The Waco Jazz Orchestra plays tribute to the music of pops composer Henry Mancini in its “That Mancini Magic!” concert on Saturday, a show that’s as much about a musical serendipity as magic.
The Mancini tribute brings with it Atlanta-area trumpeter Cecil Welch and Mancini arrangements that Welch had. Welch also happens to be the catalyst for the Waco show.
Intrigued by the jazz he and his wife heard the WJO play at the Hippodrome during a Waco visit last year, Welch introduced himself to WJO trumpeter, and Waco family physician, Charles “Doc” Stern at intermission and informed him that he had been Hank’s lead trumpeter for 18 years — Hank being Henry Mancini.
“He told me, ‘You play the part like Hank taught us to do,’ ” Stern said. “
He said this is a little jazz band in Waco that’s as good as any jazz band in Atlanta.”
One thing led to another and the conversation extended into communication over several weeks and the idea for the Mancini tribute. Not only did the veteran trumpeter have a wealth of experience in playing with one of the great film and television composers, but he had many of Mancini’s arrangements and was willing to share them with the WJO. “I have a treasure trove of his fabulous orchestrations,” he said.
Saturday’s concert, arranged in the same order as a Mancini program, will feature some of Mancini’s best-known creations: “Moon River,” “Baby Elephant Walk,” the themes to television’s “Peter Gunn” and the movie “The Pink Panther,” with Waco saxophonist Greg Bashara featured on the latter.
Vocalist Heather Scott and Welch will join the 19-piece WJO for the concert, which raises money for its McLennan Community College music scholarships, with the WJO also playing two non-Mancini compositions.
Stern expects Saturday’s concert will be an audience pleaser. “Mancini’s style is one that really catches recognizable melodies that speak to the heart and the ear,” Stern said. “He was transformative in creating music for film and television.”
Just as the happy circumstance of a Waco visit to their son and SpaceX employee Cullen Welch led to “That Mancini Magic!,” an earlier one opened the door to a memorable career for Welch. Classically trained, he was the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s trumpet principal under conductor Robert Shaw when he was asked to fill in for Mancini’s trumpeter at an outdoor concert in Atlanta.
Welch rocked the part enough, including the solo of the “Peter Gunn” theme, that he received an invitation the next week to play trumpet in Mancini’s band. He jumped at the chance and for the next 18 years traveled the world as part of the instrumental nucleus that accompanied the composer on his tours.
Mancini and that nucleus, incidentally, performed a pops concert with the Waco Symphony Orchestra to a sold-out Waco Hall in the 1990s.
Traveling and performing with Mancini, who died in 1994, left Welch with a deep appreciation of the composer and musician, as well as enough memories to fill a book, which he and his wife Barbara did in “Two for the Road: The Trumpet and Me.”
“I’m still amazed at the love and respect Hank Mancini garnered in his career,” he said.
‘Music saved my life’
Just as an unexpected opportunity changed Welch’s career, Mancini had several in his life, Welch said. The son of a Pittsburgh steelworker and Italian immigrant, Mancini worked his way into New York’s Juilliard School as a piano and flute student after graduation in 1942. Drafted into the U.S. Army, Mancini found himself assigned to a chaplain as an organist, then got picked up by swing band leader Tex Beneke after Beneke took over Glenn Miller’s Army Band.
Mancini later found out many, if not most, of his Army friends with whom he had started died in the grueling Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and early 1945. “He told me, ‘Music saved my life,’ ” Welch recalled. After touring with Beneke’s band for three years, Mancini left to try his luck in Hollywood and, as luck would have it, the young musician started as a copyist for such legendary film composers as Max Steiner and Miklós Rózsa. “He got an education doing that that no college could have given him,” Welch said.
Mancini found himself busy composing film scores and incidental music throughout the 1950s, but enjoyed a major break when director and producer Blake Edwards hired him to write the theme to the television series “Peter Gunn.” Mancini’s signature piece helped fuel a memorable career in film and television music, the first of an Edwards-Mancini collaboration that saw work on such films as “The Pink Panther,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Victor/Victoria.”
The composer won a remarkable 20 Grammy Awards and four Academy Awards in his career. Among his hundreds of compositions is one written for Welch, “The Spanish Trumpet.”
At 80, Welch keeps up with his regular practice and still performs. “The positive thing about playing wind instruments is there’s a therapeutic benefit to the cardiovascular system,” he said.