Cover photo © 2022 Laura Carbone
If you love Jump Blues, St. Louis Blues, West Coast Blues or Memphis Blues you know what an integral part the horn section can be to accomplish the desired sound. In contemporary blues it seems like there are many saxophone players who achieve recognition, but when it comes to the blues trumpet, only one name always seems to be on the top of the list, and that name is Doug Woolverton. Blues Blast Magazine had the opportunity to catch up with Woolverton in between rehearsals with the Bender Brass (in preparation for the Big Blues Bender) and he described his early introduction to music.
“My father is a musician and plays Hammond organ, trumpet, bass and is a vocalist. That’s where I got my musical abilities. He was a full-time musician touring the New Jersey area, but once he got married and had children, he was forced to switch careers. It’s a tough industry if you are trying to raise a family. He became a Methodist pastor and would play piano and trumpet in church and direct the choirs. But he would also still have some band rehearsals, so I got to hear some of the greatest players in New York and New Jersey. I credit my father for introducing me to influential artists at a very young age. He also tried to teach me the trumpet and piano, but it didn’t work. I wasn’t interested. It’s hard to learn from your own family, so I said I’ll figure it out, and I taught myself the trumpet and the electric bass just by listening to recordings of people. I probably played bass more in my early years. I bought a bass at age ten and my father said he would buy me an amp if I took it seriously, so I did.”
“I would listen to music and learn the bass line by ear. I did that with the trumpet too. I had a good ear, and my father had a Dixieland Band that would rehearse at the church right next to our house. I initially practiced my trumpet into the cushion of the pew so they couldn’t hear it, but I would move closer each week, until they realized that I had learned all of their songs and they asked me to join them for a couple of gigs. I heard Louis Armstrong did the same thing—put himself within earshot of great bands to learn.”
Woolverton’s good ear didn’t help him, however, when he tried to get a trumpet scholarship for college because they insisted that those scholarship recipients read music. In addition, while his ability to teach himself was impressive, he realized he had to work hard to ‘unlearn’ bad habits due to his lack of instruction. It was only with a degree of self-discipline and perseverance that was quite unusual for his age that he was able to achieve his dream.
“If I could hear something once, I could retain it and play it, but when I went to my college audition, I had to sight-read music. They put music in front of me and I said I couldn’t read it. They then asked me if I could do anything else, and I told them that I played bass. I got a scholarship on bass—they wouldn’t give me a trumpet scholarship. But I had gone to Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota specifically to study with their trumpet teacher, Dr. Grant Manhart. He had just moved to South Dakota, so even though I was accepted at some great universities, I chose to stay there and learn from him. I had a goal and knew what I wanted. At that time, I was playing bass in a country band while attending school, but my GPA was dropping pretty low due to constant touring. He told me I needed to sell my bass. He asked me, ‘Do you want to be good on two instruments, or great on one? You have so much work to do on the trumpet’. ”
“It turned out I had the wrong embouchure, which is the placement of your jaw and lips in relation to the trumpet mouthpiece. I was playing it more like a clarinet. When I tried to do it correctly, I couldn’t even get a sound to come out at first. So, I did sell my bass and started practicing 10-12 hours a day for nearly four years with my best friend and fellow trumpeter, Brooks Bowman. For two and one-half of those years we never missed a single day except for Christmas Day. For the first full year I was only able to get two notes to sound correctly, but I stuck with it, and then entered the National Trumpet Competition.”
“I made it to the top seven in the Nation, and the best part was wearing the name tag with South Dakota on it. None of the judges knew much about that university, so they were all curious about it. I entered each year after that and to this day I am the only trumpet player who made it three years to the top ten trumpet players in the country. Later I was asked to attend the International Trumpet Guild (ITG) to talk to the students, and I had found this stairwell in which to practice. I heard a voice joking that I was in his practice room, and it was Doc Severinsen. He said he didn’t want me to stop, he wanted to play with me because he loved my sound, so we practiced together for two days. He invited me to go on tour with him.”
After graduation, Woolverton was about to begin a job playing trumpet on a cruise ship when his girlfriend at the time asked him to come to Rhode Island to sell tickets at the mansion where she worked. He mentioned it to his trumpet teacher and was surprised at the response that he received.
“He said ‘get your ass to the East Coast and network, network, network!’ I did and got my feet in the door very fast and being in Rhode Island eventually led to me getting the gig with Roomful of Blues. I was the youngest member of the band and I found I was being compared to the prior trumpet player who had been in Roomful of Blues for 20 years and who had passed away. I wanted to show my respect for him, but I also owed it to myself to be myself. It took me about a year to really get comfortable, to stretch out.”
“The first month I had one week to learn 156 songs, and we almost immediately went to Portugal. We were traveling everywhere. One time we were opening for Buddy Guy and a man came up to me after our set to say he liked the way I played, but I felt pressured to get our equipment off the stage since we only had fifteen minutes to do so, so I wasn’t able to talk to him. One of the band members said, ‘do you realize you just blew off Robert Plant?’ I didn’t recognize him. Luckily, I was able to catch him later and explain.”
Woolverton has had many opportunities to be grateful that he finally learned to read music.
“One of my first gigs out of college was playing a show with the Temptations. I had to sight-read the whole show. The same thing happened with Aretha Franklin. I got a call to play her show, for about ten thousand people, and I wasn’t going to do it because there was no time for a rehearsal, but my girlfriend, Shari (Puorto) convinced me to do it. I literally had to sight-read the entire show. I went from someone who couldn’t read music and was discouraged by the music faculty to even play the trumpet, to being asked to play for Aretha and sight-reading the entire show perfectly. Also, it was her birthday, so I ended up getting to play her happy birthday on the Trumpet. It was an experience I will never forget.”
Woolverton’s self-discipline, perseverance and goal setting continued through his years playing with Roomful of Blues.
“I remember one thing that was told to me was to write a five-year plan for where you want to be, and to dream big. I remember writing that I wanted a really nice car, an Armani suit, to play in front of 50,000 people, to be on a record, and to have a million dollars. Before the five years was up, I had checked off everything, including the million dollars, although I didn’t keep it. I had been asked to fly back to be part of this fundraiser, raising money for the marching band at college. I was their featured artist at this wealthy man’s house. By the end of the night, I was playing trumpet and my trumpet teacher was playing flugelhorn for this man, and he thought it was really cool. He wanted to get to know me better and asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I wanted to be as wealthy as him, and I wanted to make the money playing the trumpet. I told him I planned to find a wealthy investor to invest in me for five years. I wanted the person to invest a million dollars and let me live off the interest for five years so I could focus on the trumpet without having to get other day-jobs. He said, ‘let’s have our lawyers talk in the morning’ and I said I didn’t have a lawyer, so he took out his checkbook and wrote me a check for a million dollars.”
“I got butterflies in my stomach and got nervous and couldn’t take it. He kept sliding it back to me and finally said ‘last chance’ and ended up ripping it up. Within a year he had passed away from an illness and had no family to inherit his wealth. I believe he knew he was dying and planned for me not to have to give back the million dollars. When the universe comes to you, you have to be mentally prepared to just accept it sometimes. It will come when you least expect it. It was life-changing for me.”
That was not the only time that the universe seemed to fulfill Woolverton’s dreams.
“One time I needed a flugelhorn and didn’t have one. I asked a friend of mine if he happened to have any old flugelhorns lying around. He said I’ll be in Newport tomorrow and he gave me this amazing super-expensive flugelhorn that is silver-plated. It plays amazingly well. I said it was more than I could afford, and he said the Boston Pops had gone to gold lacquer and he couldn’t use it anymore, so he gave it to me. Another time I needed a trumpet with a more commercial sound, so I put something on Facebook and a guy gave me an amazing trumpet for free.”
Woolverton’s work in Roomful of Blues catapulted his career and he was asked to become a band member of Victor Wainwright and the Train. He is also asked to play each year as part of the Bender Brass at the Big Blues Bender. Jimmy Carpenter (musical director of the Big Blues Bender) noted, “Finding Doug Woolverton and inviting him to join the Bender Brass has turned out to be one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. Not only is he a brilliant, creative, and hardworking musician, he is a beautiful human being, and a pleasure to be around. I cannot imagine doing a Bender without him!”
“Horns are considered an added bonus, so when you are adding horns to a band you have to stand out twice as much. You’re the auxiliary, not the necessity of the band. But Victor had a vision. He sees what it brings to the band and made us regulars. Jimmy (Carpenter) did too. I feel blessed in my career to be around Roomful, Victor, and the Bender Brass because of what we are bringing to the blues. Plus, we are all friends and want the best for each other.”
Woolverton was featured in an episode of the PBS series entitled Postcards which focuses on the arts, history and cultural heritage of Minnesota, and that episode has now been nominated for an Emmy Award. He has also taken on some unique projects, including a show that is a tribute to Miles Davis. In addition, he and his girlfriend, (fellow musician Shari Puorto), collaborated on a blues CD for children.
“One time a family came up to me after a show and their twelve-year-old daughter wanted to play trumpet. I asked her who she listened to and found out she had never heard of the name Miles Davis. A lightbulb went off in my head that the younger generation will never know the greatest icons in music if we don’t help young kids keep these names alive. It triggered me to start this Mile Davis tribute idea based on his Kinda Blue album. He did so much for music. I just want to put his sound out there. I love being a visionist—creating shows and putting musicians together. I started this Miles Davis show and it was insanely successful. After the first show, the next one sold out six weeks before it started. Then I wanted to turn it into a classier event, so with the help of my dear friend, Graham Mellor, we booked it at a theater and designed backdrops for the show—a whole production. I do it twice a year now.”
“Regarding the children’s CD, Shari (Puorto) had always wanted to do a children’s record, so I said, ‘let’s do it’ and she and I wrote twelve songs. I started reaching out to other musicians, like Chris Vachon and Tommy Castro, and everyone said they would love to be on it. COVID had happened so a lot of them had time at home. John Nemeth sent us 25 takes of his song, so we could pick the exact style we wanted. Shemekia Copeland had us come to her house and she made us dinner. It was a really awesome time. Everyone was so supportive.”
“It’s called Lightning’s Lessons: Learning Through Music, and we decided to create a book to go along with it and asked Derek Levoy, (Vanessa Collier’s bass player at the time), to do the illustrations. It ended up being very well-received and they sell it at the blues museum in Memphis. It’s also special to me because my son is singing on it. Shari had a vision and we worked as a team. It was a really special team, and the music is being played by some of the greatest blues all-stars out there today!”
Woolverton also has his own CD that is about to be released, although he almost left music altogether.
“When COVID hit I was broke, and I was thinking I had spent my entire life working really hard for this profession, and now I couldn’t make money at it. It was very difficult, and I felt angry. I quit music, stopped playing for ten months, and wasn’t going to go back to it. Shari and my friend, Graham, told me that I had a gift and couldn’t quit, and I should write songs. So, we did a Go Fund Me to raise money for the album and I started writing songs. I feel like I reset and have a different mentality now. It’s fun again.”
Listeners frequently admire the purity of Woolverton’s tone and note that he seems to have a certain charisma when playing. He tried to explain what they might be hearing.
“When people envision the trumpet, they tend to think of an ear-piecing sound. I try to make it an inviting sound, not a laser beam. I want a big sound, but I want it to be warmer, with charisma. There’s a purity to it. Like if you drop a rock in the water and the ripples go out. I want the overtones to go out that far. I want it to be robust and beautiful. It can bring tears to your eyes.”
In addition to his beautiful tone, Woolverton’s likeable personality also is evident, particularly in his gratitude for life’s opportunities.
“Life has been really cool. I’ve met amazing people through music. I never take a day for granted. There is a line across the country of people who helped me get where I am today, and I’ll never lose my gratitude and appreciation for them.”
You can find out more about Doug Woolverton, including his schedule and news about his upcoming album, at https://DougWoolverton.com. Information about his children’s CD/book with Shari Puorto can be found at Lightning’s Lessons (lightningslessons.com).
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