Friday, October 14, 2016

A Tribute to Bruce DeMoll

Friday, October 14, 2016
Bruce Stockwell DeMoll

I got word from a fellow musician earlier this week that my Uncle Bruce DeMoll had passed away on October 12. He was 86 years old.

Bruce wasn't really my uncle, just my dad's oldest and best friend. He and my dad formed a music trio with their friend Tom Vadakin in their mid-teen years and continued to play together whenever possible until my dad's sudden death in January of 2011. In fact, my dad and I were scheduled to play a gig, subbing in for Bruce, later in the week that my dad died. It was the last thing Dad and I spoke about—he was eager to get better so we could play.

Growing up in a house full of music had a profound effect on my life. My dad playing piano and my mom singing were a more regular soundtrack for us than the TV or stereo. This immersion in melodic sound and the joy that music brought to our family was always heightened when Uncle Bruce was around. In my very early days Brucie would only visit once a year or so, but these occasions always resulted in all-night jam sessions at our house in Pella, Iowa, and later in Marietta, Ohio. I never saw my dad so excited and full of life as when he and Bruce were playing. My dad was a consummate jazz piano player, but he revered Bruce DeMoll as the musical ideal.
A New Year's Eve jam session at 306 Warren St.

Bruce played many instruments well: paint, guitar, flute, clarinet—but it was his saxophone playing that took him around the world, playing with big bands, including the Glenn Miller Orchestra. In the mid-70s when his touring time was over and the club scene in Miami was shifting away from jazz, my dad and Tom Vadakin persuaded Bruce to move back to their hometown of Marietta. It was then that Bruce's life really took shape and his profound influence on generations of area musicians began.

Bruce (with the guitar) was in the band my parents (lower left) formed after they were married in 1956.
Bruce and Dad formed the Duck Creek Ensemble, a sort of jazz dance band that played a few showcase gigs a year with resounding success. With his own combos or solo, Bruce performed thousands of times for weddings, reunions, parties, you name it. He was the first-call player for any show that needed jazz. Any band that was playing a show was thrilled to invite Bruce up on stage to
sit in. He was The Man.

Bruce sitting in with my band The Swinging Orangutangs in 2006.

Yet Bruce's humble demeanor and gentle personality belied his talent. He could play rings around anyone, yet I never heard him brag or gloat. He was a sweet and talented man and I will always think of him as my uncle because he was family.

Once, when I was about 6, I recall being sent to bed during one of my parents' music parties, I had just completed my "star" turn playing brushes for one tune on a metal TV tray in the music room while my dad played some swing blues on the piano. I think Dad was proud to show off my sense of rhythm. I was nervous until we started, then elated as we played. Playing music for people is an addicting feeling. On my way up to bed, I stopped on the stairs, just out of the pool of light coming from the music room, and I watched the lower halves of the adults swaying and dancing. I listened to them laughing and heard them singing to the music being played. I realized in that moment that I, too wanted to be a musician.

My dad didn't make it easy on me. After a few flawed attempts on the trumpet, he sent me away, telling me to come back when I could play. Eventually I settled on the bass guitar and that's when I not only got to play regularly with Dad, but also with Uncle Bruce. About that time, Bruce was coming over to our house several nights a week for dinner. He was a bachelor then and only lived two blocks away. We'd hear the chug of his VW wagon coming up Warren Street and we'd instantly set out another plate for dinner. After dinner he and Dad would ease into the music room and the music would begin to flow. Jazz standards. The music of my life.

There were legendary New Year's Eve sessions at our house—despite the fact that many of the players only got there after finishing a gig at some hotel or party. More than once the music went on until dawn.
Dad and me playing on New Year's Eve.

Bruce's playing always thrilled my dad.

I have recordings on reel-to-reel tape, on cassettes, and on my phone of my dad and Bruce and me playing, and often, my mom singing. Since my dad's death, it's been hard for me to listen to those recordings, because I lost so much music with his passing. I've tried to keep the music alive in my own way, but I'm not nearly the jazz player my dad or Bruce were.

About 10 years ago, Bruce called me to ask if I'd play bass in a trio he had that played a regular Sunday jazz brunch at the Blennerhassett Hotel in Parkersburg, WV. I jumped at the chance. And for the next six years I was there as often as possible, sitting just to his left, watching his left hand. When I joined the trio, the drummer was Chet Backus, another profoundly influential musician who settled in the Mid-Ohio Valley after touring professionally with a variety of bands, including Glen Campbell. To be playing with two giants was a thrill. To listen to and learn from and be surrounded by the music they played was a profound honor. I was in the presence of masters.

When Dad died in early 2011, I took a break from playing in Bruce's trio. The songs and the memories they conjured made me unbearably sad. By the time I was again ready to play, the band personnel had changed—as they are know to do—and, aside from a few substitute gigs, my days of playing with Uncle Bruce were done. The last gig we played was for a charity auction event in Parkersburg, about a year and a half ago. Bruce was his old self, quietly goofy, somewhat spacey, playing piano chord voicings that often buried the melody inside a beautiful bouquet of notes. I didn't know it would be the last time we played. He continued playing gigs until just before his death.
Uncle Bruce at our last gig together, February 7, 2015.

When I heard the news I was sad. "It's the end of an era," I wrote back to my friend Bill, who had told me of Bruce's passing. Then I smiled, thinking how happy my dad would be, because Brucie was coming over to play.

That evening I went out to my dad's grave, in the old orchard on my farm, and I talked to my dad about how much he and Uncle Bruce had meant to me. How much I loved them for the men they were and the music that they gave to me and to the world. And I told him how much I still missed him, my musical North Star. I played Dad some recordings of me and Bruce and Chet Backus playing at the Blenner. And then I put in a request to Dad for our favorite song—one we often started off our gigs or sessions with:—and asked him to play it with Bruce on tenor (not soprano) sax: There Will Never Be Another You.

Here's a song file of my dad and me playing that song.

I love you Uncle Bruce. Let's play the first ending again and then through the verse and chorus one more time.

Here are a few of my favorite recordings from gigs with Bruce.

Song for My Father
Bruce DeMoll, piano
Chet Backus, drums
Bill Thompson, III, bass

The Nearness of You
Bruce DeMoll, piano
Bill Keller, drums
Bill Thompson, III, bass

Round Midnight
Bruce DeMoll, piano
Bill Keller, drums
Bill Thompson, III, bass


On October 14, 2016 at 1:52 PM Gail Spratley said...

Tears here for the loss of life's unique heroes, for your Uncle Bruce. & Gratitude for the richness they bring to our lives. Know that you continue to "PLay it forward"...

On October 15, 2016 at 1:27 AM John Hartel said...

I sat and listened to a few of these sessions as a kid. What a story. What a life.

On October 17, 2016 at 12:53 AM TuxGuys said...

I just got the sad news.
He was your uncle; he was my rabbi.
Aren't we lucky to have known him, and played with him (to say nothing of your dad)?


G. Andrew

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