Wally West is a professional honker. But the smooth sax tones he has honed since the fifth grade weren’t his first choice of brass expression. West initially wanted to blat.
“I think it was something that my parents were playing on the stereo, and I heard a trumpet, and I just thought that the trumpet was the coolest instrument in the world,” the Greensboro native says during a phone interview.
But when he went with his parents to Moore Music to pick out his trumpet, things fell apart. “And they’re out of trumpets. And they say, ‘All we got left is alto saxes,’ and I’m like, ‘Not my first choice, but yeah, I guess,’ ” West says, sighing at reliving the moment even after all these years. His musical future looked bleak at first.
“I brought it home, and I immediately put it together and tried to play it and was frustrated. Because with a trumpet, gee whiz, all you gotta do is slap a mouthpiece in it, and you’re good to go. With this thing, it’s got a couple of pieces, a reed — aw, man, it was confusing”
But on the first day of summer band lessons, which West had signed up for to get a jump on the other upcoming fifth-graders, things turned around. “This band director, Mrs. Ann Shipwash, lit that fire, and she had me from good morning,” West says. “So that’s what started it all, and I never looked back.”
West immersed himself in the local music scene.
“A lot of people think this town is boring, but it’s not,” he says. “Being from here, I’ve made a lot of great connections, having the opportunity to do some playing professionally when I was still in high school was good.”
He says playing in local swing big band impresario Burt Massengale’s band was a blessing.
By the time he graduated from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music in 1983, West had made important professional contacts with nationally touring artists. In the early ’90s, West toured for nearly 10 years with the Four Tops and The Temptations.
“I quit doing it in 1997, because my wife got pregnant, and I just said being a dad, (the touring is) not that important to me,” West explains. “I’m gonna quit doing this traveling. I wanna be at home. I wanna be around for my kid, so I’m gonna start working on doing more of the local stuff, when acts come into town, I’m gonna try to do that.”
But before that, West did some high-flying courtesy of a local airline that grew. Initially, USAir was the merge of Allegheny Airlines and Piedmont Airlines, a Winston-Salem-based regional airline that served the Eastern Seaboard. Piedmont Airlines actually had a jazz ensemble, a big band, comprised of employees, and it rehearsed at Smith Reynolds Airport in Winston-Salem. When Piedmont and Allegheny merged, they decided to keep the big band going.
“They could send the band out to where they’ve got a new hub or they’ve got a new direct flight. It’s a great promotion,” West says. “So they would just fly the band there to play. They never paid them anything, but they would put the band up, and they would also give the band flying privileges just like they would employees. You could fly anywhere you wanted any time you wanted as long as it was on standby.”
That ensemble morphed into USAir Jazz Orchestra, with the same perks. The employees were never paid, but they were given a daily allowance for their meals, put up in a hotel room each night they were gone and given flying privileges like they were employees. They could fly anywhere anytime USAir flew as long as it was on standby. “So, man, I took many a trip on that.”
West got involved when employees of Piedmont Airlines got transferred once the merge happened, so they had to bring in ringers to fill in the seats from the departed employees. “It ended up becoming a full ringer band. No employees involved. I hate to say it, but the more employees that left, the level of the band went up,” he says, chortling.
The USAir Jazz Orchestra morphed into the USO Jazz Orchestra.
“All of a sudden we start doing some governmental contracted things,” West says. “We played for presidents, leaders of foreign countries, I remember doing a great gig over in Nuremberg, Germany, for the anniversary of the war trials. I started that band in the early ’90s, and I was in it til it went defunct, which was probably 2003-4, probably 10 years.”
In 1996, West formed his own group, the Little Big Band, with wife, Cathy, as the singer.
“A full-fledged big band is generally 17 to 18 members. My Little Big Band is half that, nine pieces. Let’s just put this down to the lowest common denominator: less mouths to feed.”
West’s sales pitch goes like this: “When someone wants the big band sound and doesn’t want to pay the big band price, well, gee whiz, there’s the — you guessed it — little big band. The LBB sounds like a big band, it’s just smaller. Same type of arrangements, same type of music, we do primarily swing and big band stuff. We’ve got some Latino charts in there. We’ve got some other stuff going on, but we stay true to the jazz idiom and the sound of the big bands.”
The band’s website lists more than a hundred titles it performs. Its repertoire includes Louie Prima’s 1956 original “Jump Jive and Wail,” made popular again by Brian Setzer’s in 1998; big band classics like Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” and Glen Miller’s “String of Pearls” and “In the Mood.” It also includes George and Ira Gershwin songs, some Cole Porter music and some Irving Berlin works.
“Those are songs from the Great American Songbook — the lyrics are meaningful, the tunes swing, and that’s just a happy marriage when you’ve got all that going on,” West says.
But he doesn’t limit his musical horizons to nostalgia. One of his favorite annual gigs was under the big top.
“I did the circus every year, and I miss that. It was so much fun. If you ever wanted to get your chops together really quick, go play the circus,” he says. “I remember after the first show, your chops would bleed, and then after the last show at the end of the week, man, you could go and saw down trees with your chops. It was so much fun unless you were real close to the tiger pit. I miss those days.”
Even though the elephants no longer amble though the street annually and the tiger cages have been cleaned out and put away, West still finds a way to make his honkin’ interesting and profitable.
The saxophonist says he believes one of his greatest assets is his versatility.
“I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades,” West says. “I’m a blue collar saxophone player. I’ve always had the understanding that I’m not gonna put a label on what I do. I want to be able to do whatever the situation calls for. I want to be able to step in and play that part confidently. A lot of my fortune has been just being at the right place at the right time, knowing the right person and having them recommend me. I’ve never worked through an agent, which is knock-on-wood, either really good or really bad, but I’ve been very fortunate.”