Friday, August 4, 2006
Carlisle's own king of swing: Sil D'Urbano
Every so often, Silvestro (Sil) D'Urbano of Heald Road is the featured clarinetist in a band that tours the country playing tributes to Benny Goodman. Goodman's name is familiar to all but the very youngest Carlisleans, and we associate it with incomparable clarinet sound and classic swing tunes like "One O'Clock Jump" and "Stompin' at the Savoy." It is no accident that Sil D'Urbano plays Goodman's own parts in this band; although the two men eventually took different paths, there are some uncanny parallels between D'Urbano's early life and that of the King of Swing.
Goodman was raised in Chicago, the son of a Russian immigrant tailor. He began studying classical clarinet at the age of 10 and made his professional debut two years later. At 16, he was playing with a professional band and by age 20, he was living in New York as a freelance musician, playing recording sessions, radio dates and Broadway musicals. D'Urbano, the son of an Italian immigrant cabinetmaker who also played the clarinet, was raised in South Boston and began his musical studies with solfeggio (solfège). Solfège is a challenging and celebrated way to learn to read music at sight and match pitches by singing the notes of the scale as they appear in different patterns and intervals on the staff. It trains the ears as well as the eyes. At about age 10 or 11, D'Urbano "graduated" to his first instrument, the Eb clarinet, and began studying classical clarinet music. Traveling to lessons by streetcar, he learned the solo clarinet parts to operas and overtures. In the meantime, he went to school and helped his father in the woodworking business.
When D'Urbano heard swing music, he wanted to play it and to learn the saxophone, so he began studying this instrument as well as the clarinet. He was often asked to play solo pieces at school, something he did not enjoy, but he stayed with his music and began playing after school in sections with beginner bands. With practice, his saxophone playing became stronger. By the time he was 13 or 14, he was getting work in Boston nightclubs like the Silver Dollar Bar. He would work so long into the night that he would miss the last train home and have to take the special late-night streetcar. But at the time, he says, he could walk home from the streetcar stop at 3 a.m. with his arms full of instrument cases and feel perfectly safe.
As a teenager, D'Urbano shopped at the Rayburn Music Store on Huntington Avenue in Boston for reeds and continued his clarinet and saxophone studies with Joe Viola of the Berklee College of Music. Although he also studied at the New England and Boston Conservatories as well, he is quick to point out the value of on-the-job training. He was now playing clarinets and saxophones of all sizes, and at about this time, he began to play with "society" orchestras, playing debutantes' coming-out parties and fundraisers. These parties were important to his musical development, because orchestra members had no printed music to read: players had to improvise harmonies as they were actually performing.
At 18, he received his draft notice, but managed to land a spot in the Army National Guard's marching band in the 26th Division on Commonwealth Avenue. Here, he played on Sunday mornings to fulfill his military obligation, and in the summers, he played with the Camp Drum bands, becoming a drum major.
Romance blooms at Blinstrub's
On weekdays when he was home, he played at a "family-style nightclub in South Boston called Blinstrub's Village." This writer was entirely unclear on the concept of a "family-style nightclub," but D'Urbano explained that Blinstrub's began slowly as a restaurant, which was enlarged into a "club" that featured animal acts and other family-friendly entertainment. It would close in the summer while the owner booked acts, and each year the bookings became better, more sophisticated and more current, including top comedians and musicians. Jimmy Durante, Joey Bishop, Jerry Lewis, Norm Crosby, Myron Cohen and others all played Blinstrub's.
"It was wonderful," said D'Urbano. There was always something to do there." There certainly was. Here, D'Urbano played for Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis, Jr. and his father and uncle, Liberace, the Mills Brothers, the Maguire sisters, Arthur Godfrey, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, Nat King Cole and many more. D'Urbano worked regularly at Blinstrub's for nearly 10 years, rehearsing on Mondays and playing up to two shows a night, seven nights a week. During one fateful evening in 1959, he met a vivacious young ballerina named Jean, who was with the Ballet Theatre (now the American Ballet Theatre) up from New York, where she had been performing at Radio City Music Hall. In those days, ballerinas performed four shows a day at Radio City, five at Christmastime, seven days a week — and all en pointe. Before that, Jean had danced on live television "spectaculars." Now, however, there was a change in her career: she did not return to New York, and she and D'Urbano were married in 1960. They began raising a family of two children and moved to Carlisle 37 years ago for the quality, Jean D'Urbano says, of the "educational choices."
Developing his musical connections
In his time off, D'Urbano sought connections with the contractors of local theaters, and began substituting for other pit musicians, which meant he had to be able to play shows "cold," i.e., sight-read them without rehearsal. On Sundays, he would play in his military band from 9 a.m. to noon and then hurry to the theater in time to play a matinee. By this time, he was doing a lot of "doubling," or playing multiple instruments: clarinet, saxophone, and now flute and piccolo. He worked hard at his art until he regularly sat in the first chair of each of those instruments.
Since the 1960s D'Urbano has had a great career in the pit orchestras of Broadway musicals in Boston. In the early years, Boston was the try-out city for New York shows. A show would open here and then, sometimes revised, it would move on to Broadway where New York audiences would make stars out of unknowns like Jerry Orbach, Carol Channing, Gwen Verdon, Jennifer Holliday, and Chita Rivera, to name a few. One of D'Urbano's favorite musical gigs was the original staging of Chicago, starring Orbach, Verdon, and Rivera. "The orchestra was flown on a platform high above the stage at the back," he said. Not only was it exciting to be up there, but the music and choreography were innovative and fresh: a certain hit. He also enjoyed playing Dreamgirls. He says the orchestra used to rehearse on the roof of the Broadway Hotel next to the Shubert Theater where the show was playing. It starred Jennifer Holliday, who, he asserts, has one of the finest Broadway voices in the business. She was a 20-year-old unknown when she was cast in the show.
Sometimes, of course, even a star like Yul Brynner could perform in a bomb. Everyone remembers The King and I, but who remembers Odyssey? Over the years, D'Urbano has played in the orchestras of around 80 musicals, hits and "also-rans," many with their original casts and many several times. He applauds the innovations in the American musical theater of composers like Stephen Sondheim and Jerry Herman, but declares that musicians have to be more versatile and "better qualified" now, as the expense of production has cut back on the number of working hours and performers. Technology, in the form of synthesized music, has cut deeply into the number of musician hires, but D'Urbano feels it has not improved the sound, noting that many of the more recent shows are not musically interesting; "they're just screaming."
Playing other gigs: entertainers and the entertainment business
An artist as versatile and qualified as D'Urbano, however, is never long without work. Outside of musical theater, he has played with the Boston Pops in Boston and Tanglewood, and was a featured saxophonist with the Pops Esplanade Orchestra. He has played in the Cape Cod Melody Tent, on Hawaiian cruise ships, on concert tours all over this country and to faraway places like Argentina. He was a featured player with the Concord Band, and most recently performed at Mohegan Sun, where he played for Jim Nabors. He has played with Craig Ball and the White Heat Orchestra, which specializes in "peppy '30s music," and plays on Wednesday nights on a barge off the pier of the Boston Harbor Hotel. He has worked for an enormous list of first-tier artists of all styles, from Frank Sinatra, Joel Grey, Bob Hope, Liza Minnelli and Patti Page to Johnny Mathis, Ben Vereen, the Pointer Sisters, Natalie Cole, Manhattan Transfer and Rod Stewart. Locally, D'Urbano has played with the Artie Shaw Band for seven years and has a 10-day tour coming up with them in September. Recently, he was in Newport, Rhode Island, keeping up the society orchestra gigs at a fundraising party for the International Yacht Restoration School, and at this writing, his next job was to be a Benny Goodman tribute in Saratoga Springs, New York. In between playing the woodwinds, he has also been a board member and negotiation committee member of the Boston Musicians Association, hired musicians for national touring companies and served as a musical contractor for the Shubert Theater in Boston.
Keeping the record
The D'Urbanos' home is a warm and fascinating place, where pictures of Jean dancing and Sil with a variety of bands and artists are nearby, where hundreds of clarinet and saxophone reeds are set out ready for use, where show cards from concerts and musicals line the walls of the downstairs office and family room. Jean produces an armful of backstage passes from Sil's various gigs, and Sil has a large collection of pocket calendars and his "gig books," which record just about every job he has ever played. The couple recognizes that their life in music has been and continues to be extraordinary and great fun. They relish the mementos that spark stories — "Oh, do you remember this one?" — as sweet and delightful as the music itself. Sil D'Urbano — as Shakespeare would say, "If music be the food of love, play on!"
© 2006 The Carlisle Mosquito