Famed author of children’s books and poetry Frederick Ogden Nash said of our venerable forebears, “When grandparents enter the door, discipline flies out the window.”
Most fortunately for young 12-year-old Don Podraza the opposite was true.
“Something wrong today?”
Indeed something was wrong and no doubt it was the downcast face and drooped shoulders that gave it away. Grandfather was perceptive that way.
“A little. What’s going on?”
Don related how in band practice that day he’d arrived late and all 20 seats in the trumpet section were occupied – except one, right behind the fellow who sat in the first chair, the first chair synonymous with expertise, ability, renown, age and awe.
And not a little ostentatiousness indicated by the upward tilt of the chin.
The band instructor with baton in hand sharply rapped the music stand before him, raised his arms and with gusto the playing of the march began.
It was as the piece reached its triumphant conclusion that Mr. First Chair then turned around and said, with some fanfare and no attempt at humor, much less humility: “You can’t read music can you kid?”
Grandfather smiled at the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day account of what was to Don the untimely end to what would have been an otherwise brilliant music career.
“You got that music with you?”
Grandfather didn’t know how to finger the trumpet, but he did know something about love. “He sang the first measure to me over and over. I looked up each note in the fingering chart and in less than an hour of his patient and loving instruction I had learned the first measure.
“The very next day I deliberately sat behind the rude guy in first chair and put my horn close to his left ear so he could get a good listen to the first measure. Afterward, nothing was said, but I felt a whole lot better and thought he just may not be too sure about the accuracy of his remark concerning my ability to read music!
“After school I rushed right over to granddad’s house and related the whole account of the first measure and how I had ‘bugled’ the thing right into the first chair’s ear. Granddad laughed and instantly knew I felt much better. I asked him how he knew so much about music and he said he was a retired Navy musician. He had played saxophone, clarinet and flute in a Navy band for twenty years.”
That day, and the next, and the day after that rolled along between grandfather and protégé with the discipline and patience and encouragement provided by the elder paying incremental dividends upon the youngster.
Under his grandfather’s tutelage, Don moved progressively in the seat-challenge system of the band from chair 23 to 13 to 10 to 4 and in an end-of-the-year four-way competition, Don won the coveted first chair.
It was just the beginning. Grandfather, knowing nothing about the trumpet but recognizing Don’s giftedness and work ethic, sought “for a suitable teacher that knew how to ‘toot’ the thing both beautifully and efficiently.”
Advancing rapidly through “Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet,” Don excelled in his private lessons to the day – still in but eighth grade – that he “stood before the firing squad,” also known as the judge of the State Solo and Ensemble contest.
“Even though he was seated in the back of the room I could tell immediately that the judge was astonished when he first saw me; my horn had so many leaks it took nearly a roll of electrician’s tape just to hold it together and plug the holes. The poor guy probably wondered if I was going to play a solo or rewire the room.
“Several hours later my name appeared with a score. I couldn’t believe it but somehow I had garnered a superior plus (1+) for that solo. That was the highest score possible and I jumped up and down with excitement. I was elated and wondered at the time if I would ever be stupid enough to subject myself to that kind of torture ever again! No matter now, I had to hurry home and tell Granddad all about it!
“When I was sixteen years of age I somehow became obligated to play on a talent show on Television. The station was Channel 5 located in Seattle. Dad and Granddad sat with about 50 other people in the studio audience. Some two-million people would be viewing the program on TV.
“My performance was the last one on the show. When I walked to the spot where I was to play and they shined lights on me, they were so bright I couldn’t see or think of a thing.
“There was a lot of applause when I finished and as the bright lights finally went out, I walked back into the studio and Dad said he wanted to show me something. Now, in those days people smoked in public places and some people had smoked while in the studio that night. Under the chair where Granddad sat were twelve cigarettes that had been lit, one at a time, and then put out. It looked like they each had been used for about one puff so nervous had my Granddad been.”
Channel 11 and 13 performances would follow as would a several-year stint – Don having turned professional at the age of 16 – with the Perl Maurer Dance Pavilion in Bremerton consuming the evening hours of his high school and college years. Appearances in Jackie Souder’s Orchestra in the Crystal Ball Room at the Olympic Hotel in Seattle; Dick Parkers Dance Pavilion also in Seattle and various other clubs and rooms often meant he had to be escorted to his spot on the band stand because of his young age and drinking regulations.
Just before moving to the big stage in Los Angeles to join the likes of Al Porcino in what would turn out to be the end of the big band era, Don lost the one who had meant so much in getting him there.
Upon reflection these many, many years later of his grandfather’s death, Don wrote, “I was dependent on my granddad for the success in music and for any future success as well. I owed it all to my grandfather!”
Post-script: Don Podraza performed November 12, 2009 in the first ever “Thursday Night Live at Tillie’s – Not Your Regular Dinner Show” sponsored by the Tillicum Woodbrook Neighborhood Association. Don is the author’s brother-in-law. The article was prepared from excerpts of Don’s written life memories and of course the photo is of Don as a young man.