Wednesday, March 28, 2012

R.I.P.: Lou Colombo

Lou Colombo; Trumpeter Dazzled Stars of the Jazz World
by Kathleen McKenna for The Boston Globe
March 28, 2012

Lou Colombo had been chiseling, hammering, and reworking an old trumpet mouthpiece until March 3, when he finally got it just right.

"My dad was always searching for the perfect mouthpiece," said his son David of Sandwich. "Over the years, he'd probably been to every music store in the country."

Mr. Colombo was not scheduled to play that Saturday night at the Roadhouse Cafe, which his family owns, in Fort Myers, Fla., but the musicians on the bill urged him to sit in. He agreed and even ironed a new shirt for the occasion. "He was so excited," his son said.

A consummate entertainer, Mr. Colombo was known for his ability to play the trumpet with just one hand, and his set that night was his best ever, according to the musicians who shared the stage. They invited him to play another set, but he decided to go home to his wife.

Mr. Colombo died in a car accident as he pulled out of the Roadhouse Cafe parking lot at about 9:30 p.m. March 3. He was 84 and had divided his time between his home in South Yarmouth and Florida.

"He was in the best shape of his life," his son said. "He went out on a high note, doing what he loved right up until the end. It was like God said, 'You're at the top. You got the sound you always wanted. Now we're going to take you.'"

Louis Bernard Colombo was born in Brockton. Though he kept close ties to his hometown and the jazz scene there, he spent most of his life on Cape Cod, where he was a force in the music community, playing steady gigs to capacity crowds.

Among the luminaries who watched him perform were Tony Bennett and Dizzy Gillespie. During his career, he played alongside the likes of Rosemary Clooney and Mel Torme.

In later years, Mr. Colombo played winter gigs in Florida.

As a child, he was a standout baseball player who never struck out during four years on the varsity team at Brockton High School. His friends included Rocky Marciano, the future heavyweight boxing champion, who lived two doors down and married one of Mr. Colombo's cousins.

In 1944, Mr. Colombo joined the Army and played trumpet for a military band during World War II.

Upon returning to Brockton, he was drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Playing for farm teams, his batting average hovered around.300. When he traveled to games in the South, Mr. Colombo corralled fellow athletes to sneak out past curfew and visit jazz clubs.

Even while playing baseball, his son said, Mr. Colombo kept his trumpet close. As television stations began airing games and team owners scrambled to fill the stands with fans, Mr. Colombo was often called on to play his trumpet before games or during breaks in the action, dressed in his baseball uniform and often backed by a full band at home plate.

"He was very popular," his son said. "The crowds loved him."

When an ankle injury ended his baseball career, he returned home and threw his energies into music.

After touring for a few years with Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and others, he met Noel Tremblay of North Attleborough when she went with a friend to hear him play. They married in 1951 and settled in South Yarmouth.

From then on, he played mainly regional gigs, often with Dick Johnson on sax and Dave McKenna on piano. One of Mr. Colombo's most admired albums was 1990's "I Remember Bobby," a tribute to his friend, musician Bobby Hackett.

Reviewing the album in 1991, People magazine noted that "in the '50s Lou Colombo was a minor-league baseball player with a.300 batting average. Not bad, but he bats 1,000 here. If his propulsive renditions of 'It All Depends on You' and 'Three Little Words' fail to wrest listeners from their seats, their next stop ought to be the doctor; something is seriously amiss with their vital signs."

In 1988, trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, who died in 1993, was speaking with WGBH-FM. "This guy's amazing," he said of Mr. Colombo. "I've been preaching his name ever since that night I first heard him down on Cape Cod."

Mr. Colombo, Gillespie said, "starts playing and the notes keep going, but the chord keeps changing all the time.... I went one night to hear him play. Boy, he asked me to play with him and I said 'No, you got it, brother. I'm not going to jump into that hot water.'"

Saxophonist Ted Casher of Bridgewater, who played with Mr. Colombo for years, called him "the most superb and most natural musician I ever ran into."

Mr. Colombo passed a love for music to his children, several of whom operate restaurants where their father performed as a regular. His daughter Lori is a jazz singer.

"Every time my dad entered the room, people would respond," she said. "He was such a showman and had a way of getting the crowd excited, first with his amazing comedic wit, and then when he picked up the trumpet."

His son recalled that when Tony Bennett visited Hyannis 20 or so years ago, the singer watched Mr. Colombo after performing nearby.

"He tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'That's the best trumpet player I ever heard in my life,'" Mr. Colombo's son said. "And I said, 'Yeah, Tony, me, too."

A few years ago, Bennett invited Mr. Colombo to join him onstage at the Bank of America Pavilion in Boston.

Bennett told JazzTimes magazine: "Lou Colombo was a magnificent musician and was known as Dizzy Gillespie's favorite trumpet player. Lou was a wonderful human being and his sudden passing is a tragedy and a great loss to his family and all who have known him and worked with him over the years."

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. Colombo leaves three other daughters, Lynda of Delray Beach, Fla., Lou Anne of Brewster, and Sherri Colombo Neeley of Fort Myers; another son, Thomas of Sandwich; a brother, Vincent of Brockton; a sister, Jeannette Small of Bridgewater; nine grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

His family will hold a New Orleans-style funeral procession on June 17, Father's Day. It will begin at 2 p.m. in Hyannis at Colombo's, a restaurant David owns, and end with a memorial service at the Cape Cod Melody Tent.

Lori will host a free tribute concert July 11 at Wequassett Inn in Chatham and perform along with many of her father's friends. Students will be featured, as well, which is fitting, she said, since Mr. Colombo was a strong advocate for young musicians.

"My father told me over and over: 'Play the melody,'" she said. "He believed that people needed to hear the melody, that it helped rekindle something inside them so they could connect with the song on a much deeper level. That's what Dad was about."

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