Band gets 'In the Mood' to swing after workday ends

February 01, 1993|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Staff Writer

It's 20 minutes past closing time at Sal's Hair Center in Ellicott City, but the lights are still on.

Men and women, bundled in overcoats, drift down the side of the strip shopping center past the barbershop's plate glass windows. Many stop, smile and stare like children at a Christmas display.

Suddenly, the door opens and the sounds of the 1940s fill the cold winter air.

It's rehearsal night for Sal Brocato and the six-piece Sophisticated Swing Orchestra.

They're pretty tight," says Stewart Lyons, an Ellicott City public defender, who has stopped to listen. "I couldn't resist."

The band has practiced at the Howard County barbershop on U.S. 40 every month -- more or less -- for the past eight years. The barbershop has more room than their homes and they don't bother the neighbors.

They play each weekend at country clubs, hotels, weddings, bars and bar mitzvahs. Their next public gig in Howard County will be March 7 at Jilly's, a restaurant down the road.

Over pizza, beer and cigarettes, they work out arrangements off sheet music and off the tops of their heads. Mr. Brocato figures they can play more than a 1,000 tunes, from Dixieland to Glenn Miller favorites such as "In the Mood" and "Tuxedo Junction."

"I don't think there's much we don't know," the 59-year-old barber says.

This night, they are working on party and wedding standards.

Standing in the barbershop's waiting room, three men blast away on trombone, trumpet and saxophone. Behind them, two more pound on drums and piano.

Mr. Brocato, wearing a well-tended Van Dyke goatee, sits on the edge of a couch plunking out a bass line. They are dressed casually in loafers and sneakers, sweaters and slacks.

Paul Widitz, 62, stands by the barbershop's "Please take a number" wheel, working the slide on his trombone as the band rolls through "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Howard "Howdy" Stroterhoff, who turns 72 today, faces a wall print of a Chicago street scene by Edward Hopper and blows notes on his trumpet.

Suddenly, the tune collapses with a sound like air rushing out of a tire.

"That was a train wreck," Mr. Widitz says with a sour look.

They try again and lumber to the coda.

"Let's do a dance thing, girls," says Mr. Brocato, tapping his foot. Off they head into a medley of "You Made Me Love You" and "I Had The Craziest Dream."

Between tunes, the men trade jokes and make fun of each other as old friends do. The musicians are in their 60s for the most part. They have played together in various bands around the Baltimore and Washington area for four decades.

Mr. Brocato brought them together as one band about eight years ago when he got a gig at the old Brown's Pub in Howard County. They were the best jazz musicians he knew.

"We clicked, and it went from there," he said.

Individually, they have played everywhere from cruise ships and strip shows to presidential inaugurations -- although not last month's.

"I've done everything from The Block to the White House," said Don Wickesser, 62, the pianist and Mr. Brocato's business partner in the band.

Many have retired from their day jobs. Mr. Stroterhoff is a former research chemist who lives in Cross Keys. Mr. Wickesser, who lives in Sykesville, used to be a manager at Westinghouse. Mr. Widitz is a school book salesman from Columbia.

The rehearsal breaks up early this night, about 8:30. Practices usually start at 6:30 and run for three hours. Tonight, however, the saxophone player, Rich Trotta, has to meet his daughter and her husband for dinner in Columbia.

The band takes in $600 to $1,500 a performance, but the members say they play for the joy and the escape.

"It's really a release from day work," says Mr. Trotta, 62. "I love it. And these guys are great," he said.

"It's the freedom of playing," says drummer Dario Montaldo, 53, who travels 45 minutes to rehearsals from Parkton, not far from the Pennsylvania border. "There's nobody telling you, 'You have to do it like this or like that.' "

And, says Mr. Wickesser, "there's enough ham in all of us to play for nothing if we had to."

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