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Trumpeter Larry Jess has been finding ‘the sound’ for 50 years with the Spokane Symphony

Trumpet player Larry Jess has been performing with the Spokane Symphony  for more than 50 years. Jess is pictured here Wednesday  at Amend Music Center in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Trumpet player Larry Jess has been performing with the Spokane Symphony for more than 50 years. Jess is pictured here Wednesday at Amend Music Center in Spokane. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When musician Larry Jess gathers his trumpet, it’s like a meeting between old friends – inseparable as the day is long, but still excited to make the acquaintance.

Similar to a handshake, Jess works his way into it: first, by finding a tune through just the mouthpiece. Then, with half of the instrument assembled.

Finally, he’s ready for fully constructed brass. And a proper play. Little by little, he “finds the sound,” as he likes to put it.

Deep breathe. Exhale. Acquaintance made, it’s time to play.

“On the trumpet, it’s more about moving the air fast,” said 70-year-old Jess as he sits in the downstairs studio of his Eagle Ridge home, which to anyone else would be just a TV room. “And so it depends upon the size of the tubing. We’re all about making things vibrate. Whether it’s a tube or wind column and all of that.”

Before long, he could be moving through the work of Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Sebastian Bach, the next minute playing the opening theme to the “Harry Potter” movies. And perhaps finish it off with a bit of “Star Wars” nostalgia. Maybe a few pop songs in the mix.

Anything and everything, day in and day out, for months on end. Typical of a season in the Spokane Symphony, set to begin this weekend, where the musical styles and genre of each show change as often as Spokane’s weather.

But that’s what it takes to make it in the orchestral world – a deep understanding and love for all music. And to anyone who’s ever heard an orchestra in Spokane, whether through the symphony or elsewhere, chances are they’ve heard Jess’ trumpet.

This year he’s celebrating 50 years in the symphony, with only a few months off due to massive heart surgery he underwent a decade ago. And on top of that, he’s logged 44 years as the symphony’s principal trumpet – the player who not only plays the hardest parts but leads the section in style and sound.

And on Monday, it’ll mark his 33rd or 34th concert at Comstock Park – coincidentally, the same number of years the free symphony performance has been at the South Hill park.

It’s a remarkable feat for any musician, let alone the trumpet type who’s donating every ounce of breath they can muster.

“Playing a brass instrument, it is physically, extremely draining and demanding,” said Jeff vom Saal, executive director of the Spokane Symphony. “It requires fine motor skills with the fingers and enormous breath control. It’s really an athletic instrument to play.

“It’s like being a starting pitcher in your 40s, 50s and 60s. It takes a lot out of you.”

But to a veteran like Jess, hardly an afterthought. Since grade school in the early 1960s, trumpet has been a part of his life. Better than playing baseball, he figured, and unlike piano, you usually get to play with other people – best of both worlds.

“It was kind of a social thing,” said Jess. “I didn’t want to sit at the piano alone. I hated that.”

At 20, and as a sophomore at then-Eastern State College, Jess furthered his craft under the tutelage of Jim Albert, an instructor and, at the time, principal chair for the budding symphony.

It was around then, too, that he first met Doc Severinsen, who was the first-chair trumpeter for the Tonight Show Band, the house band that would play every taping of Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show” from 1962 until 1992, until Jay Leno took over.

Jess remembers seeing Severinsen play with Gonzaga University’s band in 1966. A year later, he was playing next to him.

“I thought, ‘Holy smokes, this is how these guys are supposed to sound,’ ” said Jess.

Jess and Severinsen remained close despite living several thousand miles apart. When Jess underwent heart surgery 11 years ago and was out 6 months, it was Severinsen who gave him a much-needed pep talk.

“We spent an hour on the phone,” Jess said. “Which I thought was really cool. He didn’t need to do that at all.”

Two years later in 1969, while attending college, Jess joined the symphony as third chair. Just six years later, in 1975, he took over the principal chair, a seat he’s remained firmly planted in since.

All the while, he also was donning his lederhosen with his Expo ’74 band compatriots as they played for hundreds of thousands of visitors to Spokane.

Trumpeter Chris Cook, who now plays second chair in the Spokane Symphony next to Jess, was taking lessons at the time from members of the band and remembers all too well how much fun everyone was having.

“There was a lot of schtick involved,” Cook said. “They were very comical. They even had a recording out.”

Cook said relationships are funny like that. Here’s a guy in his 20s, in knee-high black socks, playing polka for months on end. A few decades later, he’s dressed in a tuxedo seated next to him playing a solo.

“It’s like any long-term relationship,” Cook said. “It evolves over the years. It’s comforting in a way.”

It’s similar, too, to a musician’s relationship with their instrument, said Cook. Especially a trumpet.

Whereas life can throw you highs and lows, the trumpet is consistent. Always there, always constant. A piece of metal that will never leave you. Much like a good friend.

“It’s one of those things that, even though it’s a complicated relationship with the instrument, it’s something that is there,” Cook said. “It’s capable of expressing joy through fanfares and devastation through the blues. It’s a great mainstay of so many different styles of music.”

While Jess is decidedly less romantic about his instrumental life partner, his passion is unmistakable. Through much of the late ’70s and ’80s, Jess was teaching classes at three universities: Whitworth, Gonzaga and Eastern Washington, all while retaining his post as the symphony’s top trumpet player.

“I showed up at the wrong college on the wrong day once,” Jess said. “I go, ‘What the heck! I gotta start peeling this off.’ ”

So he instead slowed his role to a more sustainable pace. In 1985, he began teaching classes at Amend Music Center on the South Hill near Rocket Bakery.

Owner Robin Amend said Jess has been the longest-tenured instructor – by far – having occupied a teaching space since the business first moved to the location from downtown.

“He’s the most sought out in Spokane for trumpet,” said Amend. “He’s serious with them and making sure they’re practicing. He’s friendly with them, too. We have a lot of students who come back to say ‘Hi.’ ”

One such student is Eric Moe, who luck would have it now sits next to Cook and Jess with the symphony.

Moe, like Jess, recalls playing the piano first until he could choose his own: He went with trumpet. As Jess’ student, he remembers the lessons being difficult but fair. There was a high standard, and, if you weren’t prepared, Jess would know.

But above all else, the love of music was apparent.

“I wanted to be a better trumpet player,” Moe said. “He made it so fun. His joy of the music.”

After traveling the U.S. playing in symphonies and orchestras from New Jersey to Denver, Moe moved back to Spokane in 2008. And in 2012, he joined the Spokane Symphony.

“I don’t find him intimidating anymore,” Moe joked. “But I still love his sound and match that and copy that. I think Larry, his joy for music is still contagious. In any group he’s in, he raises the bar. He loves people, and he loves to make excellent music.”

Back in Jess’ TV room, that’s not difficult to see. Down the hall sits his impressive collection of one-of-a-kind trumpets, the type of musical stash only possible with decades of playing experience.

He gets a kick out of showing them off. Taking them off the wall, holding them up to his mouth and messing with the valves. He likes to point out his dozens of mutes, too – the small, hand-held pieces of metal or rubber that give the instrument a certain whiny quality.

“Wah wah wah wah,” Jess said as he imitated the sound.

But at 70, it’s not all about the music. He has three adult children to think about, and a doting wife, pianist and vocalist Carolyn, to love. A garden to look after, places to visit and people to see.

It’s in those quiet moments, away from the strings, the drums, the woodwinds and, yes, even the brass, that Jess has found some solitude.

A private peace sans music. No rhythm or beat to worry about, and no pitch to find.

All before the next season ramps up, of course. And another handshake with an old friend.

“Our saying is, ‘Our ears are too full,’ ” said Jess. “Sometimes quiet is good.”

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