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Jazz master Fred Radke and Big Band Director Chris McCourry dueled with their trumpets on Friday night. Stephen Smith | Courtesy

Fred Radke has lived his whole life on stage, with Gina Funes, his scatin’ soprano spouse, and his two favorite trumpets at his side. So he knows what a good performance takes: “Power. Soul. Passion.”

Radke’s lifelong tour dropped him off at the Howard Music Hall last week after he accepted an invite from his good friend Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, over this past summer. He shared two days with the Hillsdale College Big Band, and gave their chops a thorough workout. In rehearsing the band on Feb. 9 and performing with them on their Feb. 10 concert, the renowned trumpeter and director of the Harry James Orchestra taught the group a thing or two about jazz.

“Working with Radke was crazy because he’s the epitome of a professional musician,” senior trumpet player Conor Woodfin said. “He doesn’t expect perfection, but that’s his standard.”

Guys like Radke keep their expectations high for a reason—they’ve been to the top, and they worked hard to get there. Radke spent his career jamming with the greats: Anita O’Day, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, The King Family, and Ella Fitzgerald, to name a few. He joined multiple tours with his idol and mentor Harry James, a revered trumpet player from the heyday of the big band era—“Performing with Harry was like getting a trumpet lesson every night,” he remembered. Years later, he took over the band when it launched its anniversary tours. That’s the gig he’s got now.

While his stunner of a resume explains Radke’s preference for excellence, the stories he fires off account for his persona.

Like the mid-tour flat tire that had him and Gina hiding under a bush: “We’re driving in the north of Thailand, and this is in 1966, so you can imagine how rural and how rough everything is over there.”  

Under the cover of foliage and dirt, the couple watched a local farmer slide down from his perch atop an elephant’s head to help their chauffeur fix their flat.

Then there was the time when he popped an Ambien sleeping pill he eyeballed as a Sudafed moments before curtain and played an entire show in a sedated state of drowsy delirium. But that, that’s nothing compared to the night one of his guys took a breather backstage and leaned against  a lever that unleashed the auditorium’s sprinkler system onto an audience in black-tie formal wear: “I opened my eyes and we were in a shower! The first three rows were getting drenched!”

“God, there’s so many stories.”

Radke’s had a lifetime of this stuff, of swinging and schmoozing, and now he’s making sure the next generation of jazz can take its turn under the spotlight. He says he can teach anyone to perform—it’s all in the attitude.

“If you are convincing with what you do, you’re going to have the audience react to your performance. If you are not convincing, then your audience might not react,” Radke said. “I think when you’re performing you have to make sure you’re in shape physically, mentally, and endurance- and technique-wise. Serious musicians practice everyday. In a way, that shows you what level of performance you should try to achieve.”

Radke kicked off the big band’s boot camp with a repertoire overhaul. Prior to, the ensemble had a fortnight to master seven spanking-new charts, as their performance with this world-renowned cat loomed overhead. Then the cat himself arrived on scene. With showtime only a rehearsal away, he passed out two new charts from his band’s personal library. The snappy turnaround proved a good lesson, though.

“The band learned in the real world you get less than a week to prep,” Hillsdale College Big Band Director Chris McCourry said. “It was a great reality check.”

So that’s where he took the Big Band next. After he had the band’s setlist to his liking, Radke moved on to teach skillful musicianship and persuasive showmanship, two elements of a great performance. For Radke, those are lessons best taught by example.

“I believe this: A band is as strong as its leaders,” Radke said. “If I expect my trumpet players to play a certain way, to play aggressively, then I do it. I have to be able to do it. I don’t expect anybody to be able to do something that I can’t do. When you portray that to students, they say ‘Wow, this guy really plays…We better do our homework.’”

For young players, this homework means listening to jazz greats, “the champion players,” and imitating their style and technique, habits Radke stresses. Radke said he spent his formative years spinning records by trumpeting giants like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. It’s easier nowadays: YouTube lets students study whomever they like.

“Young players have an opportunity to watch these cats,” Radke said. “You take your style and their styles, and you put it in a big barrel and mix it all up, and you take it out and that’s your style. You’re influenced by everyone.”

Eventually, though, players jump from practice to performance, and that’s what Radke knows best.

“I’ve never seen someone that looked so comfortable performing,” Woodfin said. “The stage is his home. His entire life is there.”

Radke said a good musician will play with conviction and with feeling. Otherwise, he’ll never convince his audience to participate in the music. When the closing soloist sends his final phrase forth, the art of performing is always in power, soul, and passion.