Still Swinging: Fred Radke on Big Bands and the Evolution of Jazz

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The Harry James Orchestra (3rd from left: Fred Radke) (Image: HarryJamesBand.com)

Trumpeter Fred Radke grew up during the Big Band Era. Legends like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were still in their prime. A young Fred Radke saw trumpet player and bandleader Harry James and his orchestra perform on television and at that moment knew he wanted to pursue a career in music. Since 1989, he’s led the Harry James Band. James was his most important mentor. Recent University of Washington graduate Collin Burns recently interviewed Radke about his insights on the Big Band Era, his career, and what it means to play Jazz in 2020.

INTERVIEW

CB: To start off can you tell me about what life was like growing up for you? Especially in terms of the music and culture of the time?

FR: I grew up in the Bay Area in Oakland many years ago during World War II. The big band scene was huge during that time in the middle 30s on through the 40s. I started playing the trumpet as a kid when I was seven — I grew up in a very militaristic type marching band called The Waldonians. It was a private organization, but it was a 250 piece band. It was very strict in a military sense. You went from private up to colonel. It was “yes sir,” “no sir,” “shine shoes,” “clean horns.” It was very regimented. You had to play in order to pass a test to be able to march in parades and get in your uniform.

You had to go through your whole parade routine which is about 15 minutes long and you weren’t allowed to make one mistake. If you made one mistake you were out. And you had to try it again. So perfection was really drilled into me by a very early age around 7 or 8. I learned how to be very critical of myself, playing-wise and musically.

CB: I remember you telling me your father was in the military. Did he encourage you to do that?

FR: My dad was in the army during World War II. In the Philippines he fought in the South Pacific — he helped free the Philippines from the Japanese. But he wasn’t strict. My dad was a really cool guy. He was a plastering contractor. And in those days your father wanted you to be in business with him. It was always like: “Frederick H Radke Plaster Contracting & Son.” I remember seeing that when I lived in New York- there are a lot of businesses like that, named after the father and son.

The heritage thing was very important. I was plastering when I was 10, 11, 12 years old. I was plastering everyday and I thought: you know I’m going to be a plasterer like my father. He made a living helping build a bunch of hospitals, the Delta Kaiser Center in Oakland — he was very successful. I remember one day… I’ve never forgotten this day. I was about 15 years old. And I wanted to be a trumpet player. That’s what I wanted to do. I saw Harry James — one of the most successful trumpet players in the world — on TV when I was 8 years old. And I thought, “that’s what I want to do. I want to be just like him. I want to play with him and I want to be just like him.”

So anyways, I remember going to work one morning with my father and it was rainy and cold and you open up your bag and you pull out your overalls and they’re wet from the day before and you put on wet shoes and you take your overalls and you put them over a bonfire and warm up. And I’m sitting there and I’m looking at these guys and I’m looking at the Portuguese hod carrier and he’s drinking wine and eating a sandwich at 7:30 in the morning. I looked over at the bricklayer and he’s drinking out of a water bottle filled with bourbon. I look over at the other plasterers and they’re sitting there drinking a beer at 7:30 in the morning and everyone’s putting on wet clothes and everyone’s going to work. And we’re getting ready to climb up a scaffold — up six stories that were wood at the time. And I’m thinking: “you know… I hate this crap. I really hate this. This just isn’t my cup of tea.”

I remember I packed up my stuff and I come walking out and my father says “where you going?” And I say: “You know Dad, I just can’t do this anymore. I’m sorry.” And then he says: “well what are you going to do?” And I say: “I’m going to be a trumpet player.”

CB: Did that go over well?

FR: He looked at me and he said: “Well I’ll tell you what — if that’s what you really want to do, that’s what you’ll go do, and you make sure that you’re one of the best.” And that’s it.

CB: Wow, that’s really nice that he supported you.

FR: My parents supported me like crazy! And then of course I join the union when I was 15 years old in San Francisco and I started playing jobs. At that time big band business was huge! You had Frank Sinatra, you had Las Vegas going, you had studios going and television shows going and hundreds of trumpet players were making a living. In San Francisco at one time there were 28, 30 full-time trumpet playing jobs. And I’m telling you this is in the late 50s and guys are making 35-,40-, $50,000 a year. And then you take a look at that and you say: “what the heck is so wrong with this?” At the time, I’m a young guy and I’m a senior in high school- 16 years old at Oakland High School.

Then all of sudden I get a call because everyone else is so busy. Turns out, there is a very famous Academy Award-winning movie actress Marlena Dietrich. And she’s coming into San Francisco so I got a call to work her show. And I thought “wow, for 6 weeks I get to work at the Geary theater.” I took the gig and then I met her young conductor and his name was Burt Bacharach, who is another famous composer and music man of the world. And all of a sudden I’m thinking: “Jeez man this ain’t a bad living, playing for Marlene Dietrich.”

So then next comes in Johnny Mathis who is a huge star. He comes into the theater and I thought: “wow who’s this?” All of these famous musicians were coming in. So I have to go to my principal and tell him I can’t go to graduation next month and he says: “Why can’t you attend?” And I say I’m filming The Ed Sullivan Show with Johnny Mathis. The Ed Sullivan Show was the top TV show in the country and if you did that — that was heavy duty. And my principal looked at me and he said: “well I think I can excuse you. Good luck in your career Fred.”

CB: So you played on The Ed Sullivan Show?

FR: Oh yeah, sure. In fact I got a check for 187 bucks about 5 years ago because they played a Johnny Mathis segment from a show, which was kind of funny.

CB: Were you on there a lot?

FR: Oh no, just once. I was in the orchestra and in fact my Harmon (a type of trumpet mute) fell out halfway through the filming and the director yelled and screamed at the top of his lungs at the trumpet player — who was me.

[Before I can ask what he did after the Ed Sullivan show, Fred begins reminiscing about Las Vegas, which apparently was his next step.]

But you know, Vegas was on fire! You had a dozen hotels with big bands. You could walk in the Flamingo Hotel or the Sands Hotel or the Desert Inn and see Harry James and Buddy Rich playing in the lounge and get a beer free! And then you’d see Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. And all of this… it seemed like the party would never end! You’d want to get to Vegas because guys were making a lot of money in Vegas. They were double-dipping. They’re playing the lounge show and then running in and playing the main room show. There was a shortage of trumpet players!

CB: How do you get to Vegas?

FR: How do you get to Vegas? You go to a great high school — which I did. We had a great music department which really influenced all of us. Out of that big band of 18 kids, 14 of us became professional musicians. That’s a huge percentage! For example, I grew up with Mike Vax. He was a trumpet player with Stan Kenton. Then after that you went to college. Then after you went to college you got into a big band.

So big bands were big, but this is also around the beginnings of rock and roll.

CB: Did you notice the rise of rock n’ roll?

FR: Yeah. When Rock ‘n Roll came in, it was Bill Haley & the Comets. It was that racial thing, you see. White youth couldn’t go dig a black band — that was like “oh no.” That’s where the Comets were invented- a white rock and roll band that was really playing music written by black musicians before them with rhythm and blues.

CB: Did you see a lot of rock and roll bands playing alongside big bands in places like Vegas?

FR: Not at that time because the attitude with jazz musicians was that “oh this rock and roll music is not going to last.” Everyone used to say that, I remember it! Now obviously we know that was wrong. But that was the attitude and why you didn’t see them together.

CB: So why did the jazz era transition into rock and roll do you think?

FR: Bands got smaller because of the economic cost of putting a band on the road. Plus the leaders started to die off. Stan Kenton died, and Glenn Miller died during World War II. And then guitar became very popular, which contributed to it as well.

CB: I was doing some research and I found an interview with Harry James, and he was saying that the good bands were still there and the leaders were still there but the farm systems weren’t as as productive as in the past. Did you notice a decline in these farm systems?

FR: You see that’s it. At one time, you went to a hotshot high school, and you went to a hot shot college, and then you went on a famous big band. And then when you got on a big band your main goal is to go to Vegas and to get off the road and to eventually get invited to LA and so on. You know today there is still a farm system but there are no bands. Take a look at some of the high schools we have around here. Garfield and Roosevelt are amazing! Scott Brown’s done an incredible job. But they need a place to go. They have colleges to go to but where do they go after that? They can become teachers but they don’t really have many bands to go to.

In the past there were hundreds of big bands. How many big events are there today? There’s The Harry James Band, The Basie Band, The Glenn Miller Band, a few others and then that’s really it.

CB: Was it harder for you to find gigs once rock and pop became more popular?

FR: Oh yeah of course. In the past you could go out for six weeks at a time. But now maybe you’ll go out and work two or three jobs and you’ll try to lump them together. But it’s nothing to go to Florida for a one-nighter compared to the past. Really why I keep doing gigs now is because I think it’s important to keep this music alive. It’s part of the American heritage and it’s part of history.

CB: People said that that’s because jazz lost its cool factor to these other genres. Did you ever notice jazz losing its cool factor?

FR: No… you know the word ‘jazz’ is an interesting term. The question is: is jazz dead or is jazz evolving? What happened with big bands is that jazz musicians felt very cramped. They thought it was too regimented. So what happened, especially among black musicians, is that they created bebop and they started playing music of their own without anyone telling them what to do.

But the thing is big band music was designed to be dance music, and once this dance music wasn’t as popular in the jazz scene anymore it started to get away from the general public. The music got complicated. That’s where rock and roll comes in. There is a pulsation to rock and roll that lends well to dancing. There is a pulse and people can move to that.

CB: Many pop singers like Adele and Lady Gaga say that their music was inspired by jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra. A lot of their music is dance music. Do you think they drew that inspiration to make dance music from jazz?

FR: Sure absolutely. You talk about this pulsation… they learned that from the masters who were perfect at setting the tempo for dancers.

CB: So do you see their music as an evolution of jazz or or is it something separate?

FR: Well when you think about the word jazz that’s such a… you know there’s stuff like electronic jazz too. You can’t dance to that. It’s hard to say one thing is the “evolution of jazz.”

CB: Do you think that successful music really captures that groove that makes people want to dance?

FR: Yeah I think so. People want to move. You know Louis Armstrong said one time: “If you can’t tap your foot to it it ain’t jazz.” Now stop and think about that. That’s true.

CB: For kids today who are surrounded by rap and pop and modern music- why should they still try to seek out a jazz education?

FR: It’s part of our country’s heritage. Why wouldn’t a person who goes to college not know or not read the Constitution of the United States? Jazz is an important part of our country’s heritage. Jazz is America’s true art form. It was started here, it was created here — it belongs to us. It is our heritage. So it’s part of the American identity. That’s right. You’d start losing your identity. It needs to be part of a rounded education.

CB: Do you think background in jazz adds to the depth of experience when you’re listening to just music in general?

FR: Absolutely. You want to know the background because then it’s more than just an arrangement or a song.

CB: Do you have a favorite performance?

FR: That’s a hard question. I think playing in the library of Congress was pretty special.

CB: When did you do that?

FR: About 8 or 9 years ago.

CB: Favorite guest artist you played with or for?

FR: One time we were on the road with Vic Damone. The gig was perfect, it was exciting. Everyone in the band kind of looked at each other and went “wow.” Then I think it was pretty rewarding playing for troops in Southeast Asia. That was pretty special.

CB: How’d you land that gig?

FR: We had an agent that booked it. We played all of the officers clubs at the military bases. We played in the Philippines, Guam, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan. That was an interesting time.

CB: Did you ever consider an instrument other than trumpet?

FR: No, I wanted to be a trumpet player- I wanted to be Harry James. I always wanted to play with him. I got to meet him, I got to play with him, and then I end up leading his band for the last 30 years. How many people have the opportunity to do that in their life? When I walk up on stage, believe me, I think about that. I’m very lucky. How many people get to fulfill the dream of their lifetime?

CB: Is there anything else you want to say about your career?

FR: Well, I think I’m on the top of my game — we’ve still got concerts. Until my last dying breath, I’m going to be playing. I think there’s always room for this kind of music. I think it’s important to keep it alive. After I’m gone and out of the picture, I don’t know what’ll happen. But the Harry James Band has been going since 1939. To carry on the legacy is a great honor. You have to stay in shape because, ya know, trumpet players come out and see the band. And you have to live up to those standards, because they expect you to. Duke Ellington used to say — be convincing with what you do — if you’re going to play something, be convincing. If you’re convincing, the audience will react. If you’re not, they won’t.

Photos from: http://www.harryjamesband.com

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