I first had the pleasure of meeting Steve a few months ago when I started playing trumpet for his highly acclaimed local big band, The Olympic Express. Not knowing what I was getting into I was pleasantly surprised by his expertise, humor, knowledge, and very colorful background. To say nothing of his abilities as a sax player, chef,and seasoned band leader.
I asked him if he would participate in my ongoing interviews with local music personalities and he agreed to provide the following.
I was born in Murfreesboro Tennessee just after folks quit writing on rock slates. My father attended Middle Tennessee State Teachers College on his way to becoming a teacher in Tulsa Oklahoma. At about 8 years of age I was introduced to the song flute in music class, maybe you know it as a “Sweet Potato,” and I found a love of music. A couple years later I started playing drums, then tuba, then string bass and finally baritone saxophone. In the sixth grade I was put on bari sax because I was the only kid in the band taller than the horn.
I found that playing bari sax is a lot like having a continuous solo in that I play with the brass sometimes and the saxes a lot but also have independent lines in big band music that only the bari player is playing.
The only time I did not excel in music was during High School in Tulsa Oklahoma. Marching band in high schools were about the only instrumental music offered during school. If you wanted to play in the jazz band you had to play in marching band and then stay after school to play in jazz band. I got an F in marching band because it was first period, and I was never there. But I scored As in jazz bands.
I attended Oklahoma State University as a music education major until I realized that in the mid-1960s music teachers in Oklahoma were not making enough money to survive. At the end of my second year at OSU the University wrote me a letter suggesting that since I had so much “fun” in school I should try the military. So taking their suggestion, I did just that.
After a year of training in the military intelligence field and assignments in Viet Nam, I decided to move to a safer type of work and at that time auditioned for and was accepted into the Army Band program. I spent the next 23 years in the US Army as a saxophonist and big band conductor. I retired with the rank of First Sergeant. I have played or conducted for past Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan, as well as the King of Thailand. And I played with the great Count Basie who was with the first non-Japanese military band to play for the Emperor of Japan, Emperor Hirohito.
My wife and I now reside in Port Angeles and I am now Musical Director for the Olympic Express Big Band. While residing here, I became a Master Mason on May 27, 2010 and became Marshall of Sequim Lodge #213 the following year. In 2011 I became a Shriner and for the period 2013 to 2014 was President of the Olympic Peninsula Shrine Club.
Steve Swanson: Steve, it’s my pleasure to play in your big band and get to know more great people that reside here. How and why did you decide to start Olympic Express?
Steve Lingle: First of all this is not my big band it is our big band. This band is made up of the work and practice that every current and past member has put into making it. I am sure you have noticed we discuss most everything that goes on and then make a decision. Sometimes I make the decision, sometimes there are better suggestions.
The band was formed by Bill Foley and myself about eight years ago to offer more modern and difficult music to challenge the best musicians on the Olympic Peninsula. Bill had an unknown heart condition that took his life a couple years later but the band members decided to continue with our efforts.
Steve S.: You mentioned that you came from Tennessee and then moved to Oklahoma. I am sure I have been through Murfreesboro when I played the “chitin” circuit in the mid-70s. Southeast of Nashville I believe. What was the music scene like then?
Steve L.: Afraid I was too young to remember much about the music scene in Murfreesboro back then, we are talking 1952 when we left, I was only 5 then.
Steve S.: I also have good friends in Oklahoma, particularly Tulsa. There used to be a huge number of brass players that formed “show” bands back then and would play all over the Midwest. The Fabulous Flippers come to mind and Jerry Fisher Band. Do those names ring a bell? If not, can you name some of the ones you do remember?
Steve L.: The Fabulous Flippers and the Harlem Shuffle. The Flippers started off with eight musicians and added a ninth in the late 60s I believe. Bill Axelrod was the tenor player with the group. The Fabulous Flippers were based in Kansas but played from Oklahoma to Canada and L.A. to Illinois. This is the group that brought the “horn-show-soul” to the cornfields of that area. There were others such as Leon Russell who went to Will Rogers High School in Tulsa. Oklahoma has had many great musicians, composers and song writers through the years.
Steve S.: Which Army bands, jazz in particular, did you play in or lead? I know there must be at least 30 or so active bands from Korea and Germany to “Pershing’s Own” here in the US.
Steve L.: There are currently 34 active US Army Bands in the world, this would include the special bands such “Pershing’s Own” (the US Army Band). During my days in the military there were many more bands, more than 50. I was fortunate enough to conduct the jazz bands for the 14th Army Band (the old WAC Band), the 296th Army Band in Japan, and the 6th Infantry Division Jazz in Anchorage, Alaska. Other band assignments included 97th Army Band in Fort Sill, OK, 1st Army Band in Fort Meade MD, and the US Army Field Band.
Steve S.: Count Basie was always the band I wanted to play in and you conducted for him. That must have been a great experience. Tell us more.
Steve L.: No, I did not conduct the Basie Band but I did get to play a few charts on baritone sax with the band. I was with a USO show in Thailand in 1969 during the same time the Basie Big Band was touring there. A great friend of mine, Pete Minger, was playing with the band and introduced me to Basie as a friend and fellow musician from the Army Band in Japan. After some talk Basie asked if I would like to play a couple of charts with the band. No musician in his right mind would turn down such a chance. We played “Basie Straight Ahead” and “Queen Bee.” At that same time I was playing the lead alto part with the band of the King of Thailand.
Steve S.: What was it that made you and your wife make the move to this part of the country?
Steve L.: We had been living in Alaska for 15 years when we discovered her asthma was aggravated by the damp cold weather. With great reluctance she talked me into moving to Las Vegas. I didn’t fare well with that heat and her asthma was worse there due to the pollution and dust. After a few trips to Sequim we found we liked the climate and my wife’s asthma seemed to not be a problem when we were here. In 2003 we packed up and headed to the Northwest and are very happy to be where we are now.
Steve S.: Thanks again Steve. (Steve Swanson is a Port Angeles resident and professional trumpet player who has worked with many top performers including: Buddy Rich, Lionel Hampton, Lou Rawls, Johnny Mathis, Temptations, Four Tops, Frank Sinatra, Gladys Knight and many more).