By Michele Tennant
For The Union Democrat
Sierra Nonprofit Services and the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance will benefit from a "September Songs Concert Weekend" on Saturday and Sunday at the Sonora Opera Hall.
The Great Mother Lode Brass and Reed Band, directed by Hank King, will perform from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday with free admission. Donations will benefit Sierra Nonprofit Services.
Now You Hazz Jazz, featuring Grammy Award-winning pianist Alan Weaver Copeland with vocalist Sheila Ross, bassist John Kikugawa and drummer Bob Lehmann, will then perform from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets to this show are $25, with proceeds benefiting the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance.
On Sunday, the Great Mother Lode Brass and Reed Band will again offer a free concert from 3 to 5:30 p.m, with donations benefiting Sierra Nonprofit Services.
Saturday night's concert will feature one of Tuolumne County's local treasures - jazz artist, Grammy Award winner and Twain Harte resident Alan Weaver Copeland - whose career in the music industry began back when Calvin Coolidge was president and continues to this day.
We recently sat down with him over lunch to talk about his decades-long career.
First off, when did you get interested in jazz?
When I was a kid. It was the era of the big bands. So I was kind of like a big band kid.
Which bands in particular?
Well, you know, Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, and Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie and black bands and black artists, like Charlie Parker. I was really drawn to jazz. Then, I was accepted into Bob Mitchell Boy's Choir, in 1939. I guess I was 12. They were very active in the radio and movies. We did quite a few films and we did concerts up and down the West Coast, usually in very nice auditoriums. I stayed with the choir for four or five years.
What did you do when you left the choir?
I was in high school and I graduated in '44. Then I had to go into the armed forces. So I enlisted in the Navy. It was in wartime, but the tide had turned for the allies a bit so it wasn't quite so scary. We, the country, were making big strides winning the war. I didn't have to go into harm's way my whole 22 months. I was scrubbing the pots and pans in the kitchen or stuff like that. Then I got lucky and got together with a little jazz combo in Miami. It was like a gunnery school and there was a gunner there that had a little jazz combo. I was able to play well enough that he accepted me. We still stay in touch.
After that I was transferred out to the West Coast to the Alameda Naval Air Station. When I got out of the service in '46, I got a job with a dance band in 1947. So, I'm on the road with Jan Garber. We went all the way to New York. We were staying in this nice little hotel right on Times Square and I went with a buddy of mine to the Paramount and the Modernaires are there. I always loved the Modernaires, so we saw the stage show. When we got back to L.A., we played the ballroom of this big hotel called the Biltmore and we were on the radio every night and this friend tipped me off that the Modernaires were looking for someone, that their tenor was leaving.
So I managed to contact their manager and he invited me to come see them. He set me up for an audition and one of the songs that we auditioned with was "Juke Box Saturday Night" (also the title of Copeland's autobiography). They snapped me up and I joined the Modernaires, who were the most popular vocal group in the country at the time.
How old were you by then?
Twenty-eight. The Modernaires, we were brought onto the Bob Crosby radio show, which was a 15-minute show every night of big band music - the Andrews Sisters, Jo Stafford, you know, Margaret Whiting. And we were on that radio show, it was called "Club Fifteen."
The band leader was Jerry Grey, who used to write Glenn Miller's arrangements. So I met Jerry Grey on the show and I'm starting to arrange for the Modernaires, so he takes a liking to what I'm doing. When Henry Mancini came back to California, Jerry introduced me to him, because he was a mentor to Hank. So he agreed to give me arranging lessons once a month. That's where I learned to write for a big band, strings and all that.
What about this Grammy Award we've heard about?
Well, I was under contract at ABC Records and initially I was brought into ABC by their A&R man, Bob Thiele.He called me up and said that Count Basie's manager had heard my vocal group on "The Red Skelton Hour." By that timed, the '60s, I had the Alan Copeland Singers on the Red Skelton hour and it was on the top 10 every week. So exposure was fabulous. We were premiering with the color show. That's where Basie heard us. So I was brought back to New York to arrange and conduct an album with Count Basie and singers. I wrote an album called "Basie Swingin', Voices Singin'." It was nominated for a Grammy.
(Copeland's Grammy win came in 1969 as director of the Alan Copeland Singers. The "Mission Impossible/Norwegian Wood" medley won as Best Contemporary Pop Performance by a Chorus.)
I went back to Skelton and kept writing. They had all these musical guest stars on and they needed music. One of my favorite incidents is, they booked Liberace.
What did you think about Liberace?
I just loved him. I'd worked with him with the Modernaires a few years before. And he was a sweet, sweet man. My mom came up from Washington, D.C., to see us and he'd take us out to dinner after the show. Anyway, he was coming on the Red Skelton show.
My associate that I wrote the music with on Skelton, we were assigned to go up to Liberace's house up above the Sunset Strip to talk with him about what he might like to do on the show. We had a wonderful afternoon and I had this wonderful idea of having him do "Feeling Groovy" and he loved the idea. So, OK, here we are back on the show live, in front of a live studio audience and here's Liberace with the piano with the candelabra and everything and the Alan Copeland Singers are draped around the piano.
So we sing, "Slow down, you move too fast," and he's playing. "Tripping down the cobblestones," and he's playing. "Looking for fun and," so he looks right at the camera and sings, "Feelin' groovy." That was one of my most triumphant moments in show business.
How much do you think the jazz music scene has changed?
There's good stuff out there, you just have to be lucky enough to hear it, maybe on the radio. There are still young talented people sprouting up everywhere in the genre of jazz.Jazz can't be stopped. It grows up through the sidewalk like grass.
It sounds like you've been keeping up with the modern stuff.
I've got these great music channels, jazz, big bands, singers, classical, that I listen to in the morning. In the evening I turn on the radio station out of Sacramento, they have jazz every night after 7. I mean there's really great stuff. And I'm exposing myself to it every time I can and if I hear something I wasn't aware of or an old tune that's been given a new treatment, that's the essence of Now You Hazz Jazz, we do it all.
So you're still learning?
I'm learning and every time I play.
Alan Copeland, whose latest album is titled "Latin Satin," also is teaching a class in jazz vocals at the Tuolumne County Arts Academy in Sonora on Mondays from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Copeland's goal is to form an ensemble, which will perform locally. For more information on the jazz vocal class, call 532-2787 or visit www.tuolumnecountyarts.org.