Mozzarella’s Band

January 23, 2012 at 10:08 pm (Uncategorized)

During my junior year in high school I became interested in joining the Our Lady of Good Counsel marching band. My Dad and Uncle Dinnio Oliveri were already members, and I had often enjoyed watching them play in local parades and concerts. When I was about ten, Dad tried to get me to learn piano, but I was more interested in playing baseball. Later I took a few snare drum lessons, but they didn’t do a whole lot of good. You have to understand that I was probably the worst musician ever to try out for the band. The Good Counsel members were first-rate musicians, with one notable exception, of course. But I hoped to offset that by being a pretty good marcher. Hey, my playing may have been terrible, but at least I could look sharp doing it.

Now that I think of it, my lack of musical skills is a bit surprising. Almost everyone in my family played at least one instrument. In fact, we even had one of those ancient upright player pianos in our basement along with a good supply of music rolls that resembled old window shades. You could insert one into the big black piano and then sit at the keyboard pretending to play while laughing uproariously as the badly-tuned instrument belted out some sour melody. Maybe that experience had more of an influence on my embarrassing music career than I care to admit.

Anyway, the ranks of the Our Lady of Good Counsel band were dominated by the Mazza family, hence its unofficial secondary name, “Mazza’s Band”. In more humorous moments, we referred to it as “Mozzarella’s Band”. John and Ralph Mazza served as conductors, with Frank Mazza Sr. on trombone, Frank (Butch) Mazza Jr. on trumpet, Mike Mazza on bass drum and a host of additional Mazza family members on various other instruments. My Dad played French horn and Uncle Dinnio was a drummer, which is what I aspired to be.

The band rehearsed every Wednesday night at the American Legion Hall on Wanser Avenue in Inwood, NY. For my first rehearsal, I sat between Uncle Dinnio and Mike Mazza in the percussion section. Uncle Din showed me how to follow the music, and would silently count out the rests for my benefit. I could read a little music, but I relied on him to keep me on track.

We laughed a lot in those days, especially when someone hit a sour note. Uncle Din would start giggling, and before you knew it, the whole band was in an uproar. When the musicians rose to leave at the conclusion of the final number, Uncle Din always shouted, “One more!” Sometimes John or Ralph Mazza would humor him and let us play an additional song.

For parades the band members wore white dress shirts, black slacks, and white hats. Later we switched to tailor-fitted blue uniforms with matching caps. They were actually quite snazzy. My first parade was a firemen’s tournament in Oceanside, NY. As would become our habit, Dad, Uncle Din and I arrived early and found a diner where we had breakfast before forming up at the assembly point.

There were thirty-five musicians that day. The number varied from week to week depending upon who was available, but that was about average. We lined up in seven rows of five. The percussion section made up the last row. I occupied the middle spot between the cymbals player and my godfather, Uncle Din, so he could keep an eye on me. Joe LaRocca was the drummer on the outside. When we were ready to step off, Ralph Mazza, who was in the row ahead of us, called out “On the drums!”

We began belting out a 2/4 beat. Ralph grimaced and covered his ears. The band had never used three snare drummers before, and we were making quite a racket. As we started to move off, Ralph again called out “Roll off!” That was the signal for the band to begin its first number.

Our signature march was “National Emblem” (“Oh, the monkey wrapped his tail around the flagpole”). When people saw us coming down the street and heard that song, they knew immediately that it was the Good Counsel Band approaching. This morning the crowd lining the street started clapping and cheering before we even came abreast of them. I thought we sounded fantastic. The stirring music sent goosebumps down my spine and made me stand a little taller as we marched along. Even now, writing this so many years later, I still find myself sitting up straighter in my chair at the thought.

But I soon realized that I had made a serious tactical error. Since this was my first parade, I didn’t know that most snare drummers protected themselves from the constant pounding of the drum against their thighs with leg guards. Uncle Din didn’t use one, so it never occurred to me to do so. By the time we got to the end of the line of march, my leg was swollen, red, and sore. The next day I had a bruise the size of a cantaloupe on my thigh. It kind of looked like I had been run over by a horse (which would actually happen years later. See “The Pets from Hell”).

But despite the pain, I couldn’t get enough of parading. The band participated in probably a dozen parades that year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and I made every one of them. To make matters even better, we were paid a small stipend for each job, usually between six and ten dollars. The band accrued these payments and issued one check at the conclusion of the season. That was certainly a nice bonus for doing something I enjoyed so much.

One time we had too many drummers, so I borrowed a French horn from Dad and marched the full length of the parade pretending to play it. Naturally, I positioned myself at the end of the row so I could check out the girls along the line of march, and hopefully they would do the same to me. I can’t recall now if that actually worked, but it was fun at the time.

Our last parade that year was the New York State Fire Tournament in Hicksville on Labor Day. That parade was so large we were able to play for three different fire departments, one near the front of the parade, one in the middle and one near the end. After completing our march, we hopped on a bus that transported us back to the beginning where we started off again. By the end of the day we were pretty well spent from traversing the parade route three times. But we were all financially better off as well, with credit for three separate jobs in the books.

That year there was a band competition after the parade to determine who played the best music. Our biggest rival back then was Bill Dayton’s Freeport Fire Department band. We considered them the strongest challengers to our chances. As luck would have it, we were the first to perform, followed by Dayton’s group.

The competition took place in a large field, with the judges in the stands at one end. We had to march to the middle of the field, swing around toward the judges, play our one number, and then march off. When Ralph Mazza gave us the signal, the drummers set a brisk beat and we moved out into the open grass. We paused there briefly before beginning our presentation of, naturally, “National Emblem March”. As we finished and marched off to loud applause, I felt we had done quite well. But we had to wait for another dozen groups to compete before we learned the final results.

I thought Bill Dayton’s red-clad band, immediately after us, did very well also. None of the other participants seemed to be in our class, but you never knew what the judges were looking for. When they finally announced their decision, we were named the winners, with the Freeport Fire Department placing second. We received a big trophy and a collective feather in our caps to end the marching season.

While the parades may have concluded for the year, rehearsals continued throughout the winter. Sometimes the drummers would goof around after concluding a number by continuing to play a march beat until the rest of the band joined in, ad libbing whatever music they felt like playing. We had much fun doing that.

We engaged in a lot of practical joking back then, much of it instigated by me. One time I bought a smoke bomb that you could hook up to the spark plugs on a car’s engine. When the driver turned the ignition on, the bomb would let out a piercing whistle and a huge cloud of smoke. I made a point of arriving late that night so I could wire the device to Frank Mazza’s car before going inside.

Well, after rehearsal, Dad, Uncle Din, and I rushed out to our car to wait. Frank came through the door several minutes later with three or four of the younger kids who needed a ride home. We chuckled expectantly as they all piled into the car. When Frank turned the key, the whistle went off with a deafening screech, and smoke poured from under the hood. All the car doors flew open, and kids scattered frantically in every direction. Frank stepped out of the car, glanced around, and saw us sitting there laughing hysterically. He glared at Dad and growled, “I know you did it, Augie!”

This was great! Here I had pulled off the stunt of the year, and I wasn’t even getting blamed for it! Hilarious!

Every summer, the parishioners of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church would parade the saint through the streets of Inwood during the Santa Marina Feast. Our band always preceded them, playing march music and Italian songs as we moved slowly along while people pinned money to the statue. One year Uncle Din couldn’t make it for some reason, and I had to play alone. My drumming was so bad that Ralph Mazza put his fingers in his ears and just shook his head. I laugh about it now, but I was pretty upset at the time that I wasn’t capable of doing better. The Good Counsel members were genuinely first-rate musicians… except for me, of course. It amazes me how one incompetent hack can sometimes make an entire band seem like a drum and bungle corps.

In September of 1963, I put my civilian marching program on hold to take up the military version at Fort Dix, NJ. It would be two years before I again donned the uniform of the Good Counsel band.

On the day I returned from Vietnam, Uncle Dinnio came by the house to see me. Now, Dad and I used to laugh at a story he often told about meeting a little old Italian man at a funeral. This gentlemen squinted up at him with one eye closed and muttered, “Don’j I know you?” The way Uncle Din told it with emphatic gestures and uncontrollable laughter never failed to break us up. But now when I answered the door and exclaimed, “Don’j I know you?” he immediately burst into tears. I guess I inherited some of his emotion, and I make no apologies for that.

My first band job after returning from overseas took place on Memorial Day, 1965, in the Lawrence/Cedarhurst parade while I was home on leave. The band was supposed to form up at the Lawrence railroad station. I was dating an attractive girl then who owned a convertible. Being the “skootch” that I was, I had her drive me to the spot where the band members were assembling, arriving fashionably late, of course, with the top down. As we pulled up right next to them, I could see eyes popping and jaws dropping at the sight of my buxom date in her low-cut blouse and Hollywood sunglasses.

I took my sweet time climbing out of the car, smoothing the wrinkles from my uniform, putting on my hat and removing the drum from the back seat while my fellow band members watched jealously. Someone started playing “Hail to the Chief” on his trumpet, and others quickly joined in until the entire band was blaring away. I strolled casually around to the driver’s side with a smug grin on my face and kissed my date good-bye as the perverts in the band hooted and whistled. I caught an awful lot of grief over that escapade, I can tell you, but, man, it was worth it!

Several years passed, and Dad and Uncle Din decided that the rigors of marching were becoming too much for them, so they stopped parading. Playing in the band didn’t seem quite as much fun anymore without them. Besides, I was married to Maureen by then, and we had two sons, Jimmy Jr. and Kenneth, to keep us busy. My days of playing in “Mazza’s Band” came to an abrupt end.

A few years ago, I took my granddaughter Alexandria and grandson Giovanni to see a firemen’s parade in Baldwin, NY. Glancing up the street, I saw a familiar-looking band approaching. When they broke into a rousing rendition of “National Emblem”, I knew right away that it was the Our Lady of Good Counsel Band. I began to applaud. The group was only about half the size of the earlier version I had played in, and I didn’t recognize a single face. But the sound was eerily similar to what I had known. The sharp rattle of the snares and boom of the bass drum in the heavy evening air combined to bring back many fond memories.

As I clapped in appreciation, I thought about Dad, Uncle Din, the Mazzas and so many other band members I had been privileged to share such great times with who were now gone. “Look, kids,” I said in a voice husky with emotion. “Here comes ‘Mozzarella’s Band!’”

They thought I was joking at first and began to laugh. Then as the band passed by, my very perceptive granddaughter peered up at me and asked, “Poppy, why do you have tears in your eyes?”

I brushed away some dampness from my cheek. “Just remembering some old friends, sweetheart,” I replied softly. “Just remembering some old friends.”

Alexandria put her hand gently in mine, and together we watched “Mozzarella’s Band” march briskly off down the road into the gathering dusk.

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14 Comments

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  4. Harvey Weiner, Dallas, TX said,

    Oh, the phenomenal memories you brought back. I played trombone with the Mazza Band in the mid to late 50s. We rehearsed then in someone’s Inwood basement. Though I was later voted LHS 1958 best musician I never felt as talented as the othe Mazza musicians. Thanks for the Blast From The Past.

    • yeeditor said,

      You’re welcome, Harvey! Glad you enjoyed it. Playing with the band was one of the highlights of my life.

    • CJ said,

      I recall a Joe Mazza indeed played baritone for Freeport Fire Dept.
      Band during the final years of that outfit under Ned Mahoney. Now who from the ‘parade circuit’ knew Bob Raynor of Freeport fame (lived in Merrick) and his dixieland group, who was hired by multiple Fire Depts. in the 1980s…

  5. Alessandro Pugliese said,

    Great story. Was wondering if you ever played with Frankie Sita (trumpet) in the band?

    • yeeditor said,

      Thanks, Alessandro. Of course I remember Frankie. We played together in the band for a number of years. In fact, he still plays for OLGC Band. I saw a photo of the group recently and Frankie was in it.

  6. Joseph Gargiulo said,

    Jim, Hi, Joe Gargiulo here (My uncles were the Mazza’s. My mother ran the fish store on Wanser Ave.). I really enjoyed reading this post of your. I found it looking for something else. Best wishes to you and your family.

    • yeeditor said,

      Hi, Joe! Glad you liked the story. It’s one of my favorites. Best wishes to you as well!

  7. Maralyn Derose said,

    I’ve been a friend of Frank Mazza Sr since working with the Pellegrino Band back in the 60’s! Frank is living in Tomball Texas and is Choir Director at his church. I found this article( by accident) and didn’t know these stories…How wonderful to read a new story about him. He and his lovely wife Margaret have all married children and many Grandchildren.. One of his sons is a doctor no less. I wonder if he’s still playing his trumpet too? Maralyn DeRose, Lutz, Florida formally from the Five Towns….

    • yeeditor said,

      Maralyn, I have tried several times to get in touch with Frank, but no luck. Last I heard they were living in Texas.

  8. Jackie Oliveri said,

    Love it!!! Great story!!! ♥️

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