Talks with Tim is a weekly Q&A by Tim Grobaty, who has been a columnist in Long Beach for nearly 50 years. If you’d like to suggest an interesting or influential person in Long Beach for this (unconventional) interview, reach him at [email protected].
Kurt Curtis is the musical conductor for the 40-piece Long Beach Municipal Band and the son of Larry Curtis, who led the band for 27 years. Kurt has also been a musician, director and entertainer at Disneyland for the past 38 years.
Tim Grobaty: How are you doing?
Kurt Curtis: I’m OK. Right now I’m reading “Music, Mayhem and the Mouse,” a book about Stan Freese [the father of Foo Fighters drummer Josh Freese]. He’s been the music director for Disney for decades. I started working at Disneyland in 1982 and I met him shortly afterward. He was the third director of the Disneyland Band and I was the sixth, so I learned a lot from him. He was a phenom at 14 playing the tuba.
Q: Well, “what are you reading” was going to be my next question, so let’s skip ahead. What do you listen to after work? I can’t imagine you putting on Sousa marches for relaxation.
A: I love pretty much everything. If I want to mellow out, I put on instrumental jazz things, from early jazz through the cool jazz of the 1950s and 60s.
Q: No rock? No death metal?
A: In terms of rock, I think I was a late bloomer, but around the age of 17 I started listening to pop music more and more. I loved classic rock. Peter Frampton was the first concert I went to in 1977. I like Earth, Wind and Fire, Boston, Kansas—a lot of different bands. I was a huge Chicago fan; Tower of Power, Blood, Sweat and Tears—anything with horns. I love Steely Dan, that “Aja” album is just incredible.
Q: How many horns do you own?
A: I think nine. Nine or 10.
Q: All trumpets?
A: All in the trumpet family.
Q: If you can play one kind of trumpet, can you play all of them?
A: Pretty much. They’re all fairly challenging. It requires more work on embouchure for a piccolo trumpet, which is a bit more of a specialized trumpet. Bach used it a lot, and you can hear a piccolo trumpet solo in “Penny Lane.”
Q: The Municipal Band plays a lot of the standards. Is there much you can do in terms of your arrangements of those pieces?
A: I don’t do arranging. I’m responsible for programming, so I’m always looking for music that’s published. Sometimes we commission things. This year Bill Liston who was in the Municipal Band and is now composer for the Pageant of the Masters gave us a 10-minute piece, and we commissioned Bruce Healey, a music producer at Disney, to do music to the poem “High Flight,” which was read by President Reagan after the Challenger disaster. And I juggle the themes of our performances around, which is a part of the job I love so much, the themes and songs that go with them.
Q: Musicians always say ‘Music is my life.’ Do you say that as well?
A: Absolutely, it’s my life. It’s in my DNA. I can’t imagine being anything else but a musician. My parents were both musicians. My dad played drums and my mother is a pianist. I’ve been around so many great musicians in my life, and many of them have been mentors of mine.
Q: Like your dad?
A: My father certainly was. He was so respected in the band scene. I was in the state honor band and he was the director, then I was at Long Beach State, where he was the director of bands and then I was in the Municipal Band for 25 years while he was director.
Q: Did you play any other instruments?
A: I started playing piano in third grade. My dad asked me what instrument I wanted to play and I said “drums,” and he said, “No, I’m the drummer in the family, pick something else,” so I chose trumpet because it always looked like the trumpet players in bands were having the most fun.
Q: Did the Municipal Band play at your school? They played at my school every year. Got us out of math glass, so I developed an appreciation for music that way. Did they play at your school?
A: No, I was born in Pueblo, Colorado. Both of my parents are from Texas, they met in high school and both went to East Texas State University, which doesn’t exist anymore. Dad was the band director and Mom was a church organist. Later, they moved to Arcadia where I grew up and went to school.
Q: Where do you get the biggest attendance for your concerts?
A: El Dorado draws the biggest crowds, but the shows we did at Marina Vista Park were also very popular because of the setting on the water. This year we had to move those shows because of the work being done on the Colorado Lagoon and Marine Stadium. We were disappointed we couldn’t play there this year, especially since the park is named after my dad.
Q: I’m sure you know the history of the band and that it used to play more than 365 concerts a year. Now you do a couple of dozen in the summertime.
A: Yeah, I’ve seen articles about the band playing 500 concerts a year, but I’m sure a lot of those were short appearances at gatherings like greeting ships coming to port and things like that.
Q: Now that you’re through with the summer concerts for the year, what do your musicians do in the off season?
A: They’re all fantastic musicians. We have members who play or have played with the LA Philharmonic and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, many play with the great jazz bands that are still playing, most of them play on movie sessions here and there, several go down to play at the Pageant of the Masters and many are music educators. Playing for the Long Beach Municipal Band is one of the most sought-after jobs around and all the musicians in town want to be a part of it.