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Sentimental Over Dorsey

Bill Tole Recalls the Influence of Legendary Trombonist-Bandleader

November 24, 2000|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Trombonist Bill Tole has not merely been a member of the famous Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. He's actually been Tommy Dorsey. Tole plays the part of the famous trombonist-bandleader in Martin Scorsese's 1977 film "New York, New York," with Robert De Niro and Liza Minnelli.

In the opening moments of the musical tale, De Niro wanders off the streets of 1940s Manhattan on V-E Day and into a ballroom, where he meets Minnelli. On the bandstand, unmistakable with trombone and trademark glasses, is "The Sentimental Gentleman," Tommy Dorsey, leading his orchestra in what amounts to a medley of Dorsey's greatest hits: "Opus One," "Marie," "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You."

Actually, it's lifelong Dorsey devotee Tole, with his Bill Tole Orchestra, in a role for which the dapper bandleader was perfectly suited. Raised on Dorsey music and hired as a member of the Dorsey Orchestra a few years after the bandleader's death in 1956, Tole has an understanding of Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, which he explained in a phone call from his Anaheim home.

"[Tommy] Dorsey was always important to me," said Tole, who leads his 16-piece orchestra in a tribute to the celebrated bandleader Sunday at the Orange County Musicians Assn. Bash. "Both my parents were musicians, and we were always listening to big-band music on record and the radio. And Dorsey was my favorite."

Tole heard about the auditions for "New York, New York" from his friend Orrin Tucker, the bandleader known for his 1939 hit "Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh!"

"Just before I went in, Orrin suggested I take a pair of round glasses like the kind Tommy wore," Tole said. "I auditioned in front of Scorsese and played a little bit and talked a little bit and they liked the look. I had a 16-piece band, which was the same size as Tommy's, that played music patterned after the Dorsey sound, so he hired the whole band. I had to ask the guys to cut their hair in '40s style and, this being the '70s, some of them resisted."

Though the music for the opening scenes had been recorded before Tole's hiring, the bandleader got permission from Scorsese to record "Music From 'New York, New York' " for Calliope Records. "The only song they wouldn't let me record was the theme song, 'New York, New York,' " Tole said, laughing.

Pittsburgh-native Tole joined the Dorsey Orchestra in 1959 shortly after graduating from Duquesne University with a degree in music. During this stint, he got to work with some of the better-known Dorsey alumni, including trumpeter Doc Severinsen, drummers Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson, and singer Frank Sinatra.

From there he went into the armed services, where he played lead trombone for the Air Force's Airmen of Note, the orchestra once headed by trombonist Glenn Miller. (Miller was a member of the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra in the 1930s.)

After the service, Tole worked as a studio musician in New York, then followed the studio scene to Los Angeles in 1967. He formed the Bill Tole Orchestra in 1970. Besides "Music From 'New York, New York,' " the band has released "Big Band on the Move" and "Big Band Memories," both on Courtney Records.

In what amounts to a three-hour celebration of the Dorsey brothers' music at the Musicians Assn. Bash, Tole will conduct his orchestra in a tribute to Tommy Dorsey and then will lead the Fabulous Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, filling in for injured orchestra director Jim Miller. Singer Mike Costley will pay tribute during the performance to the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra's most famous alumnus, Frank Sinatra. Vocalist Nancy Knorr, who is Tole's sister and the leader of the Pied Pipers, will honor singer Helen O'Connell during her appearance with the Jimmy Dorsey group.

"The Dorsey bands were as important as any of them--Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Harry James, Benny Goodman," Tole said. "When they had their famous sibling argument in the '30s and broke up the Dorsey Brothers band, the public actually benefited. We lost one great band, but got two great bands in return."

"Tommy was the forerunner of the pretty ballad trombone style," Tole said of his idol. "And they were both intelligent businessmen. Both knew how to hire the right musicians, both hired the best singers, both led the top-rated band in the country at one time or another."

In his travels across the country and during annual trips to Australia and New Zealand, the band director sees evidence of a new audience for big-band music.

"The interesting thing is that the younger people are getting into it through dancing," he said. "Sure, they listen to Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but all that music is based on the era of Louis Prima, Louis Jordan and Benny Goodman. And the Dorseys are right there with them."

SHOW TIME

"Bash," the 30th annual Orange County Musicians' Assn. festival, takes place Sunday, noon to midnight. Newport Beach Marriott Hotel and Tennis Club, 900 Newport Center Drive. $12.50 to $26, children 12 and younger free. (714) 546-8166.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Musicians Bash

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