It was a big part of growing up, mostly because our Dad was a band leader. A big band leader; you know like Woody Herman, or Count Basie or the Duke. Ok maybe not quite like those bands, but he had an orchestra and gave concerts and played dates at the Roseland and the Latin Quarter (look them up- they were big venues at the time- in fact the Roseland just recently closed its doors for good). His stage name was Tommy Ortel, and the band was the Tommy Ortel Orchestra. I am not sure where he got the name from but I always liked it. I heard them play many times, and every once in a while was lucky enough to be an unpaid roadie for the band, which basically meant helping Dad lug his instruments (two saxophones, a clarinet), band stands, and boxes of sheet music from the apartment to the large trunk of his black Desoto and unloading and carrying everything into the venue. I wasn’t much help being so young but he knew I got a thrill out of being a part of his “show biz” career. Ok I admit I was probably more of a hindrance than a help but hey he was a cool Dad.
This of course was his “second” job though in his heart it was his real one. Every weekday he would go to his “normal” job after an early morning breakfast of shredded wheat and coffee, and travel to the Howard clothes factory in Brooklyn where he was something called an Under Baster (don’t ask – I have no idea- I think it had something to do with the crotch on a suit pant). But the music, well the music is what kept him going.
And for us the fringe benefits were wonderful. Some Sunday afternoons, he would take us along with him to a club on 52nd street, Music Row in the city. The club was just a place for musicians to jam, to try out new arrangements; to unwind. There was no cover, and you just sat on couches, or folding chairs and listened as the likes of Kai Winding (look him up) or Zoot Sims (him too) as they would play and play and play. All that mattered to these guys was the music; they would have played for free and you could tell that from just watching them. And of course for me it was a great kick to see those great musicians nod a hello at Dad as he walked in. They knew him! They knew he was Tommy Ortel! Talk about pride…it was magical; just another example of New York City when it was at its best.
And then there were the Saturday nights, when after an early rehearsal, the “boys” would come back to the apartment, and Mom would have platters of cold cuts – salamis and cheeses from Faiccos, crusty bread from Zitos and bottles and bottles of booze and icy beer. They would all sit around, talking, drinking, and analyzing the rehearsal, eating, laughing, swapping stories. One larger than life figure was named Earl Warren. He had played with the Basie band years before; had actually been their lead singer for a while. He was a big black man with a great laugh and an inexhaustible appetite for unfiltered cigarettes and scotch. Those were special nights and I was allowed to stay up and be a part of them. I remember seeing how the others all were in awe of Mr. Warren, given his experience and here he was in our living room, happy to be a part of my Dad’s orchestra. Heady stuff. My Dad was important I would think, and I guess I was right, at least in the rarified world of New York session musicians.
Watching him onstage from behind the curtains or seated out front where they had directed me to sit, I saw a man in his true element. He would introduce the next song, look to his band, give a slight nod and it was a one, a two and …Bam! He would close his eyes, wait for his cue, take a deep breath and make that Alto Sax sing. Fucking A! Just once I would like to be that cool!!! To a little kid who looked up to his Dad like I did, it was beyond cool; it was sublime; mind bending; I would think as I watched ‘that’s my Dad..the same guy who falls asleep on the couch and snores most nights …that’s the same guy!’ Put him in that Tuxedo, give him that beautiful shiny sax, some sheet music, a band behind him, an audience in front of him….. and he was transformed. As I was.
And that’s the way I will always think of Dad- as a musician. When he died I traveled to the city and loaded his band stands, sheet music and some of his instruments into my Jeep and took them home with me. I tried to learn the sax and failed miserably. It takes work, hard work. Dad could do it. I couldn’t. Sometimes when we are going through old stuff to try to get rid of things we don’t need or want anymore, a suggestion is made to donate the items to a music school or church so that others could have the benefit of them. And maybe when I am dead, that’s what will happen.
But not while I am still breathing.
Those items live in that special realm of “sacred” and I will never part with them if I can help it. I even have one of his tuxedos that he wore on stage, and one day I found his business cards neatly packed into the right jacket pocket. Yea, they stay too.
If there is a heaven, for guys like him, there will be a stage, a band of brothers behind him, a good arrangement on the stand, a spotlight and the feel of smooth brass in his hands. And he can play his music for eternity. Crazy man, crazy.
He was a better man than I will ever be. He had his music, I only have my words – they are my music I suppose, and I hope here I have played a tune worthy of the musician I was lucky enough to call Dad.