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Big Band Report

For the Grand Prize: April Is . . . ?

By Published: April 4, 2010
In the course of his long career, Van Damme visited Europe nearly 40 times and played everywhere from the Desert Inn in Las Vegas to the Blue Note in New York City and Disney World in Florida. He also appeared on many television programs including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dinah Shore Show. After leaving NBC in 1960, Van Damme opened a music store and accordion studio in Chicago while he continued to tour regularly. When his contract with Columbia records expired in 1965, he was signed by the German label MPS and recorded sixteen albums for them. Van Damme retired to Florida in 1980 but continued to perform occasionally, appearing at clubs throughout the U.S. until as late as 2008. Along with Mat Mathews
Mat Mathews
and a handful of others, Van Damme set the standard for jazz accordion and kept the bar high for more than half a century.

With Fans Like These . . .

Chicagoan Vern McCarthy, who passed away in late February after suffering a stroke, wasn't a musician but was the kind of supporter whose unwavering devotion is indispensable if America's musical art form is to survive and prosper. To say that there are too few like him would be redundant; jazz is badly in need of steadfast champions, and McCarthy never faltered in his allegiance to big bands in general and Stan Kenton's in particular. Herewith a few words about McCarthy from Jim Peterson, leader of the Chicago Metropolitan Jazz Orchestra:

"Vern was a great guy, a hard-core big-band Jazz fan with tremendous energy and a true joie de vivre, especially when he was in a club listening to a good big band. He seemed to attend just about every big-band date in town. Vern was an especially good friend of ours [the CMJO]. We are known for playing the music of Stan Kenton, and because of that we always had a kind of 'in' with Vern. Loyal to a fault, Vern never missed a performance, no matter where it took him. He was always willing to share his marketing expertise with us too, in the hope that it would help us draw a bigger audience, sell a few more albums or maybe book a few more gigs.

"I saw Vern, of course, at our recent gig at This Must Be the Place in [suburban] Lemont. He was already there while I was setting up, an hour and a half before the downbeat. He offered to pitch in and hook up the lights and set up stands. He offered to make posters for the band advertising our upcoming dates. He even got me caught up with how the various Jazz stations around Chicago were advertising our gig. Vern relayed to me that my friend (and fellow big-band leader) Bill O'Connell

Bill O'Connell
Bill O'Connell

, during his Sunday night show on WDCB, did an especially fine job of promoting the CMJO.

"Then, after the gig got going, after every set Vern and I would spend a few minutes talking about how it went, what the next set's song list might include, etc. Suddenly he stopped, and out of nowhere apologized for "taking too much of [my] time." I was amazed at this man's humility. Thank God I had the presence of mind to let him know it was I who appreciated him! I told him I was so grateful for his constant energy and support. Not only was Vern always there for me and the band, he always made it out to support almost every performing big band in town. I wanted him to know with certainty that he could "take up my time" any time he wished!

"We talked about meeting for lunch so he could share some more of his marketing ideas for the band. I suspect that he, like I, also just wanted to hang out a little and talk about Jazz without the pressure of an upcoming 'next set.' I was looking forward to seeing him on several levels. Musically of course, it was fun to talk with him and listen to the stories. Vern had traveled with the Kenton band, on the bus. Not as a musician, mind you, but as a fan. As a matter of fact, Vern was such a fan of Kenton's that he named his son Kenton. Kenton McCarthy. Now that's a Kenton fan!

"On another level, I looked forward to Vern sharing some of his business expertise with me. He had amassed a lifetime of valuable business experience, which he was always willing to share with me and any other bandleaders in an ongoing effort to help us keep the music alive. As often happens, life 'got in the way' and Vern and I never had that lunch. I had planned to call him in the next few days to set it up, an opportunity that is now lost forever.

"Reading about Vern's untimely passing reminds me yet again of the obvious lesson: do not put off spending time with the important people in your life. See them now. Call them. Tell them thank you, that they've made a difference in your life. Tell them you care about them. Go and be with them. Now.

"All of us know this, of course. On some level, we all know that life is fragile and short. The impact of the sudden and unexpected loss of a friend of the caliber of Vern McCarthy, however, brings it back into focus, down from the brain and mainlined straight to the heart, where it belongs. I think everyone who knew Vern would agree that he's somewhere in heaven, seated in the back of whatever Jazz club God has booked the Kenton band into, smiling broadly and once again digging his favorite music, played by his favorite band. And no doubt he's hanging out with Stan during the breaks. Thanks, Vern. We'll sure miss you."—Jim Peterson

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!

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