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Walt Weiskopf: All About the Sound

Bob Kenselaar By

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Another ongoing association for Weiskopf is with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra—not as a member, but as a regular and frequent substitute in band for about the past twenty-five years. And he appears on their 2011 Grammy-nominated album, Forever Lasting: Live in Tokyo (Planet Arts), including a two-tenor sax feature with Orchestra regular Ralph Lalama on "You Tell Me," a Jim McNeely composition. "It's been a great opportunity," says Weiskopf. "I feel a certain kinship. I know that music in a way that most musicians who are not in the band know it. They have been very loyal, even though I'm not often available. It was great to have the opportunity to go to Japan with them. It's funny, it's been one of my lifelong goals to be on a record with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, and lo and behold, that worked out. It was terrific."

Rich Experience

Weiskopf's old friend Lalama figures into the story of how he got his start as a professional musician, working with the Buddy Rich Big Band when he was 21 years old. "I moved to New York City in 1980," he recalls, "and it was suggested to me by elders of mine back where I'm from in the Syracuse area that I should try and get on one of the major big bands. To me that seemed so insurmountable. But whenever Buddy's band would come into the city, I would try and go, and introduce myself, the kind of thing that I'm horrible at doing and probably would never do now, but at the time I was just determined to do it. And within a few months, a couple of the guys heard me play at a jam session, and it was rumored that I might be in line. At that time I was playing alto sax. I didn't even have a tenor. I went out and bought a tenor, because I had heard from Ralph Lalama that he might be leaving. So, I played my first professional engagement on tenor with Buddy Rich."

At first, Weiskopf felt he was in over his head. "I really had next to no experience, certainly on that level. I had just enough, and I practiced, and I guess they saw enough potential in me. Initially, I didn't have the right mouthpiece to blend with the sax section, and luckily, instead of discounting me out of hand, Andy Fusco, in particular, helped me along. He gave me a mouthpiece to play. I was lucky that I hung on."

Through his work with Buddy Rich, Weiskopf got an opportunity to work with Frank Sinatra, when the singer teamed up with Rich's band for a festival in the Dominican Republic in 1982 called Concert for the Americas, the opening event for the 5,000-seat Altos de Chavón Amphitheater. The performance by Sinatra and Rich's band was eventually released on DVD (Shout Factory, 2010). A selection from West Side Story, "Prologue/Jet Song," included an extended drum solo by the band leader, along with a strong solo feature by Weiskopf that very much belies his own self-effacing appraisal of his playing with the band.

He remembers the occasion very clearly. "That was a huge experience. If I had known how nervous I should have been—I mean, we were all nervous, we were not experienced in that kind of thing. But it was terrific. It's all over YouTube now. You wouldn't recognize me, but I'm there, and I'll never forget it. It was about 100 degrees and humid, and I think Buddy—he might have almost bought the farm that night. Of course nobody knew, but he had horrible blockages in his heart and had surgery a couple years later."

Weiskopf later toured as a member of Sinatra's band. "I worked for him from 1990 to '94, until he stopped working. And it was absolutely great, every single time. The band had many configurations. We did it with a string section several times, which was terrific. We did his final European tour without strings—a big band, plus guitar, tympani and French horn." The band played all classic arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May and others from the singer's repertoire and was conducted by Frank Sinatra, Jr., and Weiskopf later worked with Frank Jr.'s own band on a number of occasions.

Playing Well with Others

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