Part VII – The Howard Hovey Trio

In 1986, I was called by my banjo friend Allan Doxsee (a founder of the Long Island Banjo Society) to play a gig in Southampton at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club for a group associated with the US Open golf tournament being held there. I was familiar with the club, having played there for several private parties including displays of antique cars by Charles Addams and Henry Austin Clark Jr. Allan informed me that we’d be playing in a quartet along with a trumpet and tuba. When the date arrived, I showed up early and met Irving Petraszewski (the trumpeter) and Howard Hovey (tubaist). We made some small talk and coordinated with the event organizers while waiting for Allan, then started playing on the assumption he got stuck in traffic. It later turned out that Allan had completely forgotten his own gig, but that error led to a musical association which lasted over 15 years between myself, Irv and Howard.

Howard & Irv had been playing in a trio with “Rheingold Pete”, an accordionist nicknamed for his association with a famed NY brewery. Sadly, Pete had fallen victim to Alzheimer’s disease and was no longer able to play. They had been seeking a musician to fill the third role when we met…leading to another great learning experience for me.

Howard taught music in the Riverhead schools for over 40 years. An Iowa native, he was introduced to the East End by one of his Columbia music professors, the composer Douglas Moore. Inspired by the community bands of his youth, Howard founded the “No Doubt World Famous Monday Night Band” upon his return from naval service in World War II. He was President of the New York State School Music Association for four years, and was co-founder of the New York Tuba Christmas – now a cherished Rockefeller Center tradition. Howard also developed friendships and was highly respected by a broad range of notable music figures, including Harvey Phillips, Lukas Foss and Benjamin Britten.

Irving Petraszewski was a man of many skills and interests. He worked for years in a local supermarket but was known throughout the area for his musical virtuosity on piano, organ and trumpet. He had been a student of Howard’s and joined the Army during WWII immediately upon his graduation. After his return, Irv picked up work with a variety of bands – small jazz combos and solo work on keyboards, polka and big band work on trumpet – and became a certified piano technician, a skill which he ultimately passed on to his son Jay. Owing to this wide range of musical experiences Irv had a great ear for harmony, clear tone and knew a huge library of standards and pop tunes.

Howard was insistent that we never be a “paper band”. He kept a small folded list of song titles which served as “our library” but we were never limited to that list (especially when a request came in from a colleague, friend or former student). We played a good number of annual fairs – Riverhead Country Fair, Sayville Chamber of Commerce Sale Days, East End Harvest Festival, Riverhead Sale Days. Howard would lead the band up and down the streets, stopping about every 40 yards to play another couple of tunes inspired by the surroundings or people. One favorite stop in Riverhead was at Star Confectionery – an old-fashioned luncheonette and ice cream parlor run by a Greek family – to play “Never On Sunday”. Another was at the local drugstore, where Howard would play “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” for the attractive women of the sales staff. They’d be sweet to the ever-charming Howard, and as we walked further he’d say, “Oh to be young and seventy again…”.

We played plenty of gigs as the Howard Hovey Trio.  Some particularly memorable ones:

  • Corporate entertainment at New York’s famed “21” Club
  • Annual 4th of July parties for the Kennedy/Smith family in the Hamptons
  • A swanky Park Avenue reception for UN ambassadors
  • A year as “house band” on the Peconic River Lady paddlewheel cruise boat
  • Over a year of weekly Friday night gigs at the Osborne Inn in Riverhead (with Irv moving to piano and adding John Klumpp on trumpet)
  • The funeral service for Ray Rienecker (“The toughest gig I ever played”, said Howard)

As I was writing this entry, I learned of the passing of John Randolph “Bunky” Hearst Jr. It brought back to mind that we played his 1989 wedding reception at the Post House in Southampton, where the Howard Hovey Trio alternated sets with a group headed by Bobby Van. All the guys in Van’s group knew Howard and pressed him to sit in for one tune with their band backing him up. Eventually Howard agreed, playing two brilliant choruses of “Stella by Starlight” and earning the respect and admiration of everyone in the room for his musicality.

Howard Hovey in his later years was a man with many memorable aspects: the distinctive bushy eyebrows, a remarkable and memorable tonal quality to his playing…and his little green tuba. It was a Conn E-flat which had been salvaged from certain fate as scrap metal, then left in the bilge of his boat (the “Oskaloosa Wonder”) until it achieved a distinctive green patina and visible pinholes through the upper bell. These unique features were supplemented by chronically leaky valves – Howard needed a small glass of water to blow through the instrument in order to seal the pistons adequately, sometimes creating small squirts during particularly enthusiastic passages. Author and commentator Shana Alexander dubbed it “The Etruscan Tuba”, and Howard loved to display it along with the beautifully gold-plated mouthpiece he used as well.

Ultimately the Auditorium at Pulaski Street School where Mr. Hovey taught and held court with the Monday Night Band was named in his honor. I recall the last time I saw him – at the local hospital where he was admitted for his final stay and where my wife Sherrie had just been admitted beginning her long battle with a malignant brain tumor. He left his final word to me just as he had encouraged us at so many street fairs over the years; thrusting his clenched fist up from his shoulder and out in front of him leading, “Onward!”

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