What's Up, Doc?

Trumpet player Doc Severinsen remembers his first performance in Houston very well. It was at the then brand new Shamrock Hotel, which was located on the outskirts of town. Severinsen had just joined the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, fulfilling a long-time dream of his. "That first night at the Shamrock Hotel, Tommy walked out on to the stage, picked up his trombone and played his theme song and I burst into tears. I couldn't play a note," Severinsen laughs.

After a long run with Dorsey's band, Severinsen toured with the Benny Goodman band and eventually joined NBC as a staff musician in 1949. In the early sixties, he joined the Tonight Show Band as first trumpet, and then took over as musical director, a position the flashy dressing Severinsen held until 1992.

Now the 83-year-old Severinsen, who was a pops conductor for several symphony orchestras after leaving NBC, is touring with the San Miguel Five. He had moved to Mexico and was out having dinner with his family when he heard a duo playing in an out-of-the-way restaurant. "I told my wife, 'These guys are not just good, these are world-class players.' I tried to get them some gigs in the United States, but everyone I contacted said, 'Well, we'll hire them but only if you play, too.' So eventually, I started playing with them," he tells Art Attack.

"Actually, I glad I did because they fit everything that I want to do musically at this point. I want to play jazz and pop music, with a classical touch to it and that's what they do. This is a different musical setting for me, but one that I like very much," he says.

The group will be performing at Jones Hall on May 6, as part of the Society for the Performing Arts' season. Much of the program is made up of Latin or Latin influenced music, including several compositions by Gil Gutierrez, the group's guitarist. One of his tunes is "El Farol," which is based on Schubert's Serenade. "We took eight bars of [Serenade]," says Severinsen, "and then developed the tune around that."

The program includes the jazz standard "Sweet Georgia Brown" followed by the Mexican huapango "Cucurrucucu." "They both translate very well to what we're doing. The way we do "Sweet Georgia Brown," that idea was taken from Django Reinhardt." The group's encore is a blazing rendition of "Dark Eyes."

"It's a short, very hot presentation of a tune that everybody knows. It's our way of saying thanks for showing up, we hope to see you again sometime."

In spite of the fact that he's changed genres to a degree, Severinsen is confident his audience will make the transition with him. "Music is music," he says. "It either communicates or it doesn't. And just to make sure it communicates and to make sure people don't forget that it's me, I have a brand new outfit to spring on everybody."

Doc Severinson and the San Miguel Five perform on May 6 at Jones Hall. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit $29 to $54.

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Olivia Flores Alvarez