By Jim Beal Jr.
San Antonio Express-News
For a quarter of a century, Doc Severinsen was likely the highest-profile trumpet player and band leader on the planet.
From his spot on the “Tonight Show” stage, the sartorially out-there Severinsen kibitzed with storied host Johnny Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon while leading the Tonight Show Orchestra through hot and cool paces.
When Carson retired in ’92, changes to the late-night show did not include Severinsen and his crew.
“I decided to retire and move to Mexico,” said Severinsen. “I knew I wanted to keep playing trumpet because that’s what I do. I went out to dinner in San Miguel and heard these guys playing. They are world class.
“I introduced myself. They didn’t know me from Adam, but they invited me to play. I figure you always need to be ready to make a change. Change is good. Take advantage of what’s presented to you. With this group, there was no doubt. The minute I heard them I wanted to play with them.”
Severinsen will lead the San Miguel 5 into Boerne on Sunday and Monday. The band, Severinsen, Gil Gutierrez (guitar), Charlie Bisharat (violin), Jimmy Branly (percussion) and Kevin Thomas (bass), has range to go with chops.
“It’s very basic, very organic music,” Severinsen said. “Somebody said it could be considered world music. I said fine, I’ll go along with that. It’s a Latin-based group, but we play the blues, we play some Astor Piazzolla, we play some things styled after Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli.”
Severinsen, 83, moves around.
“Right now I’m in Knoxville. I live part time in Mexico. I’m always a step ahead of the sheriff,” he said.
The trumpet player has kept moving since he grew up in Oregon. The son of a dentist, Severinsen started playing at a young age and never stopped, though he considered alternative careers.
“I decided what I wanted to be was a jockey,” he said. “When I started playing music, my father decided I’d better get some lessons. Later on, when I was playing with the Vaughn Monroe Orchestra on a TV show in New York, I could see the music business could be kinda iffy. So I thought I’d go up to a university and take an aptitude test.
“The violinist, Sal Spinelli, said, ‘You’re crazy. I’d like to have 10 percent of what you’re gonna make.’ I did a self-analysis and decided I was a structured schizophrenic. When I was with Tommy Dorsey, (trumpet player/bandleader/composer) Ziggy Elman gave me some great advice. He said to learn to be as versatile as possible and you can make a good living playing music.”
Severinsen played trumpet because that was the only instrument available in the town in which he was raised.
“I came to love it,” he said. “It’s loud. When you’re a little guy raised in a town surrounded by cowboys and football players, you’d better be able to make a statement.”
The trademark Doc Severinsen wardrobe came from the same statement-making place.
“The cowboys have a pretty independent attitude. I grew up with that,” he said. “It manifested itself in the wardrobe.” So has the Doc made concessions to aging?
“Nope,” he said, quickly. “A psychiatrist was trying to talk me into joining a group of older guys in Hollywood who were having trouble with aging. I said, ‘Nope.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to go quietly, are you?’ I said, ‘Nope.’ I don’t ever turn off what I am. I’m not sure what that is, but I just go and be myself.”
Severinsen also was quick to offer advice to musicians.
“Practice, practice practice,” he said. “Then practice some more. And love what you do.”
Severinsen has high praise for two San Antonio institutions, Mi Tierra restaurant and The Landing jazz club.
“Jim Cullum, and his dad, did a great job of establishing The Landing,” he said. “Jim has a great band playing music that is so identifiable. They have found their niche and they do a beautiful job.”
And when people go see Severinsen and the San Miguel 5, they’re going to want to see some flashy threads to go along with the music.
“I don’t know what I’m going to wear,” he added. “But I know I’ll be the only guy in town wearing it.”