Still swinging: Trumpeter Doc Severinsen finds a sweet spot in East Tennessee

Doc Severinsen has carried on a successful career long after leaving “The Tonight Show.”

Doc Severinsen has carried on a successful career long after leaving “The Tonight Show.”

Trumpeter/band leader Doc Severinsen can still hit the notes, and it’s not something he ever takes for granted. He always warms up.

“A trumpeter is kind of like a golfer or an opera singer,” says Severinsen in a call from his home in Blount County. “There are certain things you do before you go out and do it front of anybody else. If you think you can get away without it, you’re nuts. ... To play a trumpet you need to get your blood flowing and have some good food and good thoughts, and then you’re ready.”

Severinsen, 85, has been living in East Tennessee for the past few years. He still has a busy schedule, but he also makes appearances around Knoxville. On Saturday, April 13, he’ll perform a program of all Italian music with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra.

He moved to East Tennessee to be closer to Cathy Leach, principal trumpeter with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and professor of trumpet at the University of Tennessee. While there are times he seems at odds with the more extreme conservatism of East Tennessee, Severinsen says he really enjoys the area.

“Well, it seems like home!” he says. “I’ve learned it’s not as much where you are as who you’re with.”

Severinsen grew up in Arlington, Ore., where his father was a dentist and an amateur violinist. Severinsen was named Carl after his father, but family and friends began calling him “Little Doc ,” and it stuck.

The younger “Doc” first fell in love with the trombone but decided to learn trumpet because that was what was available in town. Severinsen’s father gave him music lessons, teaching classical pieces. At 12, he won the Music Educators National Contest and, at 14, he was given an audition with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. His age turned out to be a mitigating factor, but, at 16, he did join the group. He also performed with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet and other big-band leaders before becoming a staff musician for NBC in New York.

That led to Severinsen becoming the first trumpeter and later band leader on “The Tonight Show,” shortly after Johnny Carson replaced Jack Paar as its host. He stayed with the show for the next 30 years and left when Carson retired in 1992.

Severinsen continued with his musical career, touring more than he could when he was on TV and performing as a guest with symphonies and certain jazz outfits.

“That’s really gaining momentum with communities that can’t successfully have a really great symphony orchestra, but they can have a jazz orchestra and enjoy the fruits of that. I’m glad to see that.”

He recently performed a show with Byron Stripling and a community jazz orchestra in Naples, Fla., and has made a surprise appearance with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra.

He’s also interested in working with different arrangers. Hearing the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra perform the music to “Sweeney Todd” gave him an appreciation for Stephen Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Turick, who wrote the arrangements.

“Two days later the phone rings and my manager asks ‘Would you like to work with Jonathan Turick?’”

The two have a weeklong gig in New York coming up soon.

It’s obvious that Severinsen is at a point where he only does what he enjoys, and he believes he plays with more feeling.

He particularly enjoys the all-Italian program he’s working on with the KSO. He’s worked with guest vocalist Joseph Wolverton for a decade or so and he enjoys conducting.

He says he wants Italian music to sound Italian.

“People are afraid to put as much garlic in there as you need. Lots of garlic and a little bit of red wine. If it’s too much for them they shouldn’t be eating it. It’s like driving a Cadillac. If you’re asking how much mileage it gets, you can’t afford it, so don’t bother.”

When asked if he misses leading a big band every night, Severinsen gives an immediate no, but explains it without mentioning music.

“I’ve just been reading a book about Spanish mustangs and their home is in the western United States. There’s maybe two ranches that continue to raise them just for the sake of history. You know, I’d love to go down there and spend about two or three days watching them, and after that I’d like to put a saddle and ride off on one. I thought once I’d like to get one and bring it here, but I decided, no, they need to stay where they are. It’s up to me to learn as much about their character as I can and go ride them where they are.”

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Comments » 2

peerlessvolfan writes:

Wow! First I find out Shaq lives in Maryville and now Doc Severinsen lives in E. Tennessee! Who knew?

HATEBAMA writes:

"While there are times he seems at odds with the more extreme conservatism of East Tennessee," Whew! Thanks KNS, my extended family and I (12) would have blown a lot of money had you not warned us this hater liberal was typical of the ignorant elitist Hollywood type. I hope he gets at odds enough of us evil conservatives so he decides to leave.

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