Entertainment legend Doc Severinsen is thanking me. The 85-year-old trumpet player, conductor and former bandleader of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson is thanking me for not mentioning his trademark colorful and complex wardrobe choices (oops!). In anticipation of his upcoming performances with the San Miguel Five at The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, we have just enjoyed a pleasant chat about life, music and Mexico, his adopted country of retirement. It was in Mexico where he came across a house band, which included guitarist Gil Gutierrez, playing in a little Italian restaurant. From that, he formed the basis of his touring group the San Miguel Five. Our conversation revolved around the music and the challenges of playing and touring into the sunset years.
You’re best known for The Tonight Show, but you’ve also left an impression on Las Vegas entertainment.
That’s true. The first place I ever played was in the lounge at the Sands. We had this little sextet, and I used to go straight from The Tonight Show set to the Burbank [Calif.] Airport to fly in and play. I’ve played all over the Strip.
You led some well-known big bands, such as Henry Mancini’s Orchestra. How do you like the smaller format with the San Miguel Five?
It’s very freeing, and it really breaks down the barriers. The guys in this group are just astonishing. Our violinist, Charlie Bisharat, is the best I’ve been around. He does it all, classical, jazz, pop. And Jimmy Branly on drums, he’s from Cuba, but he can play any music, from big band to all the Latin stuff, which he knows backward and forward. We play a wild mix.
Tell me about some of the musicians who’ve inspired you.
I like all different types of jazz players on different instruments. Stan Getz finds his way into my plating now and then, as well as Miles Davis. The first really great jazz player that I played with in a band was [fellow trumpeter and Tonight Show bandmate] Clark Terry. He had a big influence on me.
What inspires you to keep performing at 85?
Just the idea of being alive. I work out hard and eat right, and playing with this band really helps keep me going.
Yet I imagine there must be challenges that weren’t an issue in years past.
Yes, but it’s been a long time since anyone took me for 85. I’ve gone pretty extensively into medical approaches to slow down the aging process. I’ve done just about everything. And I continue to do it, and it seems to be working. So I’m just going to keep doing it. It’s either keep going or just give it up, and I can’t see any reason to stop now.