Review: ‘Doc Severinsen and Friends – The Art of the Big Band’ at Strathmore

Five BRASS Stars!

Doc Severinsen may have not appeared on your screen since Johnny Carson turned the keys to The Tonight Show over to Jay Leno in 1992, but he hasn’t slowed down. Hired as a musician for NBC’s  radio network in 1949 and, later, a familiar face on the network’s TV shows, he first appeared with The Tonight Show band, led by Skitch Henderson,in 1962. In 1967, Doc became the band’s Music Director.

Doc Severinsen. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.
Doc Severinsen. Photo courtesy of Strathmore.

He was notable for his bravura trumpet playing, but what got the gossips talking is what Doc wore on the air.

Long before the Beatles and other musicians set the sartorial bar, Doc was a prime time dandy. You never knew what he’d wear on the air – and neither did Johnny.

In the 24 years since his Tonight Show gig ended, Doc, now 89, hasn’t slowed down. He’s still got an incredible set of lungs. Plus, he’s conducted symphony orchestras around the country and toured with his San Miguel Five group and, currently, with his Big Band.

His website displays 39 albums, most produced since the early ‘90s.

Thursday evening, the Music Hall at Strathmore was awash in gorgeous purple, turquoise, red, and yellow lights. Turquoise and yellow panels shone high above the rear of the stage. The lower rear semi-circle was backlit by purple and red lights glowed from the ceiling several stories above.

Of course, the lights couldn’t compete with Doc’s first outfit.

Doc Severinsen. Photo courtesy of the Lied Center for Performing Arts.
Doc Severinsen. Photo courtesy of the Lied Center for Performing Arts.

He strode out on stage a moment after the sole female musician seated herself at the piano and fluffed her curly silver hair. Like the other musicians she wore a black business suit and shirt. The men also sported solid colored ties. Save for the drummer, most of the musicians appeared to be 30 and older.

Doc didn’t need a spotlight. Holding his golden S.E. Shires Severinsen Destino III trumpet, he made his entrance in a pair of lime green leather trousers, bright purple shirt and a blue, lime and silver patterned jacket dusted with tiny rhinestones and beading.

With no introduction, he and the band swung into a fast-paced, jazzy tune. Onstage with him were 12 musicians: five on saxophones, three trombones, one trumpet, one bass, one pianist/keyboardist and a drummer.

Introducing the group’s first full song, the Johnny Carson theme – “I Want To Be Happy”- he recalled how he leapt out of bed one morning in his NYC apartment building: “I wanna do songs that connect with our lives,” he said he yelled. “I wanna be happy.”

“A woman across the hall said ‘So do I, but I want you to put on your pants’.”

They got happy performing “September Song,” sung in the 1938 musical Knockerbocker Holiday by a character performed by Walter Huston. “He was unhappy about getting older,” Doc said without a trace of irony. As Doc directed with the enthusiasm of a teenager, the band ripped into the piece, filling the hall with their polished, brassy sound.

Opera singer Vanessa Thomas, in a long, sequined purple dress, was introduced and quickly captured the audience with her deep, jazzy version of “Singing in the Rain.” Her rich, low voice could bend around the notes, rising to a squeal equal to the sound of Doc’s trumpet.

As the pianist’s fingers skated across the ivories, Thomas, Doc, and the Band segued into an exuberant rendition of “When You’re Smiling.” The sound threatened to spill out of the Music Hall and into the surrounding hills.

The next song, “Georgia On My Mind,” was purely instrumental and a showcase for Doc’s trumpet virtuosity.

“This is the art of The Big Band,” he said, taking a bow. “If it’s the last concert I do, it’s gonna be with a Big Band.”

Doc Severinsen and Johnny Carson on the set of The Tonight Show. Photo courtesy of The Tonight Show.
Doc Severinsen and Johnny Carson on the set of The Tonight Show. Photo courtesy of The Tonight Show.

Next on their playlist – which, unlike other groups is not set in advance but crafted onstage and spur-of-the-moment – was Tommy Newsome’s arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?” a jazzy version of the classic rock song. Doc’s trumpet came across clean, clear and LOUD. He was joined by band member Ernie Watts on Tenor Sax. Watts was a longtime member of The Tonight Show Band.

Next up, “Jumping at the Woodside” by Count Basie. It started with a piano riff, followed by the glorious horns.

After an intermission, Doc returned. This time, he was wearing his “Day of Death” outfit. Tangerine leather trousers – do you know any man over 35 who can get away with any color leather pants? Doc can. Over his fuchsia shirt was a black tuxedo jacket with a satin shawl collar and … a sequined hatchet and what appeared to be a noose on the front and on his back a skeletal figure.

The Band, with bravura flourishes, performed Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” and a sensual “Ishfahan” by Duke Ellington.

Vanessa Thomas returned wearing a black jersey one-shoulder draped gown for “Mood Indigo.” Her voice lowered to a raw growl and soared to orgasmic heights in tandem with Doc’s trumpet. They followed that up with Etta Jame’s “At Last My Love Has Come Along (My Lonely Days Are Over).”

The final three songs – though the audience was willing to stay all night – were B.B. King’s “Every Day I Have The Blues,” a duel between Vanessa Thomas and Ernie Watts; drummer Stockton Helbing’s solo on Benny Goodman’s “Sing! Sing! Sing!” and Doc’s version of Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump.”

“We call ours the ‘Twelve O’Clock Jump!” Doc yelled, still not breaking a sweat.

And, it was.

Doc Severinsen and The Big Band are returning to this area Thanksgiving Weekend for three performances at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Want to treat yourself? Go!

Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

Doc Severinsen and Friends played on November 18, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 North Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For future events, go to the Strathmore’s calendar of events.

Doc Severinsen and Friends will return to this area on November 25, 26 and 27, 2016 to perform with the BSO at the Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall – 1212 Cathedral Street, in Baltimore, MD. Tickets can be purchased online. Check out Doc Severinsen’s website.


Vanessa Thomas, vocalist

Rhythm Section
Mary Louise Knutson, piano
Kevin Thomas, bass
Stockton Helbing, drums

Charlie Young, lead alto
Carlos Vega, alto
Ernie Watts, tenor
Chip McNeill, tenor
Glenn Wilson, baritone

Michael Nelson, lead
Scott Agster
Dave Budimir

Brad Shermock, lead
Steve Strand
Zack Lozier
Adam Rossmiller

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1554.gif

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Wendi Winters
Wendi Winters is a writer, reporter, columnist and photographer - and a former NYC public relations executive. A good portion of her career has been in public relations - backed by solid experience in fashion retailing, wholesaling, textiles, marketing, advertising, design and promotion. She owned her own successful fashion public relations/advertising/special events/runway show production firm for seven years. As a journalist, she was the first freelancer to bring a journalism award home to The Capital - and then earned two more awards. Since May 2013, Ms. Winters has been a full time staff member at Capital Gazette Communications. Prior to that, she freelanced for the company for twelve years. Including her three weekly columns, she writes more than 250 articles annually. Her writing byline has appeared in Details Magazine, What's Up? Annapolis Magazine, and numerous others. She's been a feature writer for Associated Press Special Features and for Copley News Service. For years, her fashion critic columns ran in the NYC weeklies Manhattan Spirit and Our Town. Since moving to this area in 1999, as a D.C./Baltimore-area theatre critic, her reviews appeared in Theatre Spotlight and The Review. Plus, she was a Helen Hayes Awards nominator for two terms. Mother of four, she continues to be active as a Girl Scout leader and a regional church youth advisor. You bet she can make a mean S'More!



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