Man with a horn

(Sonoma Profile by Linda Blum). Jerry Kenny is a living archive of memories from the Big Band Era, when America left the Depression behind and began to swing.

Jerry Kenny is now 85, but those happy years, as a highly regarded trombone player in most of the well-known bands of the era, have kept him young.

Born in Brooklyn, his childhood was lean. His father left, and his mother struggled with depression, so with very little supervision and an adventurous spirit, at 16 he started taking the train to Manhattan, and watching professional band members play at the lively rehearsal studios where the bands would practice before shows.

Jerry had already spent years taking trumpet, then trombone lessons, for which his mother somehow scraped together the fees. He says that his teachers — Charlie Colin and Jack Epstein — were the absolute best of brass teachers, and professional radio orchestra players themselves. They started his career with a strong base and were almost like fathers to him.

One of the recurring themes of Jerry’s story, in fact, is the generous spirit of the musicians he worked with. People like Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Wayne Newton, Rowan and Martin, Vaughn Monroe, Wynton Marsalis, and so many more.

By just “hanging around” these studios with his trombone, he was often asked to sit in for an absent player, and from there he got his first paying gig, touring with the Tommy Reynolds Band.

And so it began-touring and playing with great bands in the era when Jazz and Swing ruled.

Jerry tells a story about being asked to join the Clyde McCoy Band, one that played all the best hotel ballrooms in the Midwest. “I joined the band on a Tuesday and I had about $4 and some change in my pocket, and Clyde demanded all the guys wore black patent leather shoes. Found a pair at Thom McAn shoes for $2.49 and lived until Saturday on $1.70.”

So it wasn’t all champagne and showgirls, but there was some of that, too.

Later, he played with the band of the National Theater in Louisville, playing vaudeville, four shows a day, with acts like the Three Stooges and Gypsy Rose Lee. From there it was into the orchestra of the original cast show of “Carousel,” with John Raitt and June Lockhart. And he was only nineteen.

With the Korean War as an incentive, Jerry enlisted, and ended up playing with Air Force bands in Okinawa and all over the U.S., but he left just before he would have been assigned to the top Air Force band in Washington, D.C.

The Swing years were winding down, the variety shows were scarce, so Jerry went to King Band Instruments as a traveling rep and soloist for the company. This was how he came to meet “the best lady in the world,” Linda Baker, now his wife.

Linda was a high school music teacher in Rancho Cordova, where Jerry was sent to show band instruments. They were married on New Year’s Day, 1977, between shows in Reno, where Jerry was playing with Debbie Reynolds. The newly ordained minister was also the trumpet player at Harrah’s Tahoe, and this was his first wedding. “… he didn’t know what to say, so he told us to just make up anything we wanted and he would sign the papers.”

Jerry made it back to the show just in time. “The guys had my horn out and I sat in my chair just as the curtain opened.”

The more recent years have not been as generous to Jerry. His very loved wife, Linda, suffers with a degenerative muscle disease, and is living in a nursing home here in Sonoma. And he is fighting with the Veterans Administration for help with the medical bills that have sapped their savings.

Still, through it all Jerry remains upbeat. “I didn’t have much”, he says, “but I had a horn. And that gave me everything.”


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