Since the Latin percussion instruments I played—timbales and congas—limited me in the types of music compositions I could play, I took up the trumpet. I had upgraded my addiction as a musician. This move was a pain for my family and neighbors, due to the loud noise during my practice sessions. To limit the disturbance, I discovered the music hall at the State University of New York in Vestal, where I would often practice in a single padded sound room.
When I became proficient enough, I hooked up with another group. We formed a quartet that consisted of myself on percussion and trumpet, Antonio on drums, Otto, a German crooner on accordion, and a Jewish bass player. We suited up to play at several retirement dinners in the Binghamton Metropolitan area.
Otto, the leader was also our announcer, who wore a tux with a red carnation. He was so serious that he had a fake pencil thin mustache, and slicked down hair with an offset part. His whole persona was like the radio announcer in the John Belushi film 1941. He had connects with the old-timers, which was advantageous in getting us gigs without the blessings of the union.
When Otto sung Stardust he’d knock ‘em dead. We even struggled through and add libbed Luna Mezz’o Mare—the song sung by Carmela Corleone, in the wedding reception scene of The Godfather. To learn most of these tunes I practiced from bootlegged cheat sheets, until I had them memorized.
To satisfy the old timers I’d play the Beer Barrel polka, also known as Roll Out the Barrel, and the Pennsylvania polka. Moreover, we also played other old popular tunes from the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, including the usual Latin stuff (cha-chas and mambos). For some tunes I’d play with my trumpet muted in order to get that bygone sound. We learned and memorized a lot of Foxtrots and Waltzes, in addition to a few swing numbers.
Once we played a New Year’s Eve gig at a small hotel in the Catskills. The year 1977 was coming in, and there was about a half a foot of snow on the ground. The facade and interior of the place was art deco. Whenever I see the movie The Shining, I’m reminded of that hotel. The evening went well and concluded without any macabre incidents; unlike the movie which came out a few years later.
To the surprise of some, I was the black guy on the block that blended into the European folk culture. If I looked strange, so what? I was both a musician addicted to playing and out to make a few extra bucks. At least I was able to balance things out with my Afro-Latin rhythms. My trumpet backup for Otto on Stardust was no where near that of Armstrong’s arrangement.