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Friday, May. 16, 2014

94-year-old trombonist Harry Taff says performing keeps him kicking

Special to The Star

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On a rainy afternoon Monday, about two dozen people are in the Lenexa Community Center gymnasium, most of them dancing in pairs, as Roland Blackmar and the Playboys run through a set of pre-World War II tunes like “I’m a Fool to Care” and “Let’s Fall in Love.”

The city’s Parks and Recreation Department sponsors a senior dance featuring live entertainment each Monday, but the oldest person in the room is likely on the bandstand. At 94, trombonist Harry Taff is surely one of the oldest working musicians in town.

Taff, a native of Chillicothe, Mo., had a career as a musician during the big-band era, traveling the country from coast to coast with bands fronted by such popular leaders as Tiny Hill, Johnny “Scat” Davis and Clyde McCoy. He appeared on bills with Billie Holliday, Jackie Gleason and the Three Stooges. He even played Carnegie Hall with Tiny Hill’s band during a series of shows that were broadcast on radio nationwide.

But when the war ended, the big-band era petered out and Taff gradually left his musical career behind. He studied at the University of Kansas City (precursor to today’s Univerity of Missouri-Kansas City). He worked for eight years at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and 13 years at the Kansas City Water Department.

It wasn’t until he retired that he took up the trombone seriously again. Taff has worked in groups with saxophonist Blackmar for the past 24 years or so.

“After I retired, I spent winters down in Florida on a sailboat,” Taff said. “There was a dance band down there with old guys like me, and I decided to see if I could play with them.”

He could and did.

And while he still enjoys playing, it’s not a compulsion. Taff said he has quit and come back several times in the latter stage of his musical career. His most recent comeback came after his companion of many years, Catherine Gunnison, died in May 2012. Taff’s wife, Jean, the mother of his four children, died in 1962.

“The reason I started this time was that after Cathy died, I didn’t know what to do,” Taff said. “I said, ‘Why don’t I see if I can play that horn again?’ 

Taff admits his embouchure and his wind are not what they were in his heyday.

“I’m trying to build it up, but I’m not having much luck,” he quipped.

Even so, Blackmar and his other three band mates are glad to have Taff at their side.

“He’s the most prestigious one in the group,” Blackmar said. “I’ve always envied his musical experience. He got to play the hotel circuit. My only claim to fame was playing sax in the high school band!”

Blackmar, a retired accountant, put the band together around 1990. The other current members are bassist Bryce Turville, a former member of the Kansas City Philharmonic orchestra, drummer Ron Ashlock and pianist Darrell Ramsburg.

“There aren’t many of us around who know all these old tunes,” Blackmar said of Taff. “He’s the best one I could find. It didn’t take a lot of coaxing. He was glad to get back with it.”

Taff has two regular gigs these days: Mondays in Lenexa with Blackmar’s Playboys and Wednesdays at various retirement centers with a band led by Lou Roht.

“We have no (sheet) music,” Taff said. “We play everything by ear. It’s the music we played years ago, and it’s old people listening, so they are glad to hear it!”

On the road

Taff said he took up the trombone while in high school in Chillicothe. He was inspired by the big-band leaders of the era such as Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Jimmy Dorsey. And while he never made it to that rarified level as a professional, he got to see them all perform and to work just a rung below them.

Tiny Hill, “Scat” Davis and Clyde McCoy all had hit records, although Taff didn’t play with them at the time they were made. He does have one vinyl album on which he appears. It was made from the radio broadcasts he did with Hill in 1943 at Carnegie Hall, when the group spent the summer as the house band for the program “Your Hit Parade.”

That summer the band also had weekday engagements at the Edison Hotel in midtown Manhattan.

“I was having a ball, I tell you,” Taff recalled.

His last year on the road, he recalled, he played gigs in Seattle, San Diego, Boston and Tampa, Fla.

“How’s that for the four corners?” he said.

Taff was not drafted during WWII because of a knee injury he had suffered as a child in Chillicothe. Doctors replaced that knee a couple of years ago, and now the other one is bothering him.

He had a stair lift installed recently at his Overland Park home, but otherwise Taff is remarkably vigorous for a man his age. He drives. He even played a few rounds of golf this year.

Taff thinks playing in bands is good for his health as well as for socialization.

“I enjoy it,” he said. “I’m frustrated that I can’t play the way I want to, but it’s probably good for me. It helps me keep what wind I do have.”

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