By Steve Provizer
Trumpeter Doc Severinsen had the right combination of talent and showmanship to reach and stay in the spotlight, and he adjusted the pieces of his life to maintain his singular place.
Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story, directed by Kevin Bright & Jeff Consiglio. (Editor’s Note: PBS has picked up this documentary and will be showing it throughout April at various times.)
In the ’60s, whenever I told an adult I had started playing the trumpet, the inevitable response was: “Oh, like Al Hirt,” or “The next Herb Alpert, eh?” In a different era, that would have been the next Louis Armstrong, Harry James, or maybe Miles Davis. But for over most of the last 40 years, the name that would have popped up for most of the general public would have been Doc Severinsen, who was the leader of the Tonight Show band and comic foil for Johnny Carson for 25 years.
As the documentary Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story clearly shows, Severinsen is a phenomenon. He was the best student trumpet player in Oregon when he was only nine years old and continues to play into his 93rd year. The only other player whom I can think of blowing that late in life with anything like a comparable amount of power is another doc: Doc Cheatham. The trumpet is an instrument that requires physical stamina and dedication verging on obsession, and Severinsen has always been obsessed.
Through most of his life, Severinsen’s technical skill has been unassailable and his music accessible. Like any trumpet player able to carve out a large public reputation, he was a dramatic and flashy player who glistened in the highest registers of the horn. He could comport himself well in some improvisational situations, but his tone, vibrato, and range were his money in the bank.
Severinsen was a perfect fit for the kind of jazz used in late-night talk shows on television: big band jazz in all its brassy power. TV talk-show hosts had an affinity with the music — Johnny Carson was an amateur drummer and a jazz fan and Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas were ex-big band singers. Jack Sheldon played a role in Merv Griffin’s all-star band similar to Severinsen’s, blowing stellar trumpet and purveying a sly, double-entendre-laced brand of humor. But Severinsen really “got” show biz, sporting a tsunami of loud, glittery clothes that Carson could riff off of and drawing the humor out of the “Stump the Band” segments. Watching these bits in the film provoked a chuckle and brought back good memories.
Staying at the top for so many years is not easily done. In his drive to make it happen Severinsen was unable to — in truth, not really interested in — balancing the professional and personal parts of his life. His workout and practice schedules were intense and he traveled constantly, crisscrossing the country performing with bands and orchestras and conducting clinics. As shown in this documentary, his relationships with his children seem strong, though he had three marriages that couldn’t hold up under the strain.
The filmmakers found a good interview subject in his third wife who, without coming off as a bitter woman scorned, reveals the rocky side of the life of the itinerant musical performer — nay, star. She is candid about her husband’s behavior. He feigned separation from his previous wife when they met and he made little emotional investment in their relationship. She calls the trumpet Severinsen’s “gateway and his prison.” Even after the Tonight Show went off the air in 1991, Severinsen continued to tour constantly. She suggests that he is on the run from a fear of death. That may be true, but what one can also see in this film is the amount of pleasure he got from what he did and the passion with which he did it.
As a document, there’s no pressing reason the filmmakers would need to bring in a larger context. Severinsen is the story here and they tell his story fluidly and entertainingly. But it should be noted that the world of Doc Severinsen is a particularly Middle-American world and largely white. Over the years, there were a few great black players in the Tonight Show band — Snooky Young, Ernie Watts, Clark Terry, and Grady Tate. But most of the members of the band were West Coast players with strong recording studio credentials, and those studios mostly employed white musicians. Questlove, who co-fronts the Roots, the band on the Jimmy Fallon Show, has nice things to say about Doc. He verifies how well he still plays, but he also lauds him for “breaking down barriers.” It’s hard to see that. Maybe he’s not aware of the role that Steve Allen and then Skitch Henderson played, well before Severinsen took over the Tonight Show orchestra.
As jazz people know, there was another world of trumpet playing going on, a long way from the studios of L.A. Players like Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and others were fortunate if they were able to score an occasional slot on the Tonight Show. Jazz writ large has always had problems getting heard on TV. To learn more about that, read up on the Jazz and People’s Movement, spearheaded by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp, and others.
Doc Severinsen had the right combination of talent and showmanship to reach and stay in the spotlight, and he adjusted the pieces of his life to maintain his singular place. Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story will show you what he accomplished and something of the price he paid. Severinsen connects well with students and, all told, has been a charismatic purveyor of the power of music. So, by all means watch this documentary on the life of a gifted musician. At the same time, be aware that what you see in his career only represents the most public, mass media representation of jazz. Virtuosity in the pursuit of entertainment is no vice, but there’s a lot more jazz out there, most of which has never found its way onto the small screen.
Steve Provizer writes on a range of subjects, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.