I was born in Evanston, Illinois on February 17, 1947, which also happens to be the same birthday as Buddy DeFranco! I was the youngest of three children (one brother and one sister). I was the only musician in the family, although my brother and sister could play some flute, and my brother also played the ukelele and sang. In fact, the first instrument I played was the uke, and I figured out chords to familiar tunes by ear at about age 7.
When I was 8, in fourth grade, I started on a metal student clarinet and within a week could play better than the grade school music teacher. My mother saw some promise in me and bought me a real clarinet, a brand new LeBlanc. I loved that horn! I started taking lessons at Kames Music in Evanston, and my first real teacher was Benny Baileys, a good mainstream jazz alto player who doubled on clarinet. He got me on the basic method books, and had me play a solo called Somnambuia Theme and Variations, by E. S. Thornton. This was a good flashy solo, and I could play it well enough in 5th grade to win first chair in the all-city grade school orchestra.
Meanwhile, my mother had bought me a jazz record at the five and ten cent store, a ten-inch LP called Dixieland Jazz. It had six tunes on it, which were Muskrat Ramble, Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, Jazz Me Blues, Basin St. Blues, South Rampart Street Parade, and Saints. The players were Bobby Byrne, Peewee Erwin, Peanuts Hucko, Billy Maxted, Eddie Safranski, and Cliff Leeman. That record really shaped my whole life — I absolutely loved the way Peanuts played clarinet on it, and devoured every note and nuance. It is a truly great record, and I often thank my guardian angel for sending it my way. Of course, by now I was in love with jazz, and was making my first attempts at copying Hucko note for note. But I also liked many other things, especially baseball, tennis, and golf, and my music was developing at a pretty casual pace. Then, in the summer between 8th grade and my freshman year in high school, fate sent me another wonder: Jack Howe.
Jack was at Princeton in the class of 1930, and played sax and clarinet in the Triangle Band there. Two of his buddies were Squirrel Ashcraft and Bill Priestly; Squirrel played piano and accordion, and Bill played comet and guitar, and all three of them were big fans of Bix. In fact, Bix came to Princeton often to play at house parties, and of course he was a sensation. These three settled in the Chicago area and kept their interest in jazz very much alive. Squirrel had a beautiful home in Evanston, and frequently had sessions at his house throughout the thirties, and his regular visitors included, among many others, Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, Bud Wilson, Rosy McHargue, and Joe Rushton. By 1960, Jack had a 13-year-old son who played the trumpet (Bobby Hackett was his idol) and Jack wanted to form a jazz band with his son and some other boys his age, so he invited all the first chair players from the school orchestra to hear some good records (such as Condon, Hackett, and the Bobcats) and those who were interested formed a band. I was very fortunate to be one of those kids. We called ourselves the Windjammers. Papa Jack got us gigs about every weekend at country clubs and private parties, we made two record albums, played on Ted Mack Amateur Hour, had a weekly radio show on the Northwestern University station, played in a couple of festivals, and in general had a very successful high school career. Our rapid progress was largely due to the inspiration of having jam sessions at Squirrel’s house (in which Jack and his family now lived) with Jimmy McPartland, Bud Freeman, and Bobby Hackett, an unbelievable opportunity for us kids.
During these high school years, I was also playing around Chicago with as many people as I could. I worked at a place on the North Side with George Brunis, and also west of town with the Salty Dogs (Lew Green, Kim Cusack, Wayne Jones, Bob Cooper, Mike Walbridge.) There were also gigs with Eddy Davis, Dave Remington, Jim Beebe, Bobby Gordon, and others. I had picked up the tenor sax my sophomore year, and soon was playing all the saxes. Again, Peanuts Hucko was my main influence.
When it came time for college, Jack had a dream that we would all go to Princeton. We were pretty good students, so three of us actually were accepted and went there in the class of 1969. Several of us took a trip to New York to check out the school before attending it, and we went to Eddie Condon’s. I finally realized my dream of playing with Peanuts by sitting in with him there. He was playing just wonderfully and it was quite a thrill!
During 1964 and ’65, 1 sat in frequently with the Dukes of Dixieland, who were in residence at a club on Rush St. called Bourbon Street. The band at that time included Frank Assunto, Jerry Fuller, Dave Remington, Gene Schroeder, Barrett Deems, and Red Brown. This experience led to Frank asking me to do a tour with them in the fall of ’67, when we went to the Orient for four weeks. We visited Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, Okinawa, and the Philippines. That band included, besides Frank and myself, Charlie Bornemann, John Varro, Paul Ferrara, and Eddie deHaas. Quite an experience for a Princeton sophomore!
While students at Princeton, we formed a soul rock band and played lots of dances, often backing up Little Anthony and the Imperials, and once Chuck Berry. We made some money and I learned to play in sharp keys!
After graduation, I went back to Evanston to do graduate work at Northwestern, majoring in saxophone. (For some reason this seemed like a good idea — I liked classical saxophone music, and the teacher Fred Hemke had made an impression on me when I was in high school). I didn’t play much jazz during this time. I knew I was going to be drafted in 1970, so when I heard about an opening for a saxophonist in the U.S. Marine Band in Washington I auditioned for that job and luckily was accepted. My draft notice and the orders for enlisting in the Marine Band arrived in my mailbox in Chicago on the same day!
Life in the military was OK and the security was good, so I stayed with the band for 29 years and am glad I did. I have played for six presidents, toured every state in the country (over 1,400 days on tour), been all over Russia, and visited England, Holland, Ireland, and Norway.
One of the best things about the band job was that it gave me plenty of free time to pursue my jazz playing. Washington has a very good traditional jazz scene and I have played with so many good local musicians over the years here. The Manassas Jazz Festivals of Johnson “Fat Cat” McRee provided some especially good times. I have played with Brooks Tegler’s Hot Jazz for several years, including trips to Germany, Holland, and festivals at Sacramento and Decatur, III. and appear on two CD’s and one tape with them. I have worked countless club dates with pianist Larry Eanet, notably at Blues Alley, One Step Down, and the Nest. A while back I had a nice two-clarinet group with French clarinetist Michel Mardiguian called Clarinet Connection. I recorded several times for Fat Cat Jazz, notably with trumpeter Johnny Thomas and cornetist Wild Bill Whelan. I have played the last seven years with a traditional six-piece group called the Federal Jazz Commission (every Tuesday at Colonel Brooks Tavern!). I have recently worked some very pleasant gigs with John Cocuzzi on piano, and also with trombonist Dave Sager and pianist Tom Roberts.
Over the years I have also managed to get out of Washington to do some interesting things. From 1975 to ’86 I played almost every June at Princeton reunions in a group led by the aforementioned Jack Howe, and featuring Tom Pletcher and Bob Haggart. This same group also played several jazz parties in Vero Beach, and recorded three times for George Buck’s Jazzology label under Mr. Haggart’s leadership. At another Princeton reunion I played with a band including Peter Ecklund, Bill Crow, Jackie Williams, and Keith Ingham. I had also played several times with the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in San Antonio, a relationship that began in 1976 when I sat in with them while on tour with the Marines.
In 1996 1 played on a couple of occasions with the Ed Polcer All Stars, featuring Mark Shane, Frank Tate, Joe Ascione, and Tom Artin, including a trip to Bohemian Grove in California. In 1997 1 recorded for Arbors Records with a group led by John Sheridan and featuring Bob Haggart, Dan Barrett, Randy Reinhart, Brian Ogilvie, Jeff Hamilton, and Reuben Ristrom. This same band recorded a follow-up album in January of 1999 with Phil Flanigan replacing the late Bob Haggart on bass. In 1997 1 also appeared with Johnny Varro’s Swing Seven at the Arbors March of Jazz, along with Dan Barrett, Randy Sandke, Brian Ogilvie, Frank Tate, and Joe Ascione. In 1998 1 played at the Odessa Jazz Festival, with Polcer, Sandke, Reinhardt, Ascione, and Ralph Sutton, Marty Grosz, and John Pizzarelli.
In May of 1999, I retired from the Marine Band and moved to San Antonio to permanently join the Jim Cullum band. It is a move that had been contemplated for many years, and I feel fortunate to be able to follow my dream and finally settle down to playing jazz full time.
[Ed. note: after 12 years of brilliant playing and recording, Ron left The Jim Cullum Jazz Band in August, 2011 and currently lives with his wife Michelle in England.]