Since taking over the Tonight Show Band in 1967, Carl H. “Doc” Severinsen’s identity has been defined by his musical imprint on the late-night television program hosted by Johnny Carson.
Even today, with 5 1/2 years gone by since Carson and company made their last show, Doc Severinsen continues to be widely remembered as the bandleader for the king of late-night television.
But there has always been a lot more to the wild-dressing Severinsen than what met the television viewer’s eye.
The 69-year-old trumpeter, who hails from Arlington, Ore., began his music career when he was a teenager, quickly gaining respect for his technical abilities and expressive way with a solo. He worked in the bands of Charlie Barnet, Sam Donahue, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman before joining the NBC studio orchestra in 1949.
Since the end of Carson’s reign, he’s been affiliated as pops concert conductor for the Phoenix Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Minnesota Orchestra and the Milwaukee Symphony. Whenever he’s in New York, he likes to sit in with the band on “The Late Show With David Letterman.” And he continues to tour with members of the former Tonight Show Band as Doc Severinsen and His Big Band.
That ensemble, with such Tonight Show Band stalwarts as saxophonist Tommy Newsom, drummer Ed Shaughnessy, trumpeter Snooky Young and pianist Ross Tompkins, plays the Irvine Barclay Theatre tonight.
Despite his busy schedule, Severinsen is still best known as Carson’s musical sidekick. Asked in a phone call from his home in the Santa Ynez Valley if he has ever resented that fact, in light of his other musical accomplishments, the affable trumpet player issues a good-natured denial.
“No, no,” he says. “It’s fine that people see me like that. I’m proud of my association with the show. Frankly, after it went off the air, I figured that by this time [five years later] there would be no thought of it, that there would be no identification with it. But it’s like we just left yesterday. It’s amazing what people say when we’re traveling around the country. It’s like we’re still there.”
In fact, Severinsen says, when he tours with his big band, a group that includes many of his old “Tonight Show” cronies, they open each performance with the old “Tonight Show” theme, something he never tires of.
“As long as they know who you are and hear you play the music, that’s the main idea,” he says.
Severinsen says that even early in his career, he wanted to be a studio musician as well as play small-group jazz. His ability to involve himself with a variety of projects and styles of music has served him well during his career.
“When I was 14, I went to see the Tommy Dorsey band with [drummer] Buddy Rich and [trumpeter] Ziggy Elman. And they both told me, ‘Son, be as versatile as you can be.’ Well, I took that to heart. And I do enjoy all the different things that I do now.”
Principal among those things is his involvement with symphony orchestras. “It’s amazing how much relativity there is between the classical and jazz music scenes. They both have the same musical constituency, the same musical goals. And they’re both currently challenged in the same way by a lack of funding for them.”
While Carson has moved out of the public eye, Severinsen has not. He’s scheduled to make some 90 concert appearances this year, both with symphony orchestras and with his big band. He says he enjoys what he now does as much as at any point in his career.
“What I’m finding is that [playing music] is not a way of making a living anymore. It’s become an organic part of me. I don’t have to force myself to go out to the studio to practice. It’s like walking and eating and sleeping to me. This is the way I breathe.”
* Doc Severinsen and His Big Band, with singer Barbara Morrison, perform tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. 8 p.m. $28-$38. (714) 854-4646.