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Veteran makes moves to strike up senior band

By JOHN FLEMING, Times Performing Arts Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

After more than 50 years of playing in bands, Buddy Verdi, 74, wants to give inexperienced peers a chance to enjoy their moonlighting years by learning musical instruments and forming their own band.

Buddy Verdi is a man of many projects. As a trumpeter and bandleader, he plays for weddings, bar mitzvahs and cruises. He has a real estate and mortgage company. He spins records on his Saturday afternoon Suncoast Bandstand show on WTAN-AM.

After a lifetime as a professional musician, Verdi, 74, has the stage patter down pat.

"Here's a little something you'll remember by Ol' Blue Eyes, Frank Sinatra," Verdi said, launching into Strangers in the Night, on which he doubled on trumpet and vocal.

He and two other musicians -- his partner, Harriette Metzler, played maracas, and Sid Keithly was at the keyboard -- were giving a concert one afternoon last week at Drew Village in Clearwater.

Verdi is a regular visitor at the nursing home, where his 93-year-old mother, Grace, is a resident. She is her son's biggest fan and most attentive critic.

"Sorry, Mom, I slipped," Verdi said when he missed a lyric during a sing-along of When You're Smiling.

His mother was part of the audience of several dozen assembled to hear an hour of music that was popular when they were young.

"Here comes the firing squad," the trumpeter joked, as the residents lined up in their wheelchairs for the performance in the dining room.

At one point, a man looked up from the Bible open in his lap to admire Verdi's trumpet. "Now that's an instrument I always wanted to play," the man said.

It was the perfect cue for Verdi to plug his latest project. After a long career in music, he aspires to become a latter-day Prof. Harold Hill, the traveling instrument salesman who promised to start a community band in The Music Man.

Verdi is the local organizer of New Horizons Bands, a program started in 1991 by Roy Ernst, a professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. With support from musical instrument dealers, it provides people over age 50 with the chance to take lessons and eventually play in a band.

There are more than 30 New Horizons ensembles around the country. About a year ago, Ernst enlisted Verdi to start one in the bay area. The bandleader has lined up a sponsorship from the music and humanities department of St. Petersburg Junior College and has arranged for a dozen or so professional musicians and music teachers to give lessons.

"Each student will pay approximately $85 a semester," Verdi said. "They're taught the instrument of their choice. We have made arrangements with Sam Ash and Bringe music stores where they can rent the instrument at a minimum price or work a deal out to buy the instrument."

New Horizons is geared to instrumental neophytes or people who haven't played in a long time. "I run across both," he said. "There are people who played in high school and then gave it up and were never able to pick it up again. And there are people who never were able to take any kind of a music lesson, and now the opportunity will arise for them."

Of course, learning to play an instrument is tough enough for youngsters, and Verdi has no illusions about the work involved for seniors.

"It's going to be a little more difficult for the older people," he said. "They've been set in their ways. Now they're suddenly starting to read music, learning how to play an instrument. It's going to take a lot of effort and dedication, both on the part of the teachers as well as the students."

Verdi -- that's his real name ("I am a direct descendant of Giuseppe Verdi, a great, great grandson of his") -- was born and raised in Brooklyn. He started playing violin when he was 6 but soon switched to the trumpet. He began playing professionally at hotels in the Catskills. As a 17-year-old, he played with the Benny Goodman band for six months before going into the Navy during World War II.

One of his claims to fame is leading the Hal McIntyre Orchestra, well-known in the 1940s and '50s, at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1963.

"But rock 'n' roll was coming in, and nobody wanted to listen to big band music anymore," he said.

Since moving to Florida 30 years ago, Verdi has just about done it all in commercial music circles, from heading up the Clearwater local of the American Federation of Musicians to leading his orchestra in three shows a day during a long run at Cypress Gardens to performing several times a month "almost for free" at nursing homes in the area.

Now he's looking forward to getting the New Horizons band off the ground.

"There are what we call frustrated musicians out there. All their lives they wanted to play an instrument but weren't able to. So now they have the time, and we're going to give them the opportunity to play the instrument of their choice."

For information, call Verdi at (727) 461-5685.

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