He makes people get up and dance Trumpeter's career spans 60 years BALTIMORE COUNTY

March 03, 1993|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,Contributing Writer

Lou Ginsberg won't say how old he is, but he will say this: When he played his first professional big band gig, it was 1933 and he was still wearing knickers.

He's been wearing long pants for a long time, and the 60-year veteran of the Baltimore music scene is still playing his trumpet -- in Baltimore, in Pennsylvania, in Washington, even in North Carolina.

With his Lou Ginsberg Orchestra, he still plays 75 gigs a year and books several more, at country clubs, parties and celebrations. In fact, some of his sidemen have been around as long as he has. Their repertoire is a history of whatever makes people get up and dance.

"I prefer to play anything I can make a buck on," the genial bandleader says. "Music has been very good to me throughout my life."

In the Lou Ginsberg photo archives, here's a shot of Lou in the middle of the Jerry Wald orchestra. A shot of Lou with three other trumpet players at a Lyric Opera House production of Aida, "some time ago." And a picture of a teen-age orchestra.

Mr. Ginsberg is in the back: "I think I'm wearing knickers there," he says.

As he recalls old times, he hums a tune, taps his fingers on the desk and tosses out the names of the old bandleaders and the clubs they played. Then he reminds himself, "A lot of the old-timers are gone."

They were still around and pretty young when Mr. Ginsberg first got hooked on trumpet at age 13, three years after moving here from Lynn, Mass.

"I think I liked the looks of it," said Mr. Ginsberg. "Whenever I saw any band, I saw the trumpet. It intrigued me. I couldn't wait until I got with a band. Little by little, I got to be known by the better leaders in town."

With band after band, including Don Bestor's for a year, he played the downtown Baltimore clubs -- the Club Charles, the Chanticleer and other night spots.

From a closet in his Greenspring home, he pulls out old copies of Down Beat, the magazine of the jazz world. It contained monthly listings showing where the bands were playing.

"When I started, there were big bands," he says, pointing to a picture of himself and a few musicians under the heading "Boys in Baltimore Bash," in the February 1943 issue.

Even while he was in the service, Mr. Ginsberg played in a Coast Guard band with his lifelong friend, trumpet player Irv Goodman -- clarinetist Benny Goodman's brother.

After the war, Mr. Ginsberg joined and followed clarinetist Jerry Wald's band all over the country, from New York to Hollywood.

But the Big Band era was coming to an end. Mr. Ginsberg returned home from the road, married Zena (they're still married) and spent the next four decades playing his music. He also worked a series of nine-to-five jobs, including 17 years as a car salesman. But he gave that up back in 1969. Now he just plays.

There was a stint on the WBAL radio staff band, playing morning and dinner show five days a week in the late '40s. There were jobs with other band leaders around town, including his mentor, Lou Becker.

Mr. Ginsberg formed his first band in 1949 and played until 1953 at the old Chanticleer at Charles and Eager streets.

In 1960, he formed the Lou Ginsberg Orchestra. The people who have played with Mr. Ginsberg are a little fuzzy about dates, because they have so many dates to remember. But drummer Milt Gimbel remembers this one.

"He called me and asked if I'd like to start with him. I called and canceled my jobs with other leaders," said Mr. Gimbel, who's still with the band. In Baltimore, he said, Mr. Ginsberg "is among the very best trumpet players and certainly the fairest to work with. He's always treated his men with the highest respect."

And when they're performing at a party, "He won't allow us to drink, smoke. He won't even allow us to speak to the guests," said saxophonist Al Sigismondi, who started playing with Mr. Ginsberg shortly after Mr. Ginsberg gave up his knickers. "A lot of musicians at a banquet feel they're there to have a good time, too, but they're not."

Pianist Bob Busick goes back to the post-knicker era, too.

"I'm a bad judge of time," he admits. "What can you say? If I didn't enjoy working with him, I wouldn't have worked with him for all these years. He's a very honest man."

There have been big changes in music over the years. Today, musicians rely heavily on electronics, although Mr. Ginsberg's sound remains mostly acoustic.

"I don't play into a mike myself," he said. "True trumpet."

He has no intention of retiring. There are still plenty of gigs and he says he's happy as long as he can play music that "makes you tap your toes, makes you feel like dancing."

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