ITEA History: Jonathan Dorn
By Carole Nowicke
During a professional career of over 30 years primarily in New York City and Philadelphia, Jonathan Dorn performed with a long list of ensembles and soloists. The Academy Brass, Keystone Brass Quintet, Contemporary Brass Quintet, Rittenhouse Brass Quintet, Bicentennial Brass, Jonathan Dorn’s Big Bad Brass, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, Philadelphia Chamber Symphony, the Philadelphia Grand and Lyric Opera Companies, the Pennsylvania Ballet, Ringling Brothers Circus Band, the Moscow Circus Band, the Ice Follies Orchestra, the Kirov Ballet, Atlantic City casino house bands and orchestras, Your Father’s Mustache Club, The Red Garter Club, Mickey Finn’s Club, The Latin Casino Orchestra, Palumbo’s Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, Ricardo Muti, Guy Lombardo, Aaron Copland, Victor Borge, Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Peter Allen, Guy Lombardo, Joan Sutherland, Anna Moffo, Jan Peerce, Richard Tucker, McHenry Boatright, and Marion Anderson.
Dorn was house tuba for the Forrest, Walnut Street, Erlanger, and Schubert Theaters in Philadelphia and performed in Broadway shows including Annie, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Flower Drum Song, 1776, and Stop the World I Want to Get Off. He recorded with performers in many genres, including The Philadelphia Orchestra, Peter Allen, Bette Midler, Roberta Flack, Mel Torme, Lou Rawls, Kate Smith, Don Mclean, Dusty Springfield, Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, The Salsoul Orchestra, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow, Jackie Deshannon, David Newman, Yuseff Lateef, Gunther Schuller, Leon Redbone, Sammy Davis Jr., Anthony Braxton, and Jimmy Scott.
Among the celebrities Dorn performed in person for were President Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, President Frederik de Klerk, President Bill Clinton, actor Anthony Quinn, Pope John Paul II, and Governor George Wallace. His television appearances included Saturday Night Live, the Tom Snyder Show, and the Tony Awards. He toured with Leon Redbone, George Carlin, Burt Bacharach, and Anthony Newley.
He was heard for many years in millions of American homes in television commercials for Budweiser, Bell Telephone, McDonald’s, Schlitz beer, Piggly Wiggly Supermarkets, Coca-Cola, Pepsi Cola, General Motors, Nabisco, American Airlines, and performing the themes for the television programs Mr. Belvedere and Harry and the Hendersons.
A native of Yeadon, Pennsylvania, a town in the Western suburbs of Philadelphia, Jonathan Dorn came to the tuba after discovering he had no talent (or love) for the mellophone or baritone horn. The tuba, however, proved to be the right choice. The following material was selected from an interview with Jonathan Dorn collected as part of the ITEA Oral History Project.
Dorn studied with Abe Torchinsky from age 14 to 21, and took lessons for shorter periods of time with trombonist Charles Gusikoff of the Philadelphia Orchestra and with Harvey Phillips in New York.
Studies with Abe Torchinsky
The minute I put my lips to the mouthpiece of the Sousaphone, something just went nuts. I became possessed with the tuba. I had an early aptitude for the instrument for some reason. My band director told me to get a real, professional teacher, so my parents called Abe.
I had my audition with him, which was one of the scariest moments in my life as a young kid—going to the Academy of Music. I had an E-flat tuba that belonged to the school nurse—a ?ervený. I believe I played Mummer’s Dance Grotesque, which was on the Bill Bell album. He just smiled at me, and he talked to my father, and he accepted me as a student—and taught me a lot of stuff. He was amazing.
I used to go to the Academy of Music. We would go upstairs to a dressing room, and that’s where my lessons were. Then they built a lounge for the orchestra players and we would sort of meet right by the pit, in what was called “the catacombs” of the Academy of Music. All the orchestra players, after orchestra concerts or rehearsals, would walk into my lessons—Gil Johnson and Henry Smith. They’d sit down and they would both attack me!… It was just great! Having to be on my toes—they wouldn’t even knock, they’d just walk in! It was great because everybody would just walk in on me, and I would have to perform for them. Even if he set it up, it was a great thing for all of his students to just be on the spot like that. Ormandy would walk by sometimes. I’d see him backstage when I was ready to take a lesson and it would scare the daylights out of me.
The lessons would start with the Bell warm-ups—they’re marvelous things, but I did hate them. They were painful. Then he would show me through the orchestral excerpts and what he was working with in the orchestra at that time. Whatever pieces were real “kickers” he would put up on the music stand and have me play them.
I always wanted to play Sensemaya. I thought it was a jazz piece—absolutely pure, beautiful, jazz. Abe did such a great job on it. I remember sitting in the Academy of Music and watching him on stage, and I know he was nervous. It wasn’t so much that it was technical; it was just something that was very different.
I gave a small speech at the Lifetime Achievement Award dinner for Abe Torchinsky, I said, “The lessons in the dressing rooms were marvelous, but the best lesson of Abe’s was on a Friday afternoon or a Saturday night, to sit upstairs in the Academy of Music and watch him sit and play with the Orchestra. That’s where I learned—just watching him sit there in that back row and just play so beautifully and watch his physical movements.”
He had this wonderful little snap of his head when he’d play a note. His body language was marvelous, the way he could pick up the tuba before an entrance, and just put it to his face and play. Just watching him—you couldn’t have paid enough money to have that experience—just watching him every night.
Abe Torchinsky helped pick out my first tuba—my Mirafone 184-5U, 5-valve, which used to be called the “Roger Bobo Model.” I always felt comfortable with that little Mirafone. I would use it for whatever I was called to do, if it was an orchestra job, it was great with brass quintets—it was perfect for brass quintets. For recording it always sounded good. I didn’t need an F tuba because it was small enough for upper register stuff.
“Your Father’s Moustache,” or Learning Jazz the Hard Way
Mr. Dorn performed for some years at the “nostalgia” club called “Your Father’s Moustache,” a career path followed by Sam Pilafian, Robert Bauchens, Eli Newberger, John MacEnulty, Bob Stewart, Dean Barnhard, and many others. He was a complete jazz naïf and found himself out of his element in the beginning.
I was jobbing in Philadelphia, and I got this call. They had called Abe for a recommendation for a tuba player; he recommended me, and I went up to New York, and I saw the club and was unimpressed.
They opened the club in Philadelphia, and I was on the bandstand. I had never played without music in my life. They never told me that we were going to play without music. I’m waiting for them to pass out the arrangements, and I thought, “Well, maybe they’re going to do it after the lights go down, and I’m really being stupid.” I remember the owner of the club, Joel Schiavone (a man who had one of the worst stutters that I have ever heard in my life) looked at everyone and he said, “Ha-ha-ha-happy Days are Here Again, in E-flat.” It was like he was speaking Russian to me.
I didn’t know what he was talking about. The band started playing and I really screwed up. I kept playing C to G, C to G—I didn’t know what I was doing, I had never ad-libbed in my life. The trombone player, a guy named Sonny Helmer used to take me to his apartment every afternoon, and play records with my horn. He would teach me and show me changes.
After about the first month, I got it, but the first month, I used to show up every night in pure terror that I didn’t know what I was doing. Thanks to a couple of people like Sonny, and a banjo player named Ronnie Bill, they taught me how to ad-lib. It was absolutely frightening that first night—I didn’t know what was doing.
Why they kept me past the first night I’ll never understand. I certainly sounded like an idiot. I would sit at home in the afternoon before I had to go to work, and just play along with Dixieland records, and I bought a couple fake books, and I finally figured it out for myself. Then I became an ad-lib player. I didn’t have that initial talent.
Friends and Influences
Along with studying with Abe Torchinsky, an important figure in the early career of Jonathan Dorn (as well as other tubists in Philadelphia) was a postman named Leo Romano. Jonathan Dorn was also influenced by those he heard on recordings and personal contacts with his contemporaries.
I started working out of high school, actually. I met a tuba player in Philadelphia who was a mentor of Paul Krzywicki’s, a man by the name of Leo Romano. I loved Leo Romano, he was a marvelous, marvelous man. He was a mentor to all the tuba players in town. I met Leo at the Musician’s Union. On Sundays they used to have a concert band of union players. I joined the union when I was about 15 years old. I also played in Italian festivals with Leo. I have many memories of marching down the street with the statue with all the money and playing all these great Italian concert arrangements and then going to the firehouse hall and eating spaghetti and drinking beer with Leo. Then going back and trying to march down the street, because I was a kid and I shouldn’t have had any beers in me.
Bill Barber was another one of the people that I was very infatuated with as a young player, from his playing with Miles Davis, and his playing in general. I was playing a club in North Jersey and I met Joe Tarto, who also had played in this club, he just stopped in to get a paycheck.
I used to buy all these albums with Don Butterfield on them and Bill Barber, and Harvey, and Joe Novotny. I ended up playing with all of these people that I would see on the albums, Joe Wilder and Jimmy Buffington and all. I dreamt as a kid—that I’d just love to play one session with these people. I got into being one of the New York studio players. I didn’t do near as much as Harvey and Butterfield.
I replaced Harvey on one session. When Harvey first started at Indiana, he used to shuttle in to New York to work for Robert Russell Bennett, or Eddie Sauter. There was a call for an animated Christmas special in the ‘70s called The Fourth King that Eddie Sauter wrote the music for. I remember I got called for the session, and Eddie Sauter was expecting Harvey, and he wasn’t real happy, because he didn’t know me. Well, everything calmed down. The thing he wrote was an absolute concerto because he was writing it for Harvey. I managed to get through it, and he was extremely happy—but in the beginning of the session he was very unhappy that Harvey wasn’t there. I explained to him that there was nothing I could do about this, I got hired. His words were, “Let’s record one and see how it goes.” I was in awe of the fact that I was going to play for one of my big band idols in life. He was an amazing arranger-composer, but he really wasn’t real pleasant. The end result was the session did work out.
Before I did Saturday Night Live with Leon Redbone, Howard Johnson was somebody that really impressed me, because he brought the tuba into the mainstream. We got to play together on one album, one of Peter Allen’s last albums, Continental American. It started with a big circus band, then it went to a jazz band. Howard and I played together on the circus band, so it was kind of fun to have something recorded as part of a legacy with him. We’re totally different people, totally different players. I respect him as one of the most innovative players for bringing the tuba into the mainstream.
Abe Torchinsky and Jonathan Dorn
Ed Goldstein and I go back a long way. I used to play the Ice Follies, and before we’d get to Philadelphia, it would be in Baltimore, which was Ed’s territory. The book weighed about 20 pounds, and when I’d open the book for rehearsal, there would always be a note from Ed. At first it wasn’t just to me, it was to whoever was in the next town. It was a thing Ed started, actually. I would leave a note, and it would get back around to Ed. I always looked forward to getting Ed’s note. We had never met, and then when I was doing the Rite of Spring with the Orchestra for Paul Krzywicki, we went to Baltimore to the Lyric Theater. Ed showed up backstage, and that’s when we finally met face-to-face.
When I was out on my road days when I was in L.A. with Leon, I always missed Jim Self. I was supposed to be on the coast for a date with Leon at the Greek Theater with Robbie Robertson and the Band. I was ill and went to the hospital for a week or so, and they hired Jim to fill in for me. So, 20 years later I just saw his website and emailed him and thanked him for it. I just love what he does, especially this new instrument of his, the “Fluba.”
Dorn became involved with Leon Redbone in 1973 or 1974 in a recording session. Redbone’s manager called and asked Dorn if he would be interested in performing on concerts in a then-novel combination of tuba and guitar.
Redbone was not an ethical colleague, and when Dorn ceased working with him, Redbone and Dorn’s brother (the producer) issued an album listing “Big Johnny Dong” on the credits instead of Dorn. “Big Johnny Dong” did not exist, so Dorn never received a penny in royalties for his work on Salty Dog.
I thought it was kind of strange—just the two of us. I didn’t see how Leon on acoustic guitar, voice, and tuba would work. I said, “I’ll do it.” It seemed to work out. We did Saturday Night Live together, the two of us. Then we just started touring. For a couple of years it was just Leon and myself touring, then added a clarinet player named Bobby Gordon, who was as marvelous, marvelous player. Other people, like Vince Giordano, and Eddie Davis, and all kinds of people. It was never like a “band” concept, we always looked at it as chamber music or accompaniment. It was never like a “band.”
There were no boundaries, you just played as you felt. It was very difficult to accompany him. It took a while to know how to throw out all the technology and just listen and follow the man, because there’s no such thing as a bar line with him. He’s gotten better at it, but in the early days it was quite frightening. I was basically an orchestral and legitimate player and then I got hooked up with him and said, “Boy, this is really weird, he doesn’t follow any of the rules.” I didn’t mind so much the meter part of it, but it took me a while to adjust to his style of pitch. He didn’t play in tune. I came from the orchestra pits, and playing in tune was real important.
We played a lot of unusual places, in foreign countries, especially. My favorite tour was a month in Australia and New Zealand—just the two of us. We did a bunch of European tours, and an Australian tour. Their concept of Leon was only from tapes of Saturday Night Live and our albums. In this country, people had seen Leon live. Our first European tour was frightening. They loved it, but they didn’t know how to really deal with it.
The first concert was in Bremen in the mid ‘70s and Leon always started by himself—it was only the two of us in those days. He would do four or five tunes, and he would just mumble something, put his hand down, and say, “stage left,” and I would stroll on with a drink in my hand and my tuba. When I walked on the stage in Bremen, it was at the Stadthalle, and there were about 2,000 people there. I walked onto the stage, and I never got an ovation like that in my life. They went bananas. First of all, to be in Germany, for a tuba player to walk on stage anywhere in Germany—they went insane. It stopped the show. We couldn’t do the tune for about five minutes because they wouldn’t stop screaming.
Saturday Night Live
In its heyday, the comedy-variety show Saturday Night Live helped launch the acting careers of a number of comedians and provided a mass-media outlet for up-and-coming rock, pop, and folk singers.
It was exciting for me to be there. After the show there would be an after-show party and some upscale New York restaurant where all night long we’d be partying with Belushi, and Dan Ackroyd, and Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner. There was a party every Saturday night about 1:00 in the morning for the whole crew and guests. It was unbelievable. You did the show, and then you went to this amazing party and you hung out with Chevy Chase and John Belushi. It’s quite a thrill for me to have been in the right place at the right time, to have been able to have done that, and been out there for people to see me do this—for the instrument. It’s great to be an orchestral player, but to put it in the commercial field and to be on a show, I’m really thrilled that I was lucky enough to have done that.
Time Magazine once called me “The ubiquitous Jonathan Dorn,” whatever that means. It was a review of a show or an album I had done with Leon. I got a nice blurb someplace in Rolling Stone many years ago when Leon and I played the Bottom Line in New York. I remember they weren’t real impressed with Leon for some reason. The article said, “Things took an upturn when the tuba player Jonathan Dorn walked on stage.”
The biggest thrill for me of what I wanted to do besides the orchestral work was recording. I thought recording was the most exciting form of work that any musician could do, because the tape didn’t lie. You sat there, and they couldn’t make you sound any better, you couldn’t miss notes. They could put some echo on you, but you had to sound great to begin with, or good to begin with. They could make you sound a little bit better.
I loved being a tuba player, I loved music, but I wanted to do something else. I was on a job one day, I was playing on a railroad train, which is no big deal—I’ll play anywhere if the music’s good. The Dixieland band was terrible, they were a bunch of what I thought were idiots, and they just didn’t get it. I finished the job, and the bandleader came up to me and handed me a check, and I gave it back to him and said, “Keep it. I just retired.”
I just concentrated on my chef career at that point. I would like to do something tuba-wise, which I’m going to do one of these days. I’ve always had the idea of doing a CD, “Jonathan Dorn and Friends,” which I might do one day.… I would like to do a CD with all different musician friends I’ve met over the years—a compilation, not about the tuba, just about music and musicians. I would like to write a couple of books though, at least one book.
In addition to Abe Torchinsky, and Leo Romano, Dorn credits in particular his primary and high school music teachers Mary Elizabeth Herrold, Steve Rayteck, Joseph Kurrila, S. Ross, and Lorna Shirer for helping start his musical career. He also credits his wife, Denise, for supporting his musical career. He quit performing on tuba a decade ago, and Mr. Dorn is presently Chef de Cuisine of Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania.
Interview of Jonathan Dorn by Carole Nowicke, conducted by telephone, August 14th, 2004
The best perquisite of being the ITEA Historian has been to meet childhood “cultural heroes”: Abe Torchinsky from the recordings I grew up with, Herb Wekselblatt from so many Saturdays listening to the Metropolitan Opera on the radio, Oscar LaGassé from all the Paul Paray recordings played so often on classical radio in Detroit, and Howard Johnson and Jonathan Dorn from Saturday Night Live.
©2004 International Tuba Euphonium Association