Jonathan Pearl is a freelance journalist who has reviewed books for Jazz Times and written liner notes for several independent record labels.
Steve Swanson was born in Bremerton, Washington, where he began playing trumpet professionally at the local Elks Club. After a short time at the University of Washington, he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Steve went on to play trumpet for Lionel Hampton, Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders, Lou Rawls, Buddy Rich, Gladys Knight, The Temptations, Four Tops, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Larry Elgart, Don Randi, Mel Tormé, Luther Kent, Al Dailey, and many Seattle, Los Angeles and New York City bands.
Steve has taught at Olympic College and was associate director there under Dr. Ralph Mutchler. He also taught privately in the Seattle area. He has been a guest performer and clinician in Washington state and Los Angeles. It is now Steve’s turn to answer my musical questions for the Port O Call.
Jonathan Pearl: How important was it for you to receive advice from more experienced musicians when you were first starting out playing professionally? Who influenced you the most?
Steve: Very important. Growing up in Bremerton, after the “old guard” had left, I focused on gleaning knowledge from those that knew. I searched them out. My earliest influences were many but my main one was trumpet player Floyd Standifer and college director Dr. Ralph Mutchler. Joe Field became another mentor of mine. There are really very many, but mostly they came by my association with professional musicians beyond Bremerton.
JP: Do you enjoy the role reversal now that you are the one giving mentoring advice?
Steve: Somewhat. Hard question to answer, but yes, if I can get a student’s open ear and mind and when they are sincere about listening to someone who has done “something” and, when they appreciate that learning to become a musician/player is a lifelong journey, then I feel they have a shot. If people do not want to listen and I need to back track about things they should have already learned, then I feel that I am doing a job that possibly the public schools should have done. Musicians need to learn reading music as a skill, listening, being creative, playing another instrument, and most of all listening to everything they can absorb so they become a lifelong student of this process.
JP: Do you consider maintaining good overall morale essential for a band, or is it just about playing the music correctly and nothing more?
Steve: This depends on the band and also what you and a group are trying to achieve. My experience in bands ranges from small to very large. My recent experience was not as good as I thought it would be. I had a trumpet section that did not want to change trumpet chair positions. I have done this for many years and the band (trumpet section) believed I was wrong. I just wanted the trumpet section to sound as best as it could. Could be that time will tell?
JP: Have there been advances or declines in trumpet manufacturing since you began playing?
Steve: Vastly. The trumpet manufacturing industry has roared along leaving the small craftsman behind. Does this make a better trumpet? Mostly, but the hand craftsmanship of tempering a bell and “cooking” a bell properly has been left behind. Same with mouthpiece production. With the advent of CNC (Computer Numeric Controls) of lathes, mills, and computer programs such as MasterCam, precision is now at its highest level. But the old school “brass” horns and craftsmanship are still highly valued. And the quality of brass currently available is higher than in the years during WWII when most of the best quality brass was used for ammunition so the best brass manufactured was prior to the war.
JP: Do you prepare yourself differently for playing different musical genres, such as with a symphony orchestra or a jazz big band?
Steve: I just try to practice a couple hours a day. Not every day, but you have to play something every day because the trumpet is unforgiving.
JP: What is it like playing in a cruise ship orchestra? Are musicians treated differently on the ships than in years past?
Steve: Cruise ships consist of an MD (Musical Director) and a Cruise Director. If these two do not work together very well…trouble. As a musician on a cruise you sign a contract to perform “ship” duties such as teaching passenger’s safety and emergency crowd control procedures in case of fire or even worse, evacuation. Each musician has to take at least 10-20 hours of training.
JP: What are your current and future musical plans?
Steve: I am building a home recording studio so that I can produce and record music for myself and others, as I hear it. Now I can finish several unfinished recordings and start new ones. I may try to do more clinics out of state and in Washington.
JP: What was the most frightening experience you had on a gig?
Steve: When I was playing with Wayne Cochran in Florida one night we were playing at a ‘mob’ owned club and a shot was fired through our touring bus window and the power to the club was cut. Out came three or four armed “wiseguys” (gangsters) in suits. The door man’s name was “Leroy Brown” and he was “Bad.” Fully armed and a black belt.
JP: What misconceptions and stereotypes concerning musicians would you like to dispel once and for all?
Steve: That musicians just play for fun and lack a work ethic. It takes many years to become proficient on any instrument. To get beyond being just a proficient musician you have to study, research, listen and PRACTICE. Famed trumpet player and ex-leader of the band for the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Doc Severinsen at almost 90 years old, still practices every day for at least two hours.
Steve can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org