St. John's Confidential File
Chuck Graham: Music Never Dies!
By Michael St John
Feb 22, 2013 - 10:02:39 AM

HELLO AMERICA!—For years many people have believed that young people are not really into classical or popular or standard music but nothing could be further from the truth. Chuck Graham is a fine example of today's youth and he is proud of the music being introduced today.


MSJ: Through the years you have played the clarinet and other instruments in numerous music groups i.e., jazz, chamber music, symphony and bands, when did you begin to have this kind of passion?


CG: I started playing in elementary school- the typical progression was to start on the recorder or song flute in third grade, then move to the beginning band in fourth grade. I started playing the saxophone in fourth grade, then added the clarinet in eighth grade because my grandfather played saxophone and clarinet. Band is something I always enjoyed, so I was in band through high school.


MSJ: Who were your music idols as a youngster and why?


CG: I listened to mostly rock and roll as kid- Cheap Trick, Pink Floyd, The Eagles- but my early idols were Lawrence Welk and his many featured performers. My parents watched the show, and always called me in to watch, especially when Jerry Tuttle was playing a saxophone solo. I saw Myron Florin and other stars from the show when they performed at the Music Circus in Sacramento. I also admired grandpa, of course, since he had played in local dance bands in Sacramento in the 1920s and 1930s. I am not sure which ones, except for the Camellia City Band. It was one of those ”˜town’ bands that played for various functions in and around Sacramento. They were all Portuguese, and played for the Portuguese fiestas in Sacramento and the smaller communities along the Sacramento River.


In high school, I joined the stage band, which played a variety of jazz, big band, and popular tunes. I remember being particularly taken with Spyro Gyra, Maynard Ferguson, Benny Goodman, and Henry Cuesta. They were all such marvelous musicians, and I saw Spyro Gyra and Henry Cuesta perform live. When I started taking private lessons on clarinet and saxophone, I gained an appreciation for Bach and Mozart. Also while in High School, I started going to the Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, which fueled my love of jazz. It was wonderful going to Old Sacramento and hearing music from every nook and cranny. There was a band that came from Russia, which at that time was quite a big deal. They were a fantastic band, and their show times were always packed. I cannot remember their name; everybody always looked forward to hearing ”˜the band from Russia.’ Big Tiny Little was another band I liked to see- Big Tiny Little was a wonderful piano player.



MSJ: Where there more openings for new and young musicians during your growing up years? And what was the attitude in most schools at the time in comparison to now?


CG: There were more symphonies and opera companies when I was growing up. There seemed to be an unfortunate turning away from the arts in the past twenty five or so years, so many of those organizations had to close their doors. I was very surprised when the Sacramento Symphony closed for instance. Many theatre companies use pre-recorded tracks nowadays, so there are fewer opportunities to play in a live orchestra there.


Small jazz combos are more prevalent nowadays as a means of cutting costs. There are opportunities out there, but musicians can expect to play various genres and with many different groups and organizations.


When I was growing up, the public school music programs were much stronger, and kids started playing at a younger age. Students than had a broader exposure to band, orchestra, jazz, choirs, and theatre. It seems the performing arts and fine arts programs nowadays are the first to go in a budget crisis. Many university music programs have expressed concern over this, as the musical proficiency generally is not what it used to be.

MSJ: What are some of the groups you are performing with now? And what have you learned about yourself as a professional musician?


CG: I perform with the Orchestra of St Catherine, which plays with the Dominican Winifred Baker Chorale. Some of us also play occasional shows at the Tiburon Baptist Church- usually a Christmas program and this year an Easter Service. I played with Dominican’s jazz band until recently, as my work schedule no longer permits me to attend.

A few years ago I joined the Lusitania Band of the North Bay. It was founded by Portuguese immigrants to perform at the fiestas in Marin, Sonoma, and Solano counties. It is a volunteer band, and such a wonderful group of people to be involved with. I am grateful for the opportunity to follow in grandpa’s footsteps. Working with the various groups I have learned to be flexible, and much more relaxed.


MSJ: In your opinion, what is lacking in today's music? In years past we applauded George Gershwin, Oscar Peterson, Benny Goodman and so many more. What musicians are out front today and why?

CG: Today’s pop concerts are very high energy with dazzling effects, but they are missing that sophistication of the big bands and popular singers of the 1950s and 1960s. Back then the performers all dressed up- the men in suits or tuxedos, and the women in full length dresses. Appearance was very important. The jazz combos of the 1950s and 1960s similarly dressed up.


I would say Beyoncé is certainly one of the outstanding performers of today. She is comfortable performing solo on piano as well as with a larger group. Her recent performances for the presidential inauguration and the Super Bowl illustrate her diversity. I am also impressed with Justin Bieber, a talented young artist who has made exceptionally good use of social media. The Brian Buckley Band similarly makes good use of social media, especially Twitter.


Michael Bublé stands out as one who has embraced the standards that have been popular since the Big Band Era. Much of this music dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, illustrating its enduring popularity. Lavay Smith is a wonderful singer who follows in the tradition of greats such as Billy Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her shows are a class act. And of course, Tony Bennett is still performing and recording. He is a phenomenal figure, and one of the very few performers left from a great and bygone era. In that sense the era lives on and today’s artists can learn much from Mr. Bennett’s career.


MSJ: You were one of the lead musicians in the recording of "Flight of Columbia Seven and Dances of Remembrance" which was praised by Congress as well as several of our major city governments. What was that experience like working with some of the most noted San Francisco Symphony musicians?


CG: It was a wonderful experience- everybody was so professional, and we got right down to playing. It was like second nature to them, and it was nice conversing at the break. Everybody was so nice. Those of us who were not symphony members felt like ”˜part of the gang.’ I was very impressed with their willingness to stay a little over time and finish in one session. That was certainly a highlight of my life- I thought to myself, “I can DO this!”


MSJ: When you are alone and look in the mirror who and what do you see and how does it make you feel?


CG: I see a professional musician trapped in the body of someone needing a steady day job, but I am ok with that. As Duke Ellington would say, music is my mistress.


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