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New Horizons Big Band of Tualatin breaks age barriers and revives a seldom-played genre

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: LACEY JACOBY - Trumpeters practice during a rehearsal at the Juanita Pohl Center in Tualatin. The musicians pay $7 a week to be part of the band, with money simply going toward buying music.Taking after his father, Bob Lenneville began learning the drums at age 5. By age 14, he’d switched to the trumpet because his drum habit had grown too expensive. And by age 23, he was majoring in music at the University of Oregon.

This all seems like a pretty average story, except that when Lenneville was given his first trumpet, the year was 1936.

“To be a drummer, you’ve got so much equipment you have to buy. And in those days, the 1930s, it was the depression and all that stuff. (My dad) said, ‘No — that’s too much money, so we’re gonna teach you how to play the trumpet instead,’” said Lenneville. “It was a challenge, I think, probably more than anything. I never got very good at it, but it was fun.”

So, Lenneville played throughout high school in Portland and for the United States Army in World War II. He played for the University of Oregon before being sent to the Korean War, where he had to put down his instrument for a weapon. He returned three years later to teach music and become a band director, and in 1960, Lenneville led Roseburg High School to the Rose Parade, where it was the honored band. Less than a month shy of his 92nd birthday, he’s still playing the trumpet, this time

with New Horizons Big Band of Tualatin.

“The main thing is the challenge involved in doing it right. And that’s all there is to it, is doing it right,” he said. “It take a lifetime — 1936 — I don’t know how many years that’s been, but it’s a long time.”

Well, it’s 77 years of routine trumpet playing (“It’s a part of the day, like brushing your teeth in the morning”), and Lenneville still has a band to play with thanks to New Horizon Tualatin's formation a year ago.

The band started with Suzanne Short, who noticed big bands becoming more obscure over the years and wanted to do her part before they disappeared forever. The Tigard resident met with her friend Brad Davis, a professional musician out of Vancouver, Wash., and the two hatched an idea. They would form a band for musicians who didn’t have any interest in making it professionally, or who maybe hadn’t played for decades. Short would act as band manager, while Davis would direct.

Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: LACEY JACOBY - A wide variety of instruments is required to create the loud, full sound of big band music.After sending out a press release and putting ads in the newspaper calling for musicians, a year later the lineup has pretty much settled down; between 20 and 25 musicians play with New Horizons, depending on the day.

Another of these members is Bill Tyson, 73, who plays the tenor saxophone. A year ago, he picked the instrument up and started playing again, but the last time he’d touched it was in 1959.

“I didn’t remember anything — it’s easy to play, but difficult to master. Anybody could just make a noise out of it,” he said. “It’s great for keeping me sharp. I mean, learning all this, all the music, how to play it, everything about it, boy, it’s just incredible for your mind. There’s probably nothing that’s better than that to really get you going again.”

But, not everyone in the band is there to revisit a forgotten art. Some, such as 24-year-old Branden Pursinger, have been maintaining their musical abilities all along. Pursinger began playing the trumpet in fourth grade because “it has three buttons and looked the easiest.” He continued playing through college at Lewis and Clark, and is usually playing in an orchestra in addition to New Horizons. When he saw an ad in the newspaper for a lead trumpet player a couple months ago, he figured he might as well join.

“I don’t know if I’m any good, but I like playing so I stuck with it... I’ll hopefully stick with these guys until they tell me to get lost,” Pursinger said. “We’re mostly just a bunch of community people who like playing jazz music. So we just get together and play.”

Pursinger often plays second chair or backs up Davis when he gets tired. Though Davis is the band’s director, he also took over as lead trumpeter when their original player left for a different gig. This means that not only does he lead the band musically, he also has to worry about making sure everyone is keeping time, staying in tune and playing the right style. On top of that, during performances such as ArtSplash in Tualatin, he also has to be thinking about whether the audience is positively reacting to the music.

“It distracts from what your main job is, which is playing the lead part. So it’s hard. And anybody, I don’t care what instrument it is, if they’re the leader of a band, it takes away from their playing. You can pull it off, but it is distracting,” he said. “(But) it helps your playing, and it also helps, I think, your appreciation of what a band should be. What it’s supposed to be.”

Although the band relies on the varied musical talents of a couple dozen people for its big, full sound, it only practices once a week and has a director who conducts while simultaneously playing the trumpet, you wouldn’t recognize the struggles while listening to New Horizons. It’s clear the members have put effort not only into playing, but into making the best music they can.

“I just think big bands are worth saving,” said Short. “I love this music, and it’s gonna die if we don’t perpetuate it.”

While the bandmates might have joined for different reasons and span an age range of about 70 years, they find common ground in making near-forgotten music together and escaping from whatever trials plague their regular lives.

“The great thing about this is you can do it forever, it’s just how much you want to put into it,” said 61-year-old trumpeter Steve Cook, who’s been playing for 50 years. “Some guys were athletes, some guys were musicians. I’m still making music. The athletes, well...”

He trailed off. Chances are the athletes aren’t playing anymore. But the musicians? They’re still working on their chops.

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