Monday, March 29, 2021

American Masters: Doc Severinsen

The NEA better hurry the heck up and recognize 93-year-old Doc Severinsen as a NEA Jazz Master. His jazz credentials are impeccable, having played and recorded with the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Charlie Barnett, Chris Connor, Dizzy Gillespie, Tito Puente, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Milt Jackson, and Stan Getz. Of course, he is best known for leading the Tonight Show Orchestra, but perversely, that level of success and exposure always generates jealousy and skepticism in the jazz world. Doubters should hear the active Severinsen continue to hit his high notes in Kevin Bright & Jeff Consiglio’s Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story, which premieres this Friday as part of the current season of American Masters on PBS.

Severinsen became famous when he was promoted from first chair of the
Tonight Show band to the leader, but he had already played on legions of studio sessions and dozens of legit jazz records. “Stump the band” developed as a regular thing during his tenure. Thanks to his outgoing personality and flamboyant wardrobe, he was as recognizable as Johnny Carson or his co-host sidekick, Ed McMahon. He and Carson could also humorously commiserate over their multiple divorces.

Severinsen also toured regularly with the
Tonight Show band. Again, jazz fans might have forgotten how talented they were. Even irregular watchers should remember Ed Shaughnessy on drums, but the ranks also included musicians like Ernie Watts (who appears in Never Too Late) and Bill Perkins. (If you insist on associating Severinsen with some of the lounge-ish sessions he played on, keep in mind fellow trumpeter Arturo Sandoval pays tribute to him throughout the doc.) It will sort of blow the minds of Gen X’ers and older, but it has nearly been thirty years since Carson (and Severinsen) left the tonight show—almost as long as their run on the late-night staple. Yet, Severinsen never stopped touring and conducting master classes.

In fact, one of the coolest aspects of Bright & Consiglio’s film is the attention they give to the commitment required to play trumpet at a professional level. We see the hours the ninetysomething Severinsen still puts in at the gym strengthening his core. Of course, that is on top of the hours he dutifully spends woodshedding.

For those old enough,
Never Too Late produces a tsunami of nostalgia. No matter what you age, the film inspires loads of fresh respect for Severinsen. His musicianship remains impressive and his resilience is awe-inspiring. Unfortunately, there is a bit of late third-act health drama, but that comes with the nonagenarian territory.

This really is an uplifting profile of an amazingly productive musician. Frankly, it will make many viewers want to rewatch old reruns of the Carson-vintage
Tonight Show, which shows how effective it is. Very highly recommended for jazz fans and old school Tonight Show viewers, Never Too Late: The Doc Severinsen Story airs this Friday (4/2), on most PBS outlets.