks, man, that’s just what we needed.”

Doc Serverinsen’s 90th Birthday Bash with the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra will be presented on Nov. 17 and 18 in the Schuster Center’s Mead Theatre, Second and Main Street in Dayton. Showtimes are 8 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit or call 937.222.1510.

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Tim Smith is an award-winning, bestselling author. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Smith at

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