LITTLE BALKANS CHRONICLES — Big Bands / Music in Our lives

J.T. Knoll
Some 750 students and alumni filled the Student Center Ballroom to overflowing at the 1954 Mardi Gras Kanza Ball featuring the music of Tony Pastor and his orchestra.

As I put together the music programming for Miners’ Hall Museum last year I had several opportunities to talk to music lover Don Falletti. Not long after the MHM programs, I got an essay from Don about all the big bands that played at PSU (then Kansas State Teacher’s College) when he was a student there. As Don studied under the famed local music teacher and bandleader, Dr. John Catanzaro, in the 1940s, I’m including his reflection on lessons from him to begin today’s chronicle. — J.T.K.

Dr. Catanzaro would take the trolley from Pittsburg to Cicero’s corner in Frontenac, then walk the mile north to my house to give me lessons. I was to be strapped to the accordion and ready to run through the scales to when he arrived. Then we spent the rest of the hour playing songs. When I missed a note, I would get a tap on the hand from his baton. I had a hard time getting my left hand keeping time — let alone staying in sync with my right hand. After months of trying, I asked him if I could try the trumpet. He said yes immediately. (I think it was a double win for us.) I liked the trumpet a lot better (He sold us a trumpet and would not take back the accordion!) AND the girls liked the trumpet a lot more!

We had a neat period during school hours where a third room was turned into dance hall with a stage and a large dance floor. This was going along pretty good until I would step down from the bandstand and dance with a girl on occasion. But the occasions became too often and my trumpet playing less. I was a fired trumpet man. I still have the trumpet but my accordion didn't make it through our house fire.

K.S.T.C. Memories

The college booked some great bands during my time because the big bands were on tour via buses and cars in the 1950s. When I started researching the college’s special music celebrations, I was surprised to find that a lot of these guys started their careers at a very early age.

Many were playing well enough to be playing in adult bands by the time they were between fifteen and twenty years old. Some were starting to have their own bands at an age of 25. Then I realized that this was all occurring during the Depression era. I wonder how much the average wage was then, especially in Kansas.

We had the WPA deployed at the strip pits a short distance behind our house in the “Grasshopper” area of the “Republic of Frontenac," as J.T. refers to our hometown. I am pretty sure that members of my family worked on projects in the dumps/strip pits for the Works Projects Administration.

1954 Military Ball - Woody Herman

Double date with Jerry Saccane and Joan Fern. My date was Connie Zucca.

In the Spring Semester of 1954, I enrolled at what was then Kansas State Teachers College. I had always liked the big band sound so I was so happy to find out that Woody Herman & His Third Herd would be my first live concert at college.

As an aside, it’s really kind of neat to have a flashback once in a while even if it is only about 25 years back! In about 1985, when I worked at McDonald Douglas, I had this friend, Don Valente, who would get paged on the intercom out in the aircraft factory lot of times. I got a lot of calls as well. Both of us were always getting each other’s calls.

The problem was when I answered some of incoming calls on our pager system, noise on the factory assembly line made it difficult discern between Valente and Falletti. Sometimes our operator would page me but it was a Valente call and I would hear this sweet voice (his wife) on the phone. Most of my calls were not sweet at all; they were either from our factory people with a problem or a customer wanting to know why his aircraft wasn’t delivered on time. Or one with a quality control issue regarding one of the aircraft.

Don and I were big time jazz fans. He would keep telling me that Herman had the best jazz band in the world. I was a big fan of Stan Getz and Maynard Ferguson. He insisted Woody Herman was the best. He made me this tape of Woody Herman’s stuff and insisted that I play at least once a day. Not too long after that and before I had the chance to tell him he was right about how good Herman’s band was, he passed away.

Although, I am definitely Getz and Ferguson fan, Woody is there with them. Did you hear that, Don V?

Woody, who was born in Milwaukee in 1913, was a professional musician by the age of 15. My favorite songs were “Early Autumn,” “At the Woodchopper’s Ball" and “Caldonia.” Famed composer Igor Stravinsky was impressed enough with Herman to write the Ebony Concerto especially for him. That’s the ultimate endorsement. He smoked the ballroom!

Tony Pastor

The next was the college’s Mardi Gras Kanza Ball featuring Tony Pastor. His birth name was Antonio Pestritto, Tony was born October 26,1907 in Middletown, Connecticut. He was a tenor sax/clarinet player and singer. My two favorites were “Margey” and “Are you lonesome tonight”. Great dancing music!

Ralph Flanagan & His Orchestra

The 1955 Mardi Gras Ball raised the bar a little higher with Ralph Flanagan & His Orchestra. They played the Glen Miller favorites. Ralph was born in 1919 in Loraine, Ohio and was still active in the early '60s. I personally liked his Glen Miller stuff but Flanagan’s “Hot Toddy” and “Slow Poke” were really good too! His Glen Miller approach helped to keep him as one of my favorite bands in a style that stayed relevant — slow, smooth dance music.

— Don Falletti

If you have a remembrance and/or photo to share, send it — along with your name, address and phone number — by email to jtknoll@swbell.net or by land mail to 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, Kansas 66762. You can phone and text photos to 620-704-1309. — J.T. Knoll