When Doc Severinsen tells a Minnesota Orchestra story, it’s not about the first time he performed with the group, soloing on trumpet at a 1965 holiday concert. Or the first time he led the orchestra in 1993, or the night in 2003 when he and principal trumpet Manny Laureano premiered Stephen Paulus’ Concerto for Two Trumpets. (“We had a brand-new conductor” — Osmo Vänskä — “and the orchestra was red hot,” he recalls.)
His story is about a concert he saw four years ago while in town for a music conference.
“They did the Mahler Sixth. I knew something was up when they walked out on the stage. All of a sudden these extremely intense people came out. It was like watching a major league football team walk onto the field. That serious. And it was one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve ever had.”
Not long before, the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross had called the Minnesota the greatest orchestra in the world. “I thought to myself — I think he’s right,” Severinsen said.
Now a robust, white-haired, cowboy-boot-wearing 88, the former “Tonight Show” bandleader is back for his annual “Jingle Bell Doc” concerts Friday and Sunday with the orchestra he has served as pops conductor for more than two decades.
They regularly sell out, with fans traveling for miles to see Severinsen in his wildly flamboyant suits.
He has been playing seriously since he was 7. He practices daily — the trumpet is a demanding mistress of an instrument — and it’s said by those in the know that he plays like a 40-year-old.
His orchestral career started in the late 1960s, not long after he took over Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” band. Severinsen got a call from the Pittsburgh Symphony. Could he make such-and-such a date?
“I thought I was just going to play a couple of solos,” he said over a double espresso at the Ivy Hotel last weekend.
A few days beforehand, “I called up the guy I was working with and asked, ‘Who’s gonna be conducting?’ He said, ‘You are.’ I said, ‘What? I’m just coming to play! This is the Pittsburgh Symphony!’ He said, ‘No, it’s your show, and it’s up to you what you do.’ ”
Severinsen was classically trained and had already performed with symphonies, the U.S. Air Force Band and the big bands of Charlie Barnet, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. And while in high school, he toured with the Ted Fio Rito Orchestra.
He quickly pulled together a program that included Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” overture. Someone in the “Tonight Show” band told him that would be a good piece to start with. He bought Bernstein’s recording and learned it.
“The Pittsburgh Symphony played in an unusual style, in which the conductor is about a beat ahead of the orchestra,” he related. “[During rehearsal] I gave the downbeat and had conducted four bars before they got the first note out.
“I promptly got down on my knees on the podium in a prayerful position and said, ‘Please, ladies and gentlemen, this is not what I do. So I’ll give the downbeat, then you come in and play, and I’ll follow you all the way to the end.’
“Collectively, without saying a word, they made up their minds: ‘We’ve gotta help this guy.’ It worked great.”
A call from Minneapolis
He was still with Johnny Carson, leading what had become a superbly tight and swinging big band — his inspirations were Duke Ellington and Count Basie — when the Phoenix Symphony asked him to be pops conductor in 1983.
Once more, Severinsen protested. “They said, ‘We’ll help you.’ They trained me, and I have had a close relationship with that group ever since.”
In 1993, soon after Carson retired, David Hyslop, then the Minnesota Orchestra’s president, made him an offer. The rest is local history: 14 years as principal pops conductor (1993-2007), and conductor laureate since then. He’s also served as principal pops conductor for the Milwaukee, Colorado, Buffalo and Pacific symphonies. Perhaps only the late Marvin Hamlisch had more PPC appointments.
Severinsen retired, or so he claimed, in 2007 and moved to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a place beloved by expat Americans and Canadians. Almost overnight, he took up with a local band led by guitarist Gil Gutierrez.
“I was just looking for a place to go and sit in,” he said. The band played in a restaurant owned by an Italian who “didn’t know me from Adam.” Suddenly the place was packed. “He thought it was his food.”
Severinsen had the band’s music arranged for symphony orchestra and hit the road with Gutierrez and the San Miguel Five. They released “Oblivion,” their most recent CD — and Severinsen’s 35th — two years ago.
He still tours regularly with his own band and says he’d like to have a family orchestra someday, when his great-granddaughters are older. The musical genes he inherited from his father, an Oregon dentist who played violin, appear to be intact in his children and their children.
Pamela Espeland is a Twin Cities arts writer.