I owe Leigh Pilzer.
Leigh is a saxophonist and arranger here in Washington, DC. She’s scary good. I met Leigh at the University of Maryland. I was playing in the University Jazz Ensemble led by Chris Vadala. Leigh was Chris’ T.A., playing lead alto, and arranging charts right and left. This was in addition to all her playing around DC and NY, and everywhere in between.
The arranging was part of her course load for her degree, so she was actively searching out projects. Out of the blue one day, after rehearsal, she looks at me and says, “I need to write a feature for you.” Jaw, meet floor. You see, I had been angling for years to get a spot at the U. S. Army Band Tuba-Euphonium Conference as a soloist. Not with the band or orchestra, mind you, but with the Army Blues, the smoking-hot jazz band at Ft. Myer. Everybody in town could play concertos better than I could, but they weren’t exactly lining up to get with the Blues.
I was so excited that she wanted to write something, I couldn’t pick a song for her to set up. I sat on it for days. Seriously, pick one song? I couldn’t do it. I let her pick, and she chose “Pennies From Heaven.” Great song. I am the luckiest tuba player on Earth.
She wrote a killer chart, I played it with the UMJE, it’s a winner. I asked her if she had any other features that would work for tuba. Why, yes, she wrote herself a bari sax feature on “Cry Me A River.” All of a sudden, I’m burning down the internet, finding other charts to adapt for tuba and big band.
I was fortunate enough to appear as a soloist with the Army Blues twice, and also work on stage with the Army Blues Swamp Romp, a NOLA-style band put together by Army Band members Graham Breedlove and Harry Watters. These were some of the coolest jobs I ever played in uniform. Any time you get to work with your colleagues in the other service bands, it’s a wonderful experience. For a classically trained tuba player, to go hang with the Army Blues… it’s an unparalleled opportunity. Leigh put me on the track to do this, and gave me a huge head start in the process.
Now, just so you know how crucial all of your connections are in the music business, here’s how Leigh Pilzer came through for me again, in a big, big way. I heard this story from the other members of the Bayfield Brass Quintet, with whom I have played tuba for 15 years.
Way back when, after Bayfield’s previous tuba player had left the group, they were looking for someone who was comfortable with their jazz and pops books, most of which had been arranged by the trombonist, Rhoades Whitehill. Rhoades was the lead trombonist for the Navy Commodores, another of the premier military jazz bands, and his quintet charts are awesome. In search of their new regular tuba player, the group had lined up a series of subs for a series of gigs.
After one gig that didn’t go particularly well, the guys got together for beers afterward to talk things through. They brought some friends, and called up some other friends, just to come hang out, and they eventually got around to talking about finding other tuba players.
One of the trumpet players, Dan Orban, had just joined the Marine Band a few months earlier. He offered to the rest of the quintet that there was this guy, in the Marine Band, who he’d heard was playing Dixieland gigs around town. He threw my name out, but none of the military band guys there really knew who I was.
Well, Rhoades had called his buddy Chris to come have a beer, because Chris lived close to the bar they had chosen. Chris came out and brought his wife, Leigh. That’s right, Leigh. That Leigh. There’s a table full of military band guys sitting around talking about tuba players, and the person with the least to add to that discussion is the one civilian there, the lady who plays jazz saxophone.
My name gets mentioned, and Leigh speaks up. “Tom Holtz? I know Tom Holtz. He swings his ass off.”
I owe you, Leigh.