Kyle Pugh, 83, has spent more than 60 years performing and teaching music in Spokane. If not for the coronavirus, Pugh would still be performing around Spokane today, like many from his generation of musicians.
Pugh has self-published a collection of memories, musical and personal, called “Ace the Bass” (2011) and more recently a book about his 15 years with a regional dance band called “The Many Sounds of Nine” – Fifty Years of Swingin’ Music” (2019).
From his college days at Eastern Washington University in the late 1950s until today, he has played tuba, upright bass and bass guitar for thousands of performances. He’s played in combos and big bands for school dances and Elks Club parties and performed with the Spokane Philharmonic, a predecessor of the Spokane Symphony.
In the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll took the young Pugh by surprise.
“All those groups that came in the ’50s, I didn’t like it,” he said. “I’d been playing jazz. They caught on and the kids liked it and all of a sudden it was a transition from adult music to teenage music. But we continued playing for adults. There was still a market for it.”
Fraternal clubs like the Moose and the Elks held dances every week and Pugh’s bands were there to provide the music.
Pugh grew up in the Cheney area and loved to tinker with radios and recording technology. While at Eastern Washington State College, he joined a trio playing that played “modern” jazz, in the style of Dave Brubeck.
Pugh knew playing the bass wouldn’t make him the star, but that was OK with him.
“You’re an unsung hero being a bass player,” he said.
He joined the Musicians Union in 1958 to find music jobs and became a lifetime member.
Spokane’s live music scene kept the young bassist busy at night. Starting in 1960, he played many gigs with jazz pianist Arnie Carruthers and others at the Davenport and Ridpath hotels, the Stockyards Inn and many clubs and conventions.
Pugh’s first regular gig
Pugh got a big break in 1961 when pianist Billy Tipton invited him to join the trio playing six nights a week at Allen’s Tin Pan Alley, a late-night club that had a nightly music and variety show.
Along with music, there were various novelty acts, such as tap dancers or jugglers. After-hours acts might include an exotic dancer or a female impersonator.
“I made $25 a week and all you could see,” Pugh jokes about the risqué entertainment.
The job with Tipton lasted 1½ years before the club closed for renovations in 1962. Tipton later became a talent agent, but still performed occasionally.
A tragic story
Tipton was the center of a tragic story. After his death in 1989, the Spokane medical examiner revealed Tipton was biologically a woman. She had lived as a man, married a woman and adopted three sons. But Tipton died from a bleeding ulcer while refusing to go to the hospital.
Pugh, who admits he had no clue about Tipton’s secret identity, thinks he understands Billy’s masquerade.
“All the big bands had only men in the bands,” he said. “Billy wanted to be a professional musician and sax player.”
Starting a family
Pugh married his wife, Sue, in 1961 and their first home was an 8-by-42-foot mobile home. They had two children, Jeff and Kari.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, Pugh worked in a music store, stocked shelves for a record distributor and made live recordings of school and church groups. He played with the Jim Baker Orchestra and backed up regional and national acts, including Wayne Newton, the Righteous Brothers, comedian Foster Brooks and others.
The Many Sounds of Nine
In 1969, Pugh joined “The Many Sounds of Nine”, a regional dance band founded in 1958 by Steve Laughery of Moses Lake in 1958. The name was based on nine players covering 33 instruments to sound like a classic big band. The act was filled with corny jokes, costume gags and swing dance favorites.
Laughery and his wife died in a flash flood in 1972, but the band continued to tour. At one point, members lived in the Tacoma, Moses Lake and Spokane and the group had dates to perform two to four weekends a month.
“It just got crazy. If we had a Friday night gig in Missoula, one of our guys flew an airplane and he would go pickup the guys in Tacoma and fly them to the gig,” Pugh said.
In 1976, Pugh got his first job as a school band teacher at Garry Junior High in Spokane. He taught junior high and elementary band for 21 years. Other Many Sounds of Nine members were also school music teachers.
Pugh left the band in 1981, and the band stopped touring in 1985. But the members still met occasionally for shows and reunions. At the 2008 reunion, they celebrated the band’s 50th anniversary, with two of those present part of the original 1958 group.
A decline of live performances
Pugh’s long career has traced the decline in live music at bars and clubs.
Old-timers say the decline started with the 1955 state law against slot machines in bars and restaurants. No machines meant less money for musicians.
Pugh and fellow Many Sounds of Nine member Bruce Pennell say the arrival of television changed how Americans used their free time. With entertainment at home, there was no need to go out.
Now, Pennell said, “people have 65-inch screens with surround sound.”
Gary Edigoffer, a saxophone player who taught music at Spokane Falls Community College from 1979-2016, played with Many Sounds of Nine from 1981-1985.
Edigoffer used to book musicians in the 1990s at Hobart’s Jazz Lounge at the Cavanaugh’s Fourth Avenue Motel, which is now a Quality Inn. He hosted Chick Corea, Clark Terry and other jazz greats over the seven years it was open. It closed in 1999.
Edigoffer said he is still looking for restaurants and bars willing to host regular live music.
“I’ve been involved with jazz clubs for more than 30 years and the reason they can’t succeed seems to be all the permits, fees and licenses required,” Edigoffer said.
Live jazz clubs in Spokane have included the Tin Ear, Henny’s and Ella’s Jazz Club.
Among those costs are fees charged by music licensing companies like BMI and ASCAP that collect annual fees on behalf of music composers. Many bars, restaurants and even retirement centers have stopped hosting live performances to avoid those charges.
Bands have been replaced by DJs playing canned music at weddings, banquets and similar events that once had live bands.
At 68, Edigoffer splits his time between playing on cruise ships and with local funk ensemble Soul Proprietor.
In recent years, Pugh has played oldies with the band Variety Pak, mostly at local retirement centers.
Spokane’s veteran musicians know the old music won’t return, but try to keep it alive in various ways.
Pennell said his dream is to gather musicians to play the big band arrangements of legendary Spokane bandleader Jim Baker, who died in 2003, on stage one more time.
Pennell said he believes there is still an audience for big bands and social dancing. He said when he plays with the Tuxedo Junction big band, dancers show up.
Pennell said good music is a pleasure.
“When you hear good players surrounding you, it’s magic. You feel chills go up your spine.”
Pugh’s book, “Ace the Bass,” is available on Amazon. The book about the Many Sounds of Nine was a special project for band members and their friends and is not available for purchase.
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