You hear them before you see them. The sound leads you to a small room tucked underneath the grandstands at Santa Anita Park racetrack. Track bugler Jay Cohen has assembled a quartet of trumpet players to perform at this year’s Breeders’ Cup. This is a 14-race, two-day festival featuring some of the finest horses in the world. It’s part of horse racing history and an honor to win a Breeders’ Cup race. It’s often called the “Super Bowl” of horse racing. Fashion! Celebrities! Glamour! Fabulous Food! Incredible races! Incredible athletes! And extremely talented professional musicians!
Normally Cohen works alone at Santa Anita delighting the crowds with “Happy Birthday” and other requests on his trumpet. For the Breeders’ Cup, it’s more pizzazz! Besides “Call to the Post,” there are fanfares and other musical interludes. Snazzy! Toe Tapping! Fun! Tight!
Music is laying on the tables and neatly spread out around the room. Cohen has raided his files looking for extra special fanfares for the quartet. The sound is bright and percussive. These guys are so good that you don’t even realize that they are sight reading some of the songs for the first time. They stop and work out some of the intricacies. “Let’s see what you have at measure 32. If we all played it, it could be a nice tag.”
Cohen counts off the beat and toes start tapping. They are friends and have played together for more than 20 years. It shows. They have that type of old friend lingo that musicians adopt. One might start a sentence, and another finishes the thought. Sometimes one of them wordlessly points to a note on the page and the other musician will nod. Whatever might have been the issue is now worked out.
The first piece they tackle is “Something is Gonna Happen Cuz I Can Feel It.” Once played, they tackle it again. It’s complex. They work it over and it’s almost performance ready. They move swiftly from song to song. “Are we playing this note short or shorter? It’s marked long. I feel it’s short.” BAM! Done! Next!
Cohen produces an arrangement of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He had mentioned earlier how excited he was to add this to their repertoire. One player looked at it and instantly said “I like it!” Cohen instructed them to not take any retards and to play it like it was sung. The first chords make you tingle. It’s fantastic and you start hearing the words in your brain. “Easy come, easy go, little high, little low.” They decide that it needs to go a little quicker. Jay smiles and says, “I think this is a winner!”
It’s hard to sit still during their next number; “We Are the Champions.” The music makes you want to sway. It makes you want to sing! Goose bumps? Yes! A visceral reaction that I wasn’t expecting.
Now they are on the roll and working through possible numbers. The rich chords of “Over the Rainbow” transports you into another time and space. They stop again and swiftly work out the parts. Will they slow down the ending? They decide not to and then realize that they naturally slow down anyway and it sounds great.
Next! “Billy Goat Stomp” then onto “American Bandstand.” They keep trying different pieces as they decide who is playing horn Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 4. Majestic fanfares fit for a Hollywood epic movie then onward to a jive. They can’t help it – their feet are tapping to the beat. “Did we speed up?” “I think it took off on us.”
The four trumpet players are all good friends who have performed together for decades. They know each other well enough to give each other flak. Rick Tyree is from Whittier, Calif., and teaches band at middle school. Bill Frazier is a retired teacher from Alta Loma, Calif. He taught music for 33 years. Kevin Brown is from La Canada, Calif., and is a part time college instructor at Pasadena City College.
Have you heard their work? Of course, you most certainly have! They each have lots of experience. Disney, Hollywood Bowl on movie night, movie scores (“Scream 1” and “Scream 2,” “Home Alone,” some of the “Mission: Impossible” movies), the 1984 Olympics and of course Santa Anita. This weekend they will don tuxedo pants and long jackets. They will bring a sense of royal celebration with their music.
There are two things they immediately agree on. Jay Cohen is the magician that puts the magic into their performances. Cohen is indeed a remarkable ambassador for horse racing. He is recovering from a recent bout of Bell’s palsy and credits his recovery to the support of his fans and Doc Severinsen.
They all laugh and say that “No trumpet player is ever satisfied with their trumpet and that they will talk ad nauseum.” This launches Cohen into the story of how he found his current beloved Yamaha trumpet.His buddies didn’t roll their eyes, but they had heard the story before and were all nodding their heads and smiling.
During their short break, they launched into a discussion of lip balm. It’s excessively dry in California right now and the last thing a trumpet player needs to deal with is chapped lips. This is indeed an issue because they don’t want to leave a residue on their instruments. The choices were as independent and personal as their individual tastes.
They turn back to the music and unite as one again. Four unique personalities. Four instruments. Four amazingly talented professional musicians instantly meld into a single powerful performance. Walking into the night, I stopped to visit the Seabiscuit statue in the walking ring. Santa Anita is shrouded in silence. One feels the ghostly presence of history when the grandstands are empty in the darkness of the night. Then, I heard them. The four trumpets filled the sky with the bright promise of excitement and celebration. They bring pageantry to the purple and gold festooned racetrack celebrating all that is great in horse racing. Suddenly the sky wasn’t so dark. It held the promise of tomorrow with the joy of music. It was perfect!