John James Urbanski, 88, trumpeter at clubs, theaters

April 29, 2006|By JACQUES KELLY | JACQUES KELLY,SUN REPORTER

John James Urbanski, a trumpeter who knew hundreds of popular songs from memory and played in theatrical orchestra pits during his seven decades of entertaining, died of heart failure Monday at the North Oaks Retirement Community. The Parkville resident was 88.

Born in Baltimore and raised on Andre Street in Locust Point, he attended city public schools until the 10th grade. He declined a scholarship to play soccer at Calvert Hall College High School and quit school to help support his family.

As a teen, he worked as a stevedore and in his free time taught himself to play the trumpet. He took several lessons and borrowed a neighbor's trumpet before buying his own instrument. Family members said he slipped out of the house without his parents' knowledge to play for tips at corner bars.

Mr. Urbanski turned professional musician at age 18 and joined the Musicians' Association of Metropolitan Baltimore. At his death he held the status of a life member.

During World War II, Mr. Urbanski played in an Army band in the South Pacific.

In the years before and after the war, Baltimore had downtown theaters with orchestras. He played for vaudeville acts at the Hippodrome on Eutaw Street and at the old State Theater at Monument and Chester streets in East Baltimore.

He was also a regular player at Ford's Theater on Fayette Street in the 1940s through the 1960s, and later at the Morris A. Mechanic. During the postwar years, he played at two Charles Street nightspots, the old Club Charles and the Chanticleer, as well as the Gayety on East Baltimore Street.

Musician colleagues said Mr. Urbanski was in demand for private parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs. On one occasion, he played at a divorce party, an amicable celebration a couple threw at the end of their marriage.

"He was an outstanding club date player," said Jack Hook, secretary-treasurer of a local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. "He knew all the popular songs of the day and was a pleasure to be around. He had a fantastic sense of humor."

In recent decades, Mr. Urbanski played in a group led by Northeast Baltimore resident Eddie Kane.

"He was an all-round player with a great ear," Mr. Kane said yesterday. "He could fit in anywhere."

On Preakness Day, Mr. Urbanski put on a uniform and played "Maryland, My Maryland" as part of the band at Pimlico. In the 1950s he was a regular at Memorial Stadium, where he walked through the crowds as part of small musical unit.

He also played aboard the old Bay Belle, an excursion boat that left from the Inner Harbor and sailed to Betterton and other Eastern Shore destinations.

In recent years, Mr. Urbanski often dropped by a neighborhood tavern, Jerry D's in Parkville, where he enjoyed a vodka, soda and tonic.

"He was a funny man, and he liked to tell the old vaudeville jokes," said Mike Gisriel, one of the bartenders.

Over the Christmas holidays and on St. Patrick's Day, Mr. Urbanski played for the tavern's patrons.

His wife of 37 years, the former Marian Hayden, died in 1988. They met at an event where he was playing.

No service will be held.

Survivors include two daughters, Barbara E. Meshulam of Pikesville and Cathy L. Hartman of Kingston, Mass.; a sister, Marie Kalski of Baltimore; and seven grandchildren.

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