Remembering a Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day thrill: the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, 1972-1973

Remembering a Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day thrill: the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, 1972-1973

Thursday, November 25, was Thanksgiving Day here in the United States, a national holiday when families and friends gather together for fun, food, and fellowship. This year, we were blessed to have our whole family together for Thanksgiving, something we missed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even in the midst of the pandemic storm, we all have so much for which we are thankful.

This year, our grandson, who is in kindergarten, brought home a fun assignment for Thanksgiving weekend. It was a kind of scavenger hunt—watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and check off a list of things you see. Marching band, clown, singer, baton twirler, drums, turkey, big balloon. You get the idea. It was a fun little project that Caleb completed in about three minutes. But it didn’t take a scavenger hunt for our family to watch the whole parade. We watch it every year because in 1972, I was marching and playing trombone IN the parade. And in the Tournament of Roses Parade every January 1.

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In 1967, McDonald’s Corporation established the McDonald’s All-American High School Band. In its early years, it was a marching band with 101 players—two high school students from each of our 50 states and one student from the District of Columbia. Over the years, the band grew to include members from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and eventually, McDonald’s added a jazz band to its All-American Band program. In 1992, McDonald’s discontinued the All-American Band although it continued sponsoring its All-American basketball teams which it had founded in 1977.

In the fall of 1972 I began my senior year in high school; by then I had been a member of many high school honor band and orchestra groups. These were in both New York State—where my family lived in Queens and Valley Stream until my father changed jobs and we moved to New Jersey in 1970—and in New Jersey, where we lived in Oak Ridge. All-County Orchestra and All-State Band (New York), Region Wind Ensemble and Orchestra, and All-State Orchestra (New Jersey), and All-Eastern Orchestra. Unbeknownst to me, my high school band director nominated me for the McDonald’s All-American Band.

I vividly remember the day in September 1972 when I was sitting in English class (my favorite class in high school, with my favorite teacher, Mr. Patrick Clancy) at Jefferson Township High School in Oak Ridge, New Jersey, and a call came over the loudspeaker for me to come to the main office. Puzzled—getting called to the office was not a regular thing for me—I headed down to the office and was surprised to see my mother running up the hallway to meet me. She was holding an envelope and when we met, she breathlessly handed it to me. I took one look at the return address and my heart skipped a beat. I furiously tore open the envelope and this letter was inside:

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For a 17 year-old high school kid, this was big. Really, really big. Me, an All-American High School musician? An all-expenses paid trip to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York City and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day? Seriously?

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My name badge for the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, 1972–1973

I took the bus from our home in Oak Ridge, New Jersey to Manhattan to join other members of the Band for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. We were drilled in marching by Al G. Wright, Director of Purdue University Bands. There were 16 trombones in two ranks that led the parade. I was assigned to the second rank. I was a little disappointed, since what trombone player doesn’t want to be in the first line, leading the band? But my disappointment changed to joy when Al Wright pointed to the player in front of me. It was clear that he had two left feet. After a couple of rehearsals, Al Wright pointed to him and barked, “YOU! MOVE BACK TO THE SECOND RANK. NEW JERSEY! GET UP HERE NOW!” I was now in the front, and I made sure Mr. Wright knew that I had a left and a right foot. Yes, sir!

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Promotional flyer about the McDonald’s All-American High School Band that was handed out at New York metropolitan area McDonald’s restaurants, fall 1972

The conductor of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band was Paul Lavalle, the celebrated music director at Radio City Music Hall who had also led the Cities Service Band of America from 1948–1956. While we were in New York, the band attended a show at Radio City Music Hall where we saw the newly released movie, “1776” and saw Mr. Lavalle conduct Radio City’s orchestra and its famous dance team, The Rockettes. We also gave a performance at the famous ice rink at Rockefeller Center.

Each band member wore their own band’s uniform and then McDonald’s gave each of us a hat and overlay that was emblazoned with our state name. The parade in New York City was a blur. It was cold. I remember that we got up at 3:00 in the morning to be bussed down to the Macy’s store at 34th Street and Sixth Avenue for a rehearsal in front of cameras. All of the brass players were playing on plastic mouthpieces so they did not freeze to our faces. As the parade kicked off, spectators often called to us, “Hey, New Jersey! Do you know Fred Jones in Bayonne?” Ha! We marched, we played, we were proud. My parents and my girlfriend (now my wife of 46 years) and her family watched me on TV. It was a great, great day.

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Jeffrey Venho, trumpet (Glen Rock High School, New Jersey), Betty White (television host of the 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade), Paul Lavalle, Salli Noren (Tournament of Roses Queen, 1973; her name is often misspelled as “Sally Noren”), Douglas Yeo, trombone (Jefferson Township High School, New Jersey), November 1972.

Among the things we did in New York was have our photograph taken for local and national publicity. The other person selected to play in the Band from New Jersey was trumpeter Jeffrey Venho from Glen Rock High School (I recently learned that Jeff attended the Juilliard School of Music and since graduation in 1977, he has been an active freelance player in New York City, and trumpet professor at Hofstra University). We were photographed with Betty White (yes, that Betty White) who was the television host of the Tournament of Roses Parade on January 1 (John Wayne was the Parade’s Grand Marshall), Sally Noren, who was the 1973 Tournament of Roses Queen, and Paul Lavalle. When we arrived in California, we were given a copy of our photo, signed by Mr. Lavalle. Also while we were in New York, members of the Band had the opportunity to audition for Gunther Schuller, President of New England Conservatory of Music. NEC was offering two full scholarships to Band members. While I did not win one of those positions, I finally did get to NEC, as a member of its trombone faculty from 1985 to 2012 for all of the years I was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

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The cover of the official program for the 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade

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The 1973 Tournament of Roses program listing for the McDonald’s All-American High School Band

A two-page advertisement for the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, pages 33–34, 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade program.

If the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York was a surreal experience, nothing could have prepared me for the Tournament of Roses Parade. I flew from JFK International Airport in New York to Los Angeles International Airport where a limousine was waiting to take me to the UCLA campus where we would be staying. A limousine? For me? I recall, as I got to curbside at LAX, stopping and looking for a moment at a palm tree, the first palm tree I had ever seen (except for watching episodes of “Hawaii-Five-O” on television). Having left snowy and cold New Jersey a few hours ago, that palm tree got my attention. While I had been born in Monterey, California (my father was in the US Army, stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey from 1953–1955), my family took the long train east to Queens, New York, after my father was discharged—when I was just a few months old—so for all intents and purposes, this was my first trip to the west coast. Al Wright drilled us in marching all around the UCLA campus, and the Band went to see a performance of Leonard Bernstein‘s Mass at the Los Angeles Forum.

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The McDonald’s All-American High School Band marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade, Pasadena, California, January 1, 1973. I am in the front rank, third from the left (marching on the double line in the street).

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The commemorative patch that I and other McDonald’s All-American High School Band members received after the 1973 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California

January 1, 1973 dawned bright and clear, and I had never seen so many people as I did on that day, lining the parade route, cheering and shouting. It was truly an unforgettable experience, marching in the front rank of the Band. Little did I know what my life and career would bring going forward. I didn’t march in any more parades, but I did take many more trips to places around the world as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1985–2012), and in the years since my retirement from the BSO. Those kinds of trips started with the McDonald’s All-American Band. And all because I had a trombone in my hand.

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When I returned home, the rest of my senior year flew by. McDonalds had given all of us a Ronald McDonald watch (I still have it and it still keeps good time). My mother was especially proud of the certificate I had received.  My experience in the Band was memorable beyond words, and each year, when we watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Tournament of Roses Parade, I remember with a smile on my face what it was like to be there nearly 50 years ago.

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The Ronald McDonald Watch that was given to me as a member of the 1972–1973 McDonald’s All-American High School Band. It still keeps great time.

As I was getting ready to write this article, I learned that a group of alumni of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band formed the  “The All-American Alumni Band” in 2019 (unfortunately, McDonald’s would not let them use the corporate name in the name of the group). I had long wondered if there was a way to connect with former members, all of whom I lost touch with over the years. So I will reach out to this new group, as a proud alum of the Band. I would love to have the opportunity to reminisce with other members of the Band, as I’ve done with my good friend, Wycliffe Gordon, who was in the Band in 1984–1985. When Wycliffe and I were most recently together in 2019, playing in an All-Star brass ensemble sponsored by Yamaha Corporation at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago, we talked about our time in the McDonald’s All-American High School Band, and what it meant to us. There certainly were many others in the Band who went on to notable careers in music and other professions, and it would be fun to meet with (and maybe perform with) others who had the same life-changing experience as I did on Thanksgiving Day 1972, and New Year’s Day, 1973, thanks to the McDonald’s All-American High School Band. I’ll always be grateful to McDonald’s for giving me an unforgettable experience in the All-American High School Band. And I tip my had to all of the players in bands that march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Tournament of Roses parades each year, as I am very well aware of how that experience is shaping this generation of young musicians, just as it shaped me.

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Two happy alumni of the McDonald’s All-American High School Band program: Douglas Yeo (New Jersey, 1972–1973) and Wycliffe Gordon (Georgia, 1984–1985)

An unconventional marketing strategy

An unconventional marketing strategy

Over the years, I’ve used different marketing strategies to promote my ideas, recordings, and books. Print advertising, internet advertising, word of mouth, release parties, signings, you name it. I’ve always said that the world is engaged in a battle of ideas and whether it’s an article on my website or blog or a new recording or book, I have ideas that I love to share with others.

By now, readers of The Last Trombone know about my newly published book, An Illustrated Dictionary for the Modern Trombone, Tuba, and Euphonium Player. My publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, has sent out review copies to various publications and I’ve been getting the word out in diverse ways. But a few days ago, my friend and illustrator for the book, Lennie Peterson, told me he had a different idea, an unconventional marketing strategy.

Lennie is not only a superb illustrator and fine artist, but he’s also a superb cartoonist. In fact, I first met Lennie through his comic strip, The Big Picture, which was syndicated for many years and now can be read daily at gocomics.com. Lennie’s comics tell stories of real life and they often revolve around the trombone (he is a really great player) and his girlfriend (or ex-girlfriend). In 2003, Lennie sent me a copy of his book, The Big Picture: A Comic Strip Collection by Lennie Peterson. It’s a fun read, with over 300 comic strips drawn over a four year period. Get a copy: you’ll be glad you did!

With the freedom of using gocomics.com as the primary platform for his cartoons, Lennie can make new cartoons whenever he wants, and revert to reruns when he’s doing other things. He has a large, loyal following which includes me. Lennie understands life and he has a way of representing it that hits my funny bone.

So, when Lennie told me that he was going to make four comic strips to promote our new book, I had no idea where he was going to go with the idea. I found out soon enough. Last week, Lennie released four new strips, on October 17, 19, 20, and 21. Here they are. My editor is thrilled about this, and he told me that he can’t recall a book ever being promoted in a comic strip. I can’t either. Thank you Lennie. You never cease to amaze me. Enjoy!

The Big Picture by Lennie “Sackbut” Peterson, October 17, 2021

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The Big Picture by Lennie “2B or not 2B” Peterson, October 19, 2021

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The Big Picture by Lennie “Hand Cramp” Peterson, October 20, 2021

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The Big Picture by Lennie “But wait, there’s more!” Peterson, October 21, 2021

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Remembering Bernard Haitink (1929–2021)

Remembering Bernard Haitink (1929–2021)

Two days ago, on October 21, 2021, conductor Bernard Haitink died. He was 92 years old.

I have been fortunate—even blessed—to have played under the baton of many of the greatest conductors of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. For instance, a few weeks ago, I wrote about Leonard Bernstein, a childhood hero of mine with whom I played many concerts. He was a Titan of western musical life. And I worked with many others, many who were great, others who were merely good, and some who were forgettable. But there was only one Bernard Haitink. And now he will conduct no more. 

I first learned of Bernard Haitink in my youth by listening to recordings made during his long tenures as music director of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam (1959–1988), and principal conductor of the London Philharmonic (1967–1979). His recordings always struck me as “just right.”  I knew nothing about him as a person, but I held a thought, “I hope that someday, I can play in an orchestra with him conducting.”

That opportunity came in November 1985 during my first season as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Bernard Haitink was scheduled to conduct two weeks of concerts, starting with performances of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7. I was thrilled at the prospect of playing Mahler 7—one of my favorite pieces—under Haitink’s baton, but when my mother died on October 30, I was giving a eulogy at her funeral at the moment when Haitink’s downbeat was delivered for Mahler’s great symphony. But the next week, I was back at Symphony Hall for performances of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 8 with Haitink. The concerts were memorable, and they confirmed what I had known for so long: Bernard Haitink was a musician’s musician, a musician’s conductor, a person who could truly bring out the very best in me—and so many others—as a player. 

The Boston Symphony’s musicians all knew that playing for Bernard Haitink was something very special, and after those two weeks of concerts in 1985, we petitioned the management to have him appointed as our principal guest conductor. For reasons I never understood, it took 10 years for that to happen, but it finally did happen, and from 1995 to 2004, he was the orchestra’s principal guest conductor, and after 2004, he was given the title of laureate conductor of the BSO. No matter his title, he was a frequent guest with the orchestra, and we played dozens of memorable concerts with him, including performances of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 8 (1998) and No. 9 (1989), Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé (1989), Igor Stravinsky’s Pétrouchka (1990) and The Rite of Spring (1997), Franz Schubert’s “Unfinished” (1994) and “Great C Major (2007) symphonies, the four symphonies of Johannes Brahms (many times over the years), and acts from Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre (1992) and Götterdämmerung (1994). With Haitink conducting, we performed Mahler Symphony No. 9 (1995), Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration (1996), Ein Heldenleben (1998), and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (2010),  Shostakovich’s Symphony 10 (1996), Gustav Holst’s The Planets (1998), the Violin Concerto of Alban Berg (2000), Mozart’s Requiem (2002),  Mahler Symphonies No. 7 (it came back with him conducting again in 2000), 9 (1995), 6 (2006), 1 (2006), and 2 (2008), Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (2010), and many more pieces on many more concerts. The last concert I played with him was Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (2012). In August and September 2001, he led the Boston Symphony on a tour of Europe, and our final concert of the tour was in his beloved Concertgebouw where we played Symphony No. 2 of Brahms. Three days later, one day after we returned home to Boston, the world changed forever on 9/11/2001.

Cover of the recording of Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Tragic Overture with Bernard Haitink conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, recorded in March 1990 in Symphony Hall, Boston. Philips 432 094-2.

In all, I played over 200 concerts with Bernard Haitink on the podium. In addition to concerts, Bernard Haitink and the Boston Symphony made many recordings together, most memorably many works of Maurice Ravel, and especially the four symphonies of Brahms on the Philips label. There was something about Haitink and Brahms. Something very special, something he brought to that music that no other conductor managed to convey. What was it?

I don’t know. I have struggled for years to put into words the qualities that made working with Bernard Haitink so special, important, and memorable. I’ve never found the words. There were so many things, intangibles and tangibles alike. He always came prepared; he knew the music exquisitely well. He always showed that he genuinely cared for the members of the orchestra. He always spoke in a quiet, polite, tone; he never shouted. He knew exactly how to balance the orchestra. And he always appreciated our playing. I recall on many occasions, after I had played something that he noticed—and he noticed everything— he would look my way and give me a gentle smile. Not a big grin, just a gentle smile. He wanted me to know that he knew what I had done, and that he had appreciated it. He did this for everyone in the orchestra. We appreciated that. But more than all of this was his presence. When he conducted, everything just seemed right. There’s no other way to explain it. You had to be there to understand it. We all felt it, and the audience did, too.

Bernard Haitink was also a gracious man. I have told this story often, about one of the biggest mistakes of my career:

The Boston Symphony was playing Act III of Richard Wagner’s Götterdämmerung in April 1994 and I was playing bass trumpet, a part that has many solos. From my vantage point on stage in a concert where I sat between our principal trombonist, Ronald Barron, and principal trumpeter, Charles Schlueter, and behind our principal hornist, Charles Kavalovski, I was thoroughly enjoying the music. Everything was right with the world: the soloists were great, the orchestra was great, Haitink was pleased. Then, suddenly, I heard Ron humming. “What is he doing, humming during a concert?”, I thought. I gave him a funny look and then glanced up at Maestro Haitink. He was staring at me, frantically shaking his left index finger with a panicked look on his face. I instantly knew why Ron was humming—he was humming my part: I was supposed to be playing a solo! I quickly jammed the bass trumpet up to my face and finished the last measures of my solo. I was terribly embarrassed, and after the concert, I went up to Haitink’s dressing room to apologize for my faux pas. When he opened the door, I said, “Maestro, I am so sorry for my lapse. I was just lost in the music but it was inexcusable. That will not happen tomorrow.” He put an arm on my shoulder and smiled, and said, quietly, “There is no need to apologize. You looked so happy. And what you did play was wonderful. Rest well.”

That is how I remember Bernard Haitink. He was gracious and graceful, a classy person who cared about those around him. He was not a prima donna or one who was overly impressed with himself. He served the music, and he enlisted his musicians in that service. Many of my most memorable performances were under his baton.

Pages from the commentary that accompanies the facsimile edition of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 (Rosebeek Publishers, Amsterdam, 1995).

Bernard Haitink and I also enjoyed many conversations off the podium. I would often meet with him in his dressing room along with his wife, Patricia, before a rehearsal, and he always wanted to know of my most recent exploits in the early music world with the serpent and ophicleide. He was fascinated by those instruments. We also talked a lot about Gustav Mahler. I have a large collection of composer facsimile scores, reproductions of the scores of great works written in a composer’s handwriting. Haitink was instrumental in the publication of the facsimile of Mahler Symphony No. 7 and the edition was a revelation because it contained a companion volume that contained many reproductions of early drafts of the score as well as long articles about the piece. The role of the tenor horn in the symphony was often a topic of discussion among us, and when, in 1995, I purchased a copy of the Mahler Symphony No. 7 facsimile, I asked Haitink to sign it, which he graciously did.

Bernard Haitink and me, Symphony Hall Boston, November 2009. Photo by John Ferrillo.

In 2009 the Boston Symphony gave Bernard Haitink a party in celebration of his 80th birthday. He was in Boston to conduct the orchestra in Brahms Symphony No. 1 and we had a long conversation about Brahms at the party, a moment that was captured in a photograph taken by my colleague, principal oboist John Ferrillo. Later, Maestro Haitink inscribed the photo, with fond memories of our many conversations.

My final bow in Symphony Hall, Boston, following a Boston Symphony Orchestra performance of Beethoven Symphony No. 9 on  May 5, 2012.

When I retired from the Boston Symphony in 2012, my final concert in Symphony Hall was conducted by Bernard Haitink, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. It was an emotional time for me, with Beethoven’s great symphony, Maestro Haitink conducting, and my being called to the podium after the performance to take my final bow at Symphony Hall. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and Haitink called me up to the front of the stage from my seat in the back row and we exchanged a few words before I faced the audience in Symphony for the last time. The fact that Bernard Haitink was conducting my final concert in Symphony Hall was very, very meaningful to me, and it remains very meaningful to this day. 

Behind me are concertmaster Malcolm Lowe and Bernard Haitink.

That was the last time I saw him but I have recalled him in my mind on many occasions since then. Bernard Haitink profoundly shaped my life as a musician, and his death on Thursday represents the closing of the era of the “great old world” conductors. There is no one conducting today who is like him, and I consider myself to be a blessed man to have played so many concerts under his inspired leadership. I miss him already.

Bernard Haitink conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal in Beethoven Symphony No. 9, May 2012. I took this photo from my seat on stage.

Holding it in my hand: a new book

Holding it in my hand: a new book

On September 9, I wrote an article on The Last Trombone about my newest book, An Illustrated Dictionary for the Modern Trombone, Tuba, and Euphonium Player. While the book has an official release date of November 1, I began letting people know that the book was available as a pre-order.

Today, copies of the book that I had ordered from my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, arrived on my doorstep, a full month before the official release. The warehouse is shipping. For once in my life, something arrived early!

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Anyone who has written a book knows this unspeakable feeling—to open a box and see the product of many years of work.

And then I picked up a book and held it in my hand. After working for so many years with Word docs and PDF proofs, it was a shock—a happy shock— to see the crispness and vitality of Lennie Peterson‘s  illustrations in print.

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For those who have ordered a copy directly from the publisher, you should have your book soon. While the book is still announced on amazon.com as a November 1 release (and, hey, it’s the “#1 New Release in Trombones”!), ordering directly from the publisher not only gets the book to you faster, but you can get it at a 30% discount. See the discount code in the graphic below.

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Tomorrow I will put a copy of the book in the hands of my Dean at Wheaton College, Michael Wilder, with thanks for his ongoing support of my many artistic exploits, and another in the hand of the acquisitions librarian at Buswell Library on the Wheaton College campus. It is my hope and prayer that this book will prove helpful to many trombone, tuba, and euphonium players, and others who enjoy hearing them and want to learn more about them.

Finally, while you will read this on page xvi, this is a good time to thank the people who really made the book possible: My students. The book is dedicated to them—all of my students from over 50 years of teaching. Here’s how I thanked them in the acknowledgements section:

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I think I’ll go practice now, too.