Doc Severinsen, San Antonio and the Paparazzi by Jim Cullum Jr

Doc Severinsen and Jim Cullum Jr.

Nearing the end of its 3rd month the Landing was taking off. On weekends the place was packed. People stood in line to get in. Many of them drank a lot. They brought in their own bottles in liquor store paper sacks. There was no “liquor by the drink.” They poured their own. The Landing sold buckets of ice, Coke, 7up, club soda, tonic water, etc. We sold beer too. Everything cost 75¢. That was a high price. I had just turned 21 and could legally step up to the Landing bar, put my foot on the brass rail and order a beer.  

In a Landing aisle way, gripping the remains of his Chivas Regal by the neck of the bottle, stands this guy. I guess he is about 50 or so―a little large around the middle and with a red blazer and tie. (That was the rule―in those days you didn’t even come into the Landing without a coat and tie.) This guy is sticking out his hand, shaking mine, and telling me how great the band is and how he’s coming back the next night with Doc Severinsen. He’s beaming, and I take it that I’m supposed to know who this Doc is. So I play along, making nice, while he fishes out his business card which reads: “Howard ‘Sandy’ Sandberg, the Getzen Company, Makers of the World’s Finest Brass Instruments.”

Howard “Sandy” Sandberg is a little flushed from the several scotches he has enjoyed, and the flush reaches up and over and down the back of his head. Old jokes about “grass not growing on a busy street,” and a “reverse Mohawk” haircut describe him well. He is jolly, too.

“Yes?” I ask, excitedly reading his card. “If you make the world’s finest brass instruments―do you make a good cornet?”

“Merely the best in the best in the world,” he says, “But right now it’s only in prototype. You gotta try it.” He continues, “Doc is doing a clinic tomorrow afternoon at the Gunter Hotel Ballroom. It’s T.B.A. Here, take this pass. It will get you in.”

I’ve never heard of T.B.A. either, but soon learn it’s the Texas Bandmasters Association. And Texas is such a big state with such an extraordinary number of school bands that the T.B.A. convention has become the 2nd largest music convention held anywhere in the United States―just slightly smaller than the huge National Association of Music Merchants meeting held annually in Chicago.

The next day I hurry over to the Gunter Ballroom which is packed with Texas Bandmasters, and I work my way over to the right side of the stage where Sandy spots me from across the room and starts poking several other guys, and they all start looking at me and waving hellos. After a few more minutes, one of the moguls of the Texas Bandmasters steps to a microphone and introduces one member of Sandy’s troop as “Doc,” and the packed-in Bandmasters go a little crazy!

Tonight Show television fame lies in the future. The general public knows nothing of Doc Severinsen, but these Bandmasters know: Somehow, Doc, a regular scuffling musician, has locked himself away in some hole and practiced ten hours a day―for years. When he comes out, the word is that technically he is the best all around trumpet player, period!

Doc jumps on the stage, starts in, digs in, talking about the practice life, the trumpet life, how strange it is, about the details of how he practices―the Clarke Studies, the Arban book—he bangs the valves down, he says.

This goes on for 20 or 30 minutes and then he plays 3 notes―just 3 whole notes and he is pointing the trumpet in my general direction and, wow, that big sound hits me! It’s not so loud―just big, and it takes about 1? seconds for me hear the 3 notes, process them through my brain and decide absolutely that Doc―describing him as a musician might—is not just a regular B-flat trumpet player. Eventually he talks about the new Getzen Severinsen model trumpet. Then he holds up a short cornet and says, “And this is the new Getzen cornet. It’s just going into production, etc. And by the way, there’s Jim Cullum standing right over there. He plays cornet on the River Walk at the Landing and you should go down and hear him.”

I am flabbergasted that Doc has any idea at all about me or who I am, but it seems that Sandy has already waltzed him through the Landing a couple of nights before. When Doc finishes, he is seriously swarmed by the Bandmasters. Sandy, circling the swarm, works his way over to where I am and hands me a fancy black case with one of those prototype Getzen cornets. A try-out is in the cards.

I’m off with the thing and, well… it’s just hands-down the best cornet I’ve ever touched!

That night the Getzen guys are all at the Landing in their Red Blazers and with a fresh bottle of Chivas Regal. The band is just stomping it out! Things tend to get hotter when we know there are musicians in the house! Doc raves about the rhythm. I do too. Willson Davis drives the two-beat with his E-Flat 1927 York Sousaphone. And then there is the kicker: light, crisp 4/4 time, pushed out from Benny Valfre the banjo player. I am turned on by the new Getzen cornet. It adds up to a night of enormous fun with Doc and Sandy and the others hanging on every note.

As he’s leaving, Sandy says to keep the prototype. They have two others, and T.B.A. is ending anyway.

Years pass. Sandy Sandberg has become important in my life and has supplied me with a lot of friendship and several Getzen cornets. I see Doc now and then, too. The years have made him famous.

One day he is on the phone: “Jim, I’m coming to San Antonio to play a concert. Ed Shaughnessy will be with me. (Shaughnessy is the Tonight Show drummer.) How about picking us up at the airport, and let’s get some Mexican food?”

So I go to the airport. This is in the days when you can still park on the curb at the airport for 20 minutes. But, there’s a press conference. Eventually we’re off in the car, and somehow I haven’t gotten a parking ticket. I recommend the Pan American Mexican Restaurant.

“Well,” Doc says “I sat next to this guy on the plane and he talked about a place on the West side—West Commerce Street, I think he said …” and Doc fumbles around in his coat pocket for an envelope on which he has written the address.

So we head for this joint on West Commerce Street. It is a small place. We settle in for some serious Mexican food. Doc starts ordering a lot of food, and I think he must be ordering for the three of us, but, no, he concludes with, “That ought to do it for me!”

Ed Shaughnessy has nicknamed Doc, “The Great Swami.” He looks over his menu: “Eating light again, O Great Swami?”

Doc attacks like Henry VIII at his most ravenous. A bowl of soup to start, then chili con queso, guacamole salad, lots of enchiladas—cheese, beef and chicken, then there are the tacos—both crisp and soft beef and chicken, carne guisada, tamales and other stuff, portions of rice and beans and a little chili con carne. Doc works through all the above while Shaughnessy and I dine at one third Doc’s volume, speed and enthusiasm.

We prepare to leave. Doc pays the bill, steps sideways out onto the sidewalk and calls back to me, over his shoulder, “Jim, now what’s the name of that other place you recommended?”

“The Pan American.”

“Well, let’s go over there.”

I’m not exaggerating! This really happens! We go over to the Pan American, and while Shaughnessy and I have cups of coffee, Doc does it all again!

These days most people hold a fading mental image of Doc Severinsen: the thin and dapper guy on the Tonight Show dressed weirdly in extra colorful suits. To musicians he is known as the world’s greatest trumpet virtuoso, and while his reputation as a serious eater is not as universally known, it is something of a legend too.

A couple of years later I am practicing at the Landing in the afternoon and somebody is knocking at the front door like crazy. I try to ignore the knocking but the knocker is determined. Finally I go to the door and squint at images in the shade bordered by bright sunlight.

“Hi Jim, it’s Doc! I could hear you—knew you were in there,” and he introduces me to an attractive female he has in tow. “Are you playing tonight?”

“Sure, we will be here.” I start to apologize for not coming to the door. But he cuts me off.

“Forget it, forget it,” he insists as he smiles graciously. I have come to know that Doc is a very nice guy. Becoming a big star has hardly affected him at all.

Doc sitting in at the old Landing. Left to right: Benny Valfre, Jim Cullum, Jr., Doc Severinsen, Cliff Gillette, Jim Cullum, Sr., Gene McKinney. The poster reads, "Jim Cullum's Happy Jazz featuring the Original Happy Music of the Jazz Age. Listen Closely to the Real Stuff."

That night about 10:30 Doc walks into the old Landing holding his trumpet case with one hand and the same attractive lady with the other. He sits in for a full set, applying good taste, blending in, not overplaying or any of that.

Meanwhile, I notice his lady friend is anxiously drumming her fingernails on the table. It seems that she is not at all into this stop-over at the Landing.

As the set ends, Doc says, “Jim, I gotta get out of here as fast as I can or the rest of the evening may get pretty messed up,” and I follow his eyes over to the table where the lady continues to drum her fingers. I nod my understanding. However, as we step off the stage the autograph hounds close in, and, of course, being such a nice guy Doc signs and signs. I grab his case and make a suggestion to the lady and soon she and I are waiting by the front door, and yes, she does seem to be a little irritated about the way the evening has played out.

Eventually, Doc makes it to the door. We exchange hurried goodbyes. He and the lady are ready to charge out into the night, when, on the Landing riverside porch we all are stopped short in the face of photographer Butch Garner.

For some years Butch has been quite a friend of the jazz band, hanging out nightly at the Landing, taking lots of photographs and helping out in many other ways as a sort of a band “roadie.”

Butch is on the porch with his camera and he says, “Hey Doc and Jim, pose for a picture.” Doc says, “Sorry, we really have to go now.”

But Butch insists saying, “It’ll only take a second,” and nice guy Doc says, “Well, okay.” He and I quickly pose shaking hands. Butch snaps the picture and the flash bulb fails to go off.

“Rats!”

Doc says, “Look I gotta go!”

“Wait, wait! I’ll lick the flash bulb this time!” So again Doc and I pose, the camera is aimed, snapped and again the flash bulb fails to flash.

We laugh a little as Butch curses. Doc puts his arm around the lady he says “Too bad about the photo. Good night you guys.”

But Butch blocks his way and says “Oh please Mr. Severinsen. Please let me have one more chance, and he is licking and inserting another flash bulb.

I feel the tension. There is no way Doc can be the “nice guy” to the lady and to Butch. But the camera is up and ready.

“Please…pleezee?”

“Okay, okay !” And for a third time we pose. Butch’s finger squeezes down, the shutter opens and closes with its regular click, but again the flash does not go off.

Butch whirls on his heel and hurls the camera which arches up and out and splashes right into the center of the River!

For a second or two we all stand in disbelief. Then while Butch curses the camera, the rest of us including Doc’s lady friend, began pointing, exclaiming, laughing.

This classic Landing story has been told over and over and has even been stretched, making the claim that when the camera hit the water, the flash finally went off by itself! The stretch didn’t happen. But the reality of the camera sailing through the air, amidst Butch’s oaths is good enough.

I remember every detail and can play the scene back in slow motion. The camera travels end over end, like a football on a kickoff.

Splash… and a circle of perfect little droplets rise just above the surface and freeze in my mind’s eye. Then the camera disappears like a piece of lead!

Doc turns in slow motion, too, and waves as he and his friend move off down the empty River Walk. I can still hear him laughing.

Laughter is contagious. Finally even Butch starts to laugh a little.

“Come on Butch. Let me buy you a beer.”

© 2008 Jim Cullum, Jr.

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