Things might have turned out very differently for trumpet player Keith LaMotte had he not been the younger brother.
LaMotte’s parents made each of their children learn the piano. After realizing the piano wasn’t the instrument for them, LaMotte and a brother turned to the trombone and cornet, previously owned by their uncles, their mother kept in the house.
LaMotte’s brother, 15 months older, got first choice. He picked the trombone, which, as LaMotte, then 9, recalls, was gold and shinier than the silver cornet.
But everything worked out for the pair, as both LaMotte and his brother have been playing their respective instruments, with LaMotte eventually switching to the trumpet, ever since.
On Saturday, that will, partially, come to an end, as LaMotte steps away from the Spokane Jazz Orchestra, which he’s been a part of for 43 years.
The Spokane Jazz Orchestra, with guest vocalist Jace Fogleman, will perform the music of Michael Bublé at the Bing Crosby Theater.
But back to the beginning.
When LaMotte was about 12, his father asked if he wanted to see the famed Stan Kenton Orchestra perform.
LaMotte agreed, and from the first note, he was hooked.
“I was mesmerized by the sound of this band, which was dominated by loud brass,” he said.
He had his first experience playing in a big band in 1955 while a junior in high school and eventually began college as a music major, first at Pasadena City College, then U.C. Santa Barbara, where the professors better understood his interest in jazz, rather than symphonic, music.
Upon his graduation, LaMotte’s brass professor, Maurice Faulkner, asked him what he wanted to do with his music.
“The only band I’m really passionate about is the Stan Kenton Orchestra,” LaMotte responded.
Unbeknownst to LaMotte, Faulkner was friends with Kenton. Faulkner gave Kenton a call and the bandleader invited LaMotte to sit in on rehearsals.
In the spring of 1961, LaMotte auditioned for a spot in the trumpet section. He didn’t get the part, but the then-lead trumpet player in the band suggested LaMotte get the opportunity to play the mellophonium, which Kenton was working on incorporating into the orchestra.
“They said ‘Would you like to sacrifice your soul and play the mellophonium?’ ” LaMotte said with a laugh. “Here I am, a 21-year-old college kid doing anything to get on the road with the Kenton band, so I said ‘Well, sure!’ ”
LaMotte played mellophonium for a year before moving into the trumpet section.
After two years in the trumpet section, LaMotte had a realization. He was, in his words, not good enough to make a living as a studio player, so he said goodbye to his “amazingly excited and fortunate time in the big time.”
Needing a break from Los Angeles, LaMotte and his family made their way to Spokane.
LaMotte didn’t know what to expect from Spokane music wise, and admittedly didn’t have the highest of hopes, but he was pleasantly surprised when a woman with the musician’s union told him about a big band then called Spokane Jazz Clinic.
LaMotte went down to their practice space at the Masonic Temple, introduced himself and was given an opportunity to play with the band.
That was the spring of 1975 and by the time summer rolled around, LaMotte and the rest of the band had established a 501(c)3, the Spokane Jazz Society, and had changed its name to the Spokane Jazz Orchestra and found its first director in co-founder Bruce Preuninger.
“To say it’s been a big part of my life for the last 40-some years would be a giant understatement,” he said.
In the early days of the orchestra, LaMotte remembers the group playing whenever and wherever it could, often for nothing.
Since then, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra has established a four-show season, plus a Fourth of July concert, and, usually, an additional summertime concert somewhere.
Understandably, after at least five concerts a year for 43 years, the performances have begun to blend together for LaMotte. But he does remember one notable guest’s time with the orchestra clear as day.
It was May 18, 1980, and the Spokane Jazz Orchestra was rehearsing with the legendary Dizzy Gillespie for that evening’s concert.
The band heard about the eruption of Mount St. Helens but had no idea of the ash cloud that was making its way across the state until they left the then-Opera House, now First Interstate Center for the Arts, for a dinner break and noticed how dark the sky was.
The concert was officially canceled during the dinner break, and Gillespie ended up stuck in town for three days until he paid a taxi driver $300 to drive him to Seattle via the North Cascades Highway.
“We rescheduled the concert for later that year and after we played a tune or two, Dizzy comes out from backstage and he’s got one of those masks that everybody wore,” LaMotte said. “Of course the audience went nuts.”
Even with so many fond memories of his time with the Spokane Jazz Orchestra, LaMotte has recently decided that it’s simply the right time for him to step away from the group.
LaMotte puts it bluntly: He doesn’t think he’s as good a player as he once was.
He doesn’t feel as relaxed onstage and feels like many of the characteristics he’s worked his entire career to develop, things like “chops” and energy, have diminished over time.
“Anybody that’s been in a team of any kind, whether it’s a band or sports team or choir, they’ve experienced a situation where somebody isn’t holding up his or her part of the bargain …” he said. “I wanted to finish on a high note and not have a situation where I’m making mistakes.”
Plus, his oldest daughter and her family have recently moved to Spokane and LaMotte’s looking forward to spending more time with them.
LaMotte is also looking to family to help keep his Spokane Jazz Orchestra legacy alive; his grandson Michael Gerety has recently joined the ensemble on guitar.
“Having him be on the band at the same time that I am is a very special thing,” LaMotte said.
LaMotte is grateful to the Spokane community for sustaining the Spokane Jazz Orchestra for so many years. And though he’s leaving the group he’s been part of for 43 years, he’s not closing his trumpet case for good.
LaMotte is looking forward to focusing more time on performing with a five-piece called the Variety Pack, which he’s been part of for the past several years.
Jazz music, after all, is a part of him.
“The passion and the energy and the excitement of big band jazz has been my soul for most of my life. That’s created a lot of joy …,” he said.
“I will continue to play until I embarrass myself,” he added with a laugh. “As long as my memory keeps these tunes in my head.”
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