‘Sewer pipe’ virtuosity has made Chicago’s Jimmy Pankow a Rock Hall of Famer



Members of the band Chicago, shown in posed formation. Bottom row, from left: Lou Pardini, Walt Parazaider, Jimmy Pankow, Tris Imboden Middle row, from left: Lee Loughnane, Jason Scheff, Keith Howland. Top row: Robert Lamm.

Sat, Jul 9, 2016 (11:30 a.m.)

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Smith Center for the Performing Arts President Myron Martin was one of the key figures in the production of “Idaho! The Comedy Musical,” which runs through July 17 at Reynolds Hall. Martin talks of the musical, co-written by renowned TV writer Buddy Sheffield (“In Living Color”) and “Jersey Boys” Music Director Keith Thompson, and why he decided the Smith Center should invest in the production.

Jimmy Pankow remembers when he was a kid, his head filled with dreams of being a great musician.

His instrument of choice? Drums.

His second instrument of choice? Sax.

His final, chosen instrument? Trombone.

How this went down:

“I guess it was kind of parental pressure,” says Pankow, the great trombonist for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame band Chicago, playing Pearl Theater at the Palms at 8 p.m. Saturday (for tickets, visit the Pearl box office, call 702-944-3200, visit any Ticketmaster location, call 1-800-745-3000 or click to ticketmaster.com. “My parents took me to tryouts for musical instruments in this church basement in Chicago. All the kids who wanted to be in band class were there, and I wanted to play drums. I was really enamored of the drums.”

Problem was, there were like 100 budding John Bonhams in that line.

“I was disheartened,” Pankow says. “So I got in the sax line.”

Same thing.

“I didn’t feel like standing in that line, either,” Pankow continues. “My parents, and the band director – who happened to be a trumpet player – led me to this other instrument. The band director says, ‘What about that thing on the table? Nobody is over there. Maybe try the trombone?’”

Pankow’s first response.

“I don’t know if I want to play that sewer pipe,” he recalls, laughing. “I didn’t think it would resonate with my friends the way guitar and drums would. That was my thinking – that the instrument was not even on my radar.”

That off-radar “sewer pipe” has become the instrument of great fame, acclaim and achievement for the still-aerobic, 68-year-old Pankow. He went home that day and began to find the methods of delivering sound from the legendarily odd-shaped horn. “I realized if I played that instrument, first chair, I would make a bigger impression quickly if only because of lack of competition.”

Pankow grew to appreciate great trombonists who were using the trombone in innovative way. “J.J. Johnson made the trombone kick,” Pankow says, referring to the influential jazz trombonist of what is known as the “post-swing” era. “When he came along, he gave the trombone a whole different quality and hipness.”

In 1967, Pankow was a charter member of The Big Thing, which would become the Chicago Transit Authority, the name famously shortened to Chicago to avoid a dispute with the governmental agency. Joining sax man Walter Parazaider and trumpet great Lee Lounghane, Chicago became the first “rock and roll band with horns,” the simple and accurate description that still holds true.

“When Chicago the band happened, we were the first rock band

"With an indigenous horn section that was not frosting on the cake,” Pankow says. “It became my job to inherit the task of just how that approach could be done. Here I am crafting horn arrangements for this new idea: A rock-and-roll band with this lead horn section. I wrote these arrangements, approached out horn section as a melodic voice better than just shots or riffs.”

The result: “If you take the horns out, there are holes,” Pankow says, adding with a chuckle, “Maybe, subconsciously, there was some job security involved.”

Deservedly (and as fans add, tardily), the band was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in in April, joining Cheap Trick, Steve Miller, N.W.A. and Deep Purple. A band or artist is eligible for induction 25 years after the release of its first single, and Chicago has been eligible since 1994 – and annually brushed aside until 2015. A strong push by Chicago’s still-dedicated fan base propelled the band to this exalted status, though former vocalist Peter Cetera threw a distraction into the planning by trying to bring his own band to the ceremony and to perform his own version of Chicago hits.

“Peter, sad to say, is still hard to work with,” Pankow says. “It’s an illustration of why he’s not in the band. We cut him loose because he became problematic, 30 years ago.”

For this performance at Pearl, expect all the Chicago anthems, including those played at the Rock Hall induction ceremony at Barclays Center of Brooklyn: “Saturday in the Park,” “25 or 6 to 4,” “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is?” The current lineup is Pankow, Loughane, Parazaider, along with Jason Scheff on bass and vocals, Tris Imboden on drums, Keith Howland on guitar and vocals, Lou Pardini on keyboards and vocals, keyboardist Robert Lamm and Walfredo Reyes, Jr. on percussion.

Chicago has toured every year for 49 years, and is in the process of developing a documentary, “Now More Than Ever: The History Of Chicago.” The band also just finished three shows over Independence Day Weekend with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

“We’ve amassed a lot of accolades and have a huge number of fans, still,” Pankow says. “And you know what else? The band is still slammin’.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow Kats on Instagram Instagram.com/JohnnyKats1.

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