A show biz man of note

Dan Rodricks

September 20, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

Without having conducted a nationwide search, it is probably imprecise of me to declare Mr. Jari Villanueva -- actually it's Master Sgt. Villanueva, USAF -- the hardest working man in show business. Everyone considers Jay Leno the hardest working man in show business, and James Brown held the title before him.

So, you ask, where do I get off with such an assertion about this smiling trumpet player from Baltimore, this graduate of Patterson High, and one of the originals in the Zawadny Brothers' polka band? Let's be real, you say. Villanueva? Isn't that a college? And besides, saying that a guy who plays taps at military funerals is in show biz is a stretch most people aren't ready to make.

But hear me out. There's a lot more to the story. There's a lot more to Jari Villanueva. He can play, he can teach, he can conduct and arrange. Ever since his days at Peabody, he's been a musical entrepreneur. He and a handful of other talents formed the Peabody Ragtime Ensemble. Villanueva used to conduct for the Young Victorian Theater Co., too.

But it's how Jari Villanueva lives and works these days that is especially amazing. "For my life," he says, "you certainly have to have an answering machine that works."

Villanueva probably works as hard as anyone can to make a living making music in the Baltimore-Washington area.

About six years ago, he was teaching trumpet in the city schools. He enjoyed teaching, but it didn't give him enough time for playing. So he auditioned for the U.S. Air Force band at Bolling. He was accepted and signed on. His present rank is master sergeant. He plays with the marching band, the Air Force's premier unit, in parades and big military ceremonies. But most of Villanueva's military time is spent with the Air Force's ceremonial brass unit.

"It's a 26-piece unit with a lot of responsibilities," he says. "We're out all the time. We play about 30 retirements for Air Force officers a year, and we play a lot of funerals."

The brass unit plays the Air Force hymn at all funerals for retired or active-duty officers, and Villanueva is most often the trumpeter called upon to play taps. He says the unit plays about 300 military funerals a year -- most at Arlington, but several in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland.

"We get requests at times," he says. "One of the deceased had requested that we play, 'Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines,' and we did it, up tempo, after taps, during the folding of the flag over his casket. Another time, the widow requested that we play, 'Always' in front of the grave, but we hadn't prepared for that." And rather than play it poorly, the unit decided not to play it at all.

"You know," he says, "I don't consider myself a real Air Force man, not a front-line guy, not at all. But it's an honor to be able to do this. These men, the career Air Force, they deserve the full honor, and it's important that they receive it. . . . I was with the whole band when the POWs returned after the Persian Gulf War to Andrews, and we played 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon.' We played the first two notes of that song, and the place went crazy. The tough ceremonies are the burials of the remains of MIAs from Vietnam. Those are very hard."

Don't get the idea that Jari Villanueva is a musician for mourners alone. For me, he's the hardest working man in show biz because, when he's not on duty for the Air Force, he's hustling around Baltimore, performing, conducting, arranging, teaching.

He plays 20 or 30 jobs a year with the Potomac Brass Quintet. His days with Peabody Rag are well in the past, but today Villanueva leads the 13-piece Water Street Swing Society, performing big-band numbers at 20 wedding receptions and about 20 dinner-dances a year. In addition, he gets jobs playing trumpet solos at about 30 wedding ceremonies a year. He'll make some phone calls and organize a Dixieland band, on request. Or a polka band. Whatever the customer orders.

A few times each year, he'll accompany his wife, a gifted opera singer named Phyllis Burg, at weddings.

"And I still teach part-time at the School for the Arts," he says. "Oh, and there was 'Fiddler On The Roof'." Right. He conducted "Fiddler" at Dundalk Community College. He composed the official fanfare for the National Aquarium. And he played taps at a yacht club as the widow of the commodore threw a wreath off a dock.

He's thee hardest working man in show biz. I rest my case.

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