The Nuclear Whales-The Early Years

The Nuclear Whales-The Early Years

How exactly did The Nuclear Whales come about?

For part of the story you can consult wikipedia……https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_Whales_Saxophone_Orchestra

The above referenced Wikipedia entry does not in any way represent, in my view as a founding original member of The Nuclear Whales, the actual evolution of the group, nor does it trace any of the history of the group in any meaningful way.  As a result I have decided to set the record straight from my perspective as it pertains to the origins of this strangely named musical group.

This post previously appeared on my website a number of years ago; it has now been updated and revised here in its new incarnation…

The Nuclear Whales-The Early Years

In the Fall of 1978 I began studying alto saxophone with Bill Trimble, who had just moved to Trevethan Street off Soquel Ave in Santa Cruz, just up the hill from Harbor High, where I was a freshman.  Bill had just moved to the area, and my band director, Bob Simmons, tracked down his phone number for me.  I soon learned that Bill was the saxophone professor at San Jose State University, and I remember my first lesson with him very well.  Bill was a big guy, and he had a lot of facial hair.  He had me read for him, and we played some scales.  After that lesson he said it was nice to find a student that did “more things right than wrong,” and he assigned a regimen of Joe Viola Technique of the Scales Volume 1, Fairling Studies for Saxophone, and The Eccles Sonata, a Baroque piece, transcribed by Sigurd Rascher.  Bill was a “died in the wool” classical saxophonist, and he had a reputation as the best in the Bay Area at that time. I would later learn that he did solo recitals and played with all the orchestras in the Bay Area.  In fact, he was the grandfather of the classical saxophone movement in the Bay Area.  I remember feeling lucky to meet this man and to have this chance to work with him.  Little did I know how much this would shape the REST OF MY LIFE…….!!!!

That first year at Harbor High I auditioned for the CCS Honor Band;  my work with Bill was going well and he helped make a cassette tape for the audition.  Many people told me that I didn’t have much of a chance at getting into the band, but that just made me more determined.  I did get in, and scored second chair alto saxophone.  I continued my work with Bill and continued to improve dramatically, and had a lot of fun in the process learning about the saxophone.  My interest in music grew exponentially….

Through my studies with Bill I met other saxophonists, who were all older than me.  In the summer of 1980 I was sixteen years old.  I think it was Bill who suggested that we, whoever we was, form a saxophone quartet to do some informal playing, and that it would be good for all of our playing.   I think it was in the summer or fall of 1980 that myself, Don Stevens, John Neher, and Bill Landing began getting together at John’s house off Mission Street to rehearse saxophone quartet music we had photocopied from the San Jose State music library.  I had recently acquired a Yamaha soprano, so I was playing soprano, John was on alto, Don on tenor, and Bill on baritone.  I remember playing the Ragtime Suite by Arthur Frackenphol, and Russell Howland’s Saxophone Quartets, among others.  We kept at it weekly for months, and we got better, but truth be told, we were pretty green and lacked any real musical foundation at this point.  Bill Landing was a Doctoral student at UCSC and Don had no real formal musical training at this point; John was working on his UCSC undergrad  music degree, and he also played pedal steel guitar at night at local places like O.T. Prices Music Hall.

I remember The Nuclear Whales first gig.  We did a radio broadcast from the back of the old Cooper House for KUSP, the local non commercial radio station.  I think it was their pledge drive.  I remember it was hot, and we played for an hour.  I bet that was late fall 1980.  We had named ourselves after a farcical t-shirt that Don had, which had the Whale and the Nuclear symbol on it, and it had a slogan, “We may not live to see the dawn, nuke the Whales before they’re gone.”   I think we all wore that t-shirt to the first gig.  Not sure it made any sense or had any significance, I think it was just for shock value and to draw attention to us.  Frankly, it was a little odd but people sure noticed the name, and from that perspective, it worked.  The photo below is from that first gig; sorry Bill, you are out of the frame for some reason!!

Don Stevens, while the weakest musician in the group at the time, was the de facto leader.  He took it upon himself to find us gigs, and he did a radio show at KUSP and had many connections there and around town.  His good buddy was station manager Lance Linhares.  Oddly enough we found some gigs, private parties, weddings, clubs, and began causing a bit of a stir locally.  We added arrangements to our repertoire, and continued to rehearse.  I remember John did an arrangement of Funeral March of the Marionettes and we always got a good audience response with that.  Around this time I began to get interested in other types of saxophone music, New Orleans rhythm and blues, The World Saxophone Quartet,  and Weather Report.  I remember thinking it would be interesting to do more creative music, and tried to figure out how to incorporate that into what we did.  Don and I butted heads over that, as he had no real love for WSQ or other more creative groups that were happening at that time.  For some reason classical saxophone folks often miss the entire point with this type of music.  I recall particular hostility towards the Rova Saxophone Quartet.   I remember being open minded about them, although I did hear them on record and felt they lacked polish and I certainly didn’t’ get their free jazz sensibility, at least not at that time.

I remember The Nuclear Whales played part of a concert at Harbor High around this time, and people were noticed that we sounded decent and rehearsed at this point.  To my knowledge there is no recorded evidence of any of this very early work, although Don may have some it if in his garage.  I saw Don recently, and he had given up playing and didn’t really seem too interested in digging into that stuff. 

Don was always looking for ways to move us forward, and I give him credit for that.  He managed to keep us busy as a quartet, and somehow steel guitar wizard Bob Brozman got wind of us and spoke to us about backing him up, and doing a couple of tracks to back him up on a recording he was working on.  Bob was a local sensation at this point, but not nearly the world famous guitar hero he went on to become, all over the world.  I remember one of his claims to fame at this time was he got arrested, I think, for playing on the street in front of the Cooper House and stopping traffic, causing a disturbance.  If you saw Bob at this time slapping the strings and singing his 1920’s jazz and blues stuff, and playing bottleneck guitar, you’d stop, listen and toss money at the guy too.  Brozman was a terrific musician and an even better showman.  We had no idea how this new connection would pan out, but we were excited about the prospect of working with him.  I began meeting with Bob and we sketched out arrangements for the recording, which was done at Fane Studios in Harvey West Park near what is now Costco.  Additionally, Bob and Don began talking about doing a self produced show at Moraga Concert Hall, at Seabright and Frederick Streets, where we would do a set as a quartet to open. Bob would do a solo set, and then we would join him for a few tunes to close the show.  A Whales trio recorded a couple of tracks on Brozman’s second recording, Snapping’ the Strings, which came out on a label called Kicking Mule.  Brozman and I did strike up a friendship and a working relationship that led to some tracks on a later recording of Bob’s entitled Devils Slide which came out on Rounder Records.  You can find Bob’s Wikipedia entry here…..https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_Brozman

Eventually The Nuclear Whales did the show at Moraga Concert Hall, and I remember it being sold out, mostly because Bob had such a big name locally.  Around this time we were playing weddings, and we played a wedding for Bruce Larsen, Don’s neighbor, and we played at Bob’s wedding, and we also played John Neher’s wedding.  John did leave the group at this point, which was probably around mid 1982.  I believe he moved to Oregon…..

Neher’s leaving left us with a dilemma, since we had some gigs lined up.  We needed to find another member, so Bill Trimble stepped in, and I remember Dale Wolford, Bill’s prized student at the time and current San Jose State Saxophone Professor, played with us a few times, and Dale Mills was also present for rehearsals and a gig now and then.  I remember around this time we did a gig opening for the David Grisman Group in Palo Alto at The Varsity Theater on University Avenue which drew a nice crowd, and we also played outdoors in a courtyard across the street in a restaurant in the evenings one summer, probably 1983 or 1984.  These gigs served to provide valuable experience and gave us a reason to rehearse, and put a little money in our pockets.

At some point in 1982 or early 1983 Don and I took a trip to Los Angeles because  Don wanted to research the Hollywood Saxophone Quartet.  We were listening to their recordings and trying to learn more about them.  The trip took us south and we met up with Glenn Johnston, Artie Drellinger and Russ Cheever, I believe.  Around this time I took my first lesson from Los Angeles woodwind teacher Victor Morosco.  While Victor and my relationship is a subject for quite another chapter in my musical life, Vic’s teaching and influence would spread around the Bay Area as a result of his connection with The Nuclear Whales, and we did get quite a jolt from his teachings, forcing us to revaluate our ability and become even more serious about pursuing this endeavor.

I remember The Nuclear Whales doing a fair amount of street fair gigs, in Palo Alto, Half Moon Bay, and San Francisco.  I remember Bill Trimble being on those, and at some point we recruited a zany, queer baritone sax player from San Francisco, Rach Cztar.  Rach was a fine musician who had worked with the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet, and he was quite a showman.  He would chase people around the street when we were playing, bonking out the hilarious two note theme to “Jaws.”

At some point, maybe 1984 or thereabouts, the idea was hatched by Don to expand the group to six pieces, and call the group The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra.  We were aware of the Brown Brothers saxophone group, they were six in total, and Don began to think about finding a bass sax to play, and that would be the anchor of the Orchestra.  It was an ambitious idea, and it would prove to be a major turning point in the bands trajectory.

My role in the expanded Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra was playing the tiny sopranino saxophone for the most part.  Don had picked up a first rate Selmer sopranino and since I had the experience on soprano I guess the duty just fell to me.  I worked with Victor on it and became pretty proficient on the little devil.  We did make our debut recording in 1986 and I played sopranino and alto on that.  Don funded that recording and hired Fred Catero to engineer it, it was recorded at the Music Annex in Menlo Park on April 1st and 4th, 1986. This recording was originally issued as an LP on vinyl.  Here is the CD artwork, which appeared much later:

By this time in 1986 I was deep into my undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University and was majoring in orchestral clarinet.  My involvement with The Nuclear Whales, which now was the grand Saxophone Orchestra, gradually diminished over time, although I did still do street fairs and the occasional gig with them.  I remember a gig at the Great American Music Hall opening for Ritchie Cole, but I cannot for the life of me recall the date of that.  I remember Dale and Vic and Bill were on all the gig, probably Art Springs too.  In the later 80’s Don recruited John Davis, a former member of the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet, to play with the group.  John was a fellow student at SFSU majoring in flute performance at that time.

Here is a link to The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra playing Darktown Strutter’s Ball, from their first recording.  That’s me on the tiny Sopranino Sax:

In 1990 I moved to New York City to attend the Mannes College of Music for my graduate work and that was the end of my decade with The Nuclear Whales.  I know the group recorded several more discs after I left and that there were a number of additional people that joined the group.  Kris Strom I know for sure was in the band for a time. I also remember Don set up a performance at the Great Wall of China for a huge saxophone group, although I have no memory of why or if it actually happened.  A great publicity stunt if nothing else!!

That the Nuclear Whales are a part of my personal musical history and contributed a great deal to my growth and commitment to music is a testament to how much fun we had in those early days.  I believe they continued to perform well into the 1990’s…….maybe someone can come along and fill in the details of that period, and update the Wikipedia site.  Looking back it was a rather odd attempt at music making, and certainly not the creative or artistic endeavor that I’d envisioned.  But again, it was fun and we all gained some valuable experience in the process.  In case you need a chuckle, consider again The Nuclear Whales motto on the original t-shirts:

“We may not live to see the dawn……Nuke The Whales before they’re gone……”  I guess this was meant to be a of statement about nuclear energy, or saving the whales, or some sort of strange off beat humor connecting the two.  There certainly was a lot of awareness, mostly negative, of nuclear energy at this time.  I have no idea where or how the slogan came about frankly…….Nuke The Whales, indeed.  It did grab people’s attention, that’s for sure…

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