A conversation with Chicago's own
Bob Centano and Bob Ojeda
by Charles Walton
I was recently invited to a card game where I was surprised to meet the legendary bandleader and saxophonist Bob Centano. After a couple of conversations with Bob and after hearing his band, I thought others might be delighted to learn about him, too. On the day of scheduled interview, he called to say that Bob Ojeda, composer/arranger/trumpet player with the Count Basie band, was in town and suggested that I might also be interested in what he had to say. Thus, here is a conversation with the two Bobs.
CENTANO Bob Ojeda and I have known each other since 1953. I was a young band leader from the old Taylor Street area and Bob was a young trumpet player (later an arranger) and our paths happened to cross.
OJEDA At that point, I was only taking music lessons. Bob, who is a couple years older than me, had a band already in the neighborhood at Taylor and Laflin Streets. I lived further north of Taylor, on the what is now the Congress Expressway. He and his band were playing a function down at the Notre Dame Church at Flournoy and Ada Street. I forgot how it went down, but I came in and played a number with his group. Playing with that band probably steered me into this professional music thing. I had no other music influences up to this point except my trumpet teacher and my dad, who played trumpet in the neighborhood—nothing professional.
CENTANO I have always kept a band going. Many of the guys in Chicago got their sight-reading chops together playing in my rehearsal band. Some became well known, such as Bob Ojeda, Richie Corpolongo, Fred Carlin, Jim Di Pasquale, etc. I developed "leaderitis" from day one. I went to Harrison High School from 1951–55 and managed to stay busy playing gigs, concerts, and weddings here and there.
OJEDA Bob was a natural promoter. He organized gigs at the Veterans Hospitals and we became a major act on the Veterans Hospital Circuit.
CENTANO In my senior year, I got a reputation as a decent sax player with good music reading ability, so I got calls to work with traveling bands that came through Chicago. Bob went out with Stan Kenton.
OJEDA I had been bugging Stan since I was old enough to get in where he and his band were playing, always asking him questions—bands were more accessible then. Where ever he was playing around town I was there. After awhile I convinced him to meet me at a recording studio to listen to the Centano band's recordings for which I did the arrangements. He heard the band on the big speakers and became interested.
I got on the band bus, went to the next gig, and auditioned, in 1957. I didn't hear from Stan then, however. One night several months later my girlfriend and I went to hear the Kenton Band at the Holiday Ballroom in Chicago. I saw Stan and he asked me to stay late until after the job ended that night.
After the gig, around midnight, he asked me if I would like to leave with the Kenton band the next morning. I stumbled to the phone to call my dad, then escorted my girl friend home. Stan talked to my dad, who gave his okay, as I was underage. I met the band bus the next morning at the Cass Hotel on the northside and was on my way.
Stan was impressed with the arrangements I had done when I was 15- or 16-years-old. I did some arrangements for his band, but stayed less than a year because I became very homesick. I came home for a while and then went back out with the Ralph Marterre Band.
CENTANO We worked in several bands together including with Marterre, Ralph Flanigan, and Les and Larry Elgart.
OJEDA At one time, much of the musical work for big bands was in the Midwest. Band leaders often got Chicago musicians to fill out their ranks. One guy we worked with was pianist Dodo Marmarosa.
WALTON How did you get into arranging?
OJEDA I started arranging when I was 15-years-old because of the influence of being around Bob's band. I still have my first arrangement for that band. Initially, I had no idea about the different instruments and their keys, so I wrote the charts with every instrument in the key of C. The alto sax should have been in A, the trumpets in D, etc. You can imagine what it sounded like. I was embarrassed, and ran home crying, but I saved the arrangement anyway.
I always kept in touch with Centano and kept writing for his band.
CENTANO We always kept in touch, and off and on, we would work together. We never got too far apart.
OJEDA By this time, Bob was beginning to get into his career.
CENTANO I went to work in the courts—my "day job." I clerked for some of the Federal judges downtown.
When I was working and traveling as a musician, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, I wound up working in the courts, starting as a clerk. I became very good friends with Judge Abraham Lincoln Marowitz (who was an honorary member of the musician's union) and I clerked for him for a while.
I was still a musician—it was not like I was working a construction job and was tired at the end of the day. It didn't interfere with my music, except that it limited my traveling. I retired after 30 years.
A lawyer-musician friend with the recently-formed Chicago Bar Association Barrister Big Band called me to help them along and I play with them from time to time. Recently, we played an Illinois Supreme Court dinner for Justice Stephens, and a concert at the Bar Association. Federal Judge Blanche Manning is playing tenor sax in the band and United States Court of Appeals Judge Anne Williams is singing. We rehearse every Monday.
OJEDA Many of the lawyers who appear before her might be playing my arrangements and she's singing with them. Man, that must be a different kind of trip!
WALTON Does anyone dare tell her if she gets off key?
OJEDA Oh no! Absolutely not!
CENTANO I've been involved to some extent with the Chicago Bar Assocation Christmas Spirits show, which is held every year. It's a fun thing.
WALTON I saw and heard Centano's band at the Chambers in Niles. He greets everyone and creates a friendly home-away-from home feeling. Back to Ojeda. You've been in the Basie Band for 16 years. When did you join?
OJEDA I joined in 1985 after Basie's death. I was living in Los Angeles when I got the call—I lived there from 1974–85. I moved to LA because I was young and looking for something new. And musical work was slow in Chicago. I had been to New York, but that didn't work out—I didn't care for the hectic pace. So, after the first snow flake in Chicago, in 1974, a friend and I jumped in my car and we drove to California. I never regretted the move, it was a wonderful experience. I learned later that the year before Basie had tried to reach me.
Freddie Green and other great Basie players were still there. Thad Jones had become the leader. He was a legendary figure and I viewed the opportunity to work with him as a godsend.
WALTON Didn't Thad bring about a little change?
OJEDA Yes, but Thad recognized, as did everyone who followed him, that you can't change it all. When people hear the band they want to hear the old Basie. Tempos were changed a little but Thad was very sensitive to the Basie tradition.
Basie wouldn't play a lot of Thad's music when Thad was writing for the band because it was not in the band's style. Most people don't know the story behind the first Thad Jones-Mel Lewis LP for Solid-State. The arrangements were commissioned by Basie while Thad was in the band, for a Basie album. When Basie heard the charts he nixed them. This is how astute and sensitive Basie was to what his thing was. He saw that the music was good, but for his group. The music became the beginning of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.
Thad wrote a few things that Basie played, including a lot of the things that Joe Williams sang, especially the blues.
WALTON How about when Frank Foster became the director?
OJEDA There was a change, then. Thad didn't write when he directed the band, but Frank was writing everyday and contributed a lot of new music to our book. He began changing the Basie style, which turned out to be a little bit of a problem, because the band began losing bookings. Things were changed back. Frank moved to Virginia and suffered a stroke. He recuperated and is active again in music.
WALTON Frank Foster puts on a beautiful clinic.
OJEDA He does. I did clinics with him, and whenever our class schedules didn't conflict I attended the class he was teaching. I really learned a lot from Frank. I never understood what writing for a saxophone section was all about. I did pretty good, but Frank is a master and showed me how to write for reeds.
The last time the Basie Band played the Chicago Jazz Festival, a couple of my arrangements were played, a trumpet piece and one that featured drummer Butch Miles. The same limits that constitute the Basie sound are still there.
WALTON Is it still laid back as it was?
OJEDA It seems laid back and it isn't.
WALTON Frank Wess, Sax, told about when he first joined the band and the sax section came to some quarter note triplets. Frank had finished and the section was still playing them.
OJEDA The band still does that, but only on certain figures and mostly for effect. This has been done on some classic recordings that are almost like the holy grail now. It has been taken out of context and made bigger than it is. The times when it is deliberately laying back makes it the Basie Band. No other band does that.
WALTON What are the plans for the Centano band with Ojeda arrangements?
OJEDA To do concert dates, night clubs, expand the library and play dances.
CENTANO We will showcase the band whenever possible, and are appearing once a month at Chambers in Niles. [See club listings.]