Trumpeter and Conductor of the Harry James Orchestra, Fred Radke

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Fred Radke is the face of the Harry James Orchestra, one of the last and most popular big bands. He acts as both trumpeter and conductor for the band. The Harry James Orchestra performed this year at the Manatee County Fair, and Mr. Radke was gracious enough to take some time out for an interview with Teen Ink.

Rachel- Tell us about yourself and the Harry James Orchestra.

Fred Radke- First of all, the Harry James Orchestra is one of the most famous big bands in the history of big band music. Harry was a huge star from the late 30s right until his death. I've continued on with the band since 1989, living on the legacy of the Harry James Band and carrying on his legacy.

Of course, Harry was one of the most famous trumpet players and movie-stars. He was married to Betty Grable during World War II. He was a huge name! One of the first individuals to go to Las Vegas and to bring big name entertainment [there] when it first opened in the 50s, or late 40s.

The band has continued on, playing through-out the world [in] jazz festivals and concerts. We have a very famous singer with us on this tour in Florida. Her name is Gina Funes. Gina is from Seattle, and, also, we have been married for many years. She is considered the first lady of song in the state of Washington. She is on a musical faculty at the University of Washington as a guest lecturer in jazz studies, as I am also. Prior to that, I was teaching and the head of the jazz studies at North Seattle Community College for 40 years. So we're really steeped in higher education. We do high school clinics and bring this music to students because this is part of Americana; this is part of what America's music is based on.

Due to all of the jazz programs at high schools and colleges, they're carrying on the legacy of big-band jazz, which is very important. You know, jazz is America's true art form. Our school, University of Washington, had a huge jazz department and we are producing a lot of great, young jazz artists. I have a band right now at UW and during this semester, I'm telling you, I stand in front [of the band] in just complete awe. It's one of the best bands I've heard in my life! These young players are very serious about this art.

So, it's important that young people come out and have an opportunity to hear famous musicians who are sitting in this band and hear the music that was made famous by one of the most famous bands.

Harry was so big during World War II. After that, he started aiming the band to be more jazz oriented—more like Count Basie—hiring Ernie Wilkinson and Neal Hefti and Frank Foster and all the great Basie arrangers and writers. So, the band does a mixture of everything. We do some pretty swingin' things and we do, of course, a lot of Harry's famous hits, which he had a lot of them.

RH- How did you, yourself, become interested in music?

FR- Well, believe it or not, I was a little kid about seven years old. I heard Harry James play on TV and I said, “That's what I want to do.” My whole career was aimed [at playing] first trumpet with Harry James. I did that. I achieved that. I left that to start the department at the college. Then, finally, later on, I was asked to conduct his band and play his role.

There's very few people that can really say that they've done everything in their life that they've wanted to do.

[I'm] very serious when I walk out on that stage. Because I was there, I know how Harry would want [the band] to be run, he was a friend of mine. So we portray all of that. You know, a lot of big-name bands, a lot of the leaders—and this is no put-down to them at all—but a lot of them weren't there with that leader. To say that I was there with Harry, that gives a little different edge to the band because you know how it's supposed to really go, and how authentic it is—and it is very authentic. Of course, no one can play like Harry, 'cause [he] was the best trumpet player ever and will always be the best. He could play anything. But [we] can play all of his music and live up to those standards, which we do.

RH- What was the best advice that Harry ever gave you?

FR- Harry was a perfectionist, which I am. I think that he expected you to walk out on that bandstand and not give 100%, but 150%. [He expected you to] never complain about your chops or being tired. That's the worst thing you could've done to him because he didn't want to hear that. He was such a strong player—and a strong guy physically because he was a true athlete. As a musician, he always expected you, if you were in that caliber—as I do today—to achieve the very highest level of musicianship, and that' what he really portrayed to the other players on the band. They all respected him. They had the highest respect for him.

His friend was Frank Sinatra, who he started with. You know, you see Sinatra come by and say hello to Harry, and the Johnny Carsons and all these famous people who would come by to see Harry and pay respects to him, you know that you were with somebody of some greatness, which he was.

RH- What is the actual job of a conductor?

FR- Well, in my position, I play all of Harry's famous solos. I pick the music. I put up the show. I front the band. I narrate the show with Gina when we're fortunate enough to have her and can afford her traveling with us. She picks what she wants to do. We make sure the band is perfectly polished. I count off the tempos. I have a road manager, Mike, who is my right hand guy. He's in the music business. He's a great trumpet player himself. But when there's internal problems when you're traveling, [he notices] those and we can nip those right away in the bud. But there's never really that kind of problem when you're dealing with professionals and gentlemen like we have. It's not like you're dealing with guys that drink too much or guys who are using drugs. That doesn't occur in our situation where everyone here is an adult.

RH- What instruments do you play?

FR- Well, I play trumpet. I am a trumpet player and that's pretty much [it]. I play a little drums, but I am a trumpet player. That's what I've focused my whole life after, so...

RH- So what does it take for a musician to become a part of the Harry James Orchestra?

FR- Reputation. Musicianship.

Harry never auditioned anybody. I was hired to play first trumpet on the band by reputation. When somebody calls you and says, “There's this fella that did this and did that,” well, if there's a position open, naturally you're going to give him a shot.

I also love to give young players a shot that have never played with anybody. I've got a young alto-saxophone player at UW and a trombonist that just knock me out! I mean, they're as good as anybody I've ever played with. They're going on the road with me in May because you gotta give them a shot.

But it's mostly by reputation.

RH- You mentioned earlier that you've traveled all over with the orchestra; where has been your favorite place to visit?

FR- Are you kidding? I reside in the Northwest. Any time I can come to Florida this time of year, you got it! {laughs} I love Florida!

I love going to Europe. We do the Montreal Jazz Festival. That's fun to go to. I love everywhere we go!

It's all fun because everybody enjoys the band so much. A lot of times we play places where the band's never really played and the people are thrilled to death to come out and see the band. All ages: Guys and their wives from World War II on up to young people who are in high school bands. [High school and college] bands are playing big band music and going to competitions, so they get a chance to really hear the real deal, because there's not that many bands left anymore. The Glenn Miller band tours, we tour, the Jimmy Dorsey band does a little bit, but that's just about it.

RH- Where are you guys headed after the Manatee County Fair?

FR- We're going to Naples and then we're going over to Miami, then I go home for two days. Then we come back over here again, North Carolina, then the Northwest, the Midwest. I don't know, just everywhere. {laughs} Wherever [the itinerary] says, we do it!

With teaching, it's kind of a full plate, but they really push you to go out and play. They say, “Make sure you're performing all the time!” They like a faculty that's out there doing what they teach. That's imperative to them. So it's a nice mix.

RH- What advice do you have for aspiring jazz players?

FR- Practice. Practice makes perfect. Practice everyday. You know, you really get good when you practice. Practice. Listen. Open your ears. Go hear great players play in person.

I can remember going to hear Miles Davis, Maynard and all these great cats when I was a young guy. It's really important. You've got to go out and, first of all, support jazz in your community and listen to records. Practice listening. Learning how to play jazz, 60% of it is listening to the greats. That was my first idea when I went with Harry. I said, “You know, I wanna sit here and really study this man and find out what makes him as great as he is.” It was to study! And I can see why because he was such a flawless trumpet player. He could play anything: classical, jazz, anything! He didn't do that just by picking a horn up. He practiced a lot and that's what made him great.

So practice, listen and make sure you go out and focus on what you want to do in your career. Focus and stay on that line, and it will pay off.





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