Seven years ago, Doc Severinsen moved to Mexico, intending to retire from performing. But the lure of the stage proved too strong when he met several other musicians.
“It was a pleasant surprise. Just living there, I heard musicians play, and they recognized that I was a musician and they asked me to play with them. And I did,” he said by phone from his home in Tennessee. “I was just doing it for fun at first, but then it got serious.”
The former Tonight Show bandleader began touring as part of the San Miguel Five, performing classical Spanish music with a jazz flair as well as gypsy jazz. He also recorded new albums featuring the music.
Now retirement is the furthest thing from the 86-year-old’s mind.
“Now and then I think about it,” he said. “But the minute I start up with the big band or the San Miguel Five — either one — and I realize what I’d be giving up. As long as I can play and play well, I’ll probably keep doing it.”
Severinsen and his Big Band stop at the Rialto Square Theatre in Joliet Nov. 14. The 16-piece band was formerly the Tonight Show Band, the famed trumpeter said.
“Now, it’s just myself and one other guy left,” he said. “The band has been recruited mostly in the Midwest because that’s where I was able to find the best players. It’s a great band. And I’m very proud of them and the kind of music we play.”
The band is joined by vocalist Vanessa Thomas and performs standards and some originals, he said. That includes the famous “Tonight Show” theme.
“A lot of people expect that out of me, and are more familiar with me playing that kind of music,” he said.
Severinsen, who got his nickname “Doc” because his father was a dentist (he was initially called “Little Doc” because his father was called “Big Doc”), began playing trumpet at age 7. Within a week, he was asked to join the local high school band in Arlington, Ore.
“It was a small community, and they needed everybody they could get,” he said. “And it just so happened that even at that age I was more qualified to play the first chair than even the big kids.”
After a serving in the Army during World War II, Severinsen toured with the bands of Charlie Barnett, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. He joined the “Tonight Show” band in 1962, and five years later became its bandleader.
“It was obviously, I think, one of the best jobs any musician ever had,” he said. “Because Johnny (Carson) didn’t just select you because of your musical ability but your ability to talk on television to a live audience and not implode or do something bad. Well, we did some bad, once in a while.”
“Johnny managed everything so beautifully,” he said. “All we had to do was take the lines he threw out to us and get on with it.”
Severinsen, who helped design a line of instruments that bear his name, will occasionally mention in concert that a particular song was a favorite of Carson’s, but his concerts don’t feature many stories of “The Tonight Show.” Instead, he said he lets “our show be about the music.”
“We’re all there for one thing. And that is to see that audience is pleased with what we do on stage. We don’t do anything raunchy. We’re not saints or anything like that. But we try to just put the emphasis on the music,” he said. “And if people haven’t heard any big band music recently, we try to include music that will give them some of the basics of what a big band is really all about. The sound is unlike anything else you’ll ever hear ... It’s something you need to hear for precision and power and joyousness. We try to bring joy to our music.”