Times Past

This SLO swing band leader is about to take his final bow

Jack Pierce, center, performs with JP’s Swing Band at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo in 2014.
Jack Pierce, center, performs with JP’s Swing Band at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo in 2014.

Jack Pierce wanted an unusual 13th birthday gift: $50 for the audition fee to join the American Federation of Musicians.

He acquired his first musical instrument, a clarinet, at about six or seven. The advantage of the clarinet was that he didn’t have to have large fingers to cover the holes. By junior high, Jack also played the piano, flute and saxophone.

Jack’s family moved to San Luis Obispo in 1944. His father had told him about the 5-mile road sloping into San Luis Obispo.

“Imagine my surprise when we arrived in town, past the Motel Inn and on down Monterey Street,” Jack recalled. “I asked my dad where the 5-mile-long hill was, and he said that we had ‘just come down the Grade.’ 

Jack met Carl Loveland, the legendary junior and high school band leader. Carl encouraged him to become a member of the musicians’ union.

Jack’s father gave him the $50 adution fee for his birthday so he could work alongside Carl as a professional musician.

Jack’s first gig was the next night in the basement of the Mormon church on Broad Street that later served as Springfield Baptist Church. (It has recently been beautifully restored as a private residence.) Jack earned $10 plus tips for three hours of work. That was great money for 1945.

“My high school band leader played first alto sax, the orchestra leader played piano, and the truant officer was in the trumpet section,” Jack recalled.

There were lots of paid venues for musicians’ union members in San Luis Obispo County during and after World War II — especially in bars, which, in those days, were required to serve food and admit families. San Luis Obispo was surrounded by military installations, and the enlisted men and officers provided a market for live music.

Playing mainly on weekends, Jack was soon earning more than his father did as a salesman in an 8-to-5 job. He insisted on repaying his dad for the union fee.

Jack played with The Dreamers, a group of teenage musicians. He also played with Al Thorne and Joe Rose at Pismo Beach’s famed Rose Garden. The venue featured wrestling on Tuesdays, occasional boxing matches, some country western bands from Bakersfield, and dancing to big bands on the weekends.

The summer that Jack turned 14, he saw an ad for a sax player in DownBeat magazine. Jack was hired “sight unseen, sound unheard,” he said. He caught a train to Denver to met Bob Calame and his band and went on the road with them.

During that summer, Jack acquired many “survival skills for being on the road,” he recalled. “The old guys in the band looked out for me and kept me from a lot of dumb decisions.”

Then Jack returned to San Luis Obispo High School. He was hired immediately by Jack Hathaway’s Music Masters and continued to perform with smaller Dixieland groups.

The following summer, Jack went back on the road with Calame’s band, traveling throughout the Midwest on one-nighters. The pattern continued until 1949 when Jack graduated. He traveled to New York, getting a job playing the Mini-Borscht Belt in the Poconos in a quintet. The group was hired by a cruise line to play on a ship sailing to Ireland, the United Kingdom and Bremerhaven in then-occupied Germany.

Jack and his friends took their pay and headed to Munich where they passed the auditions and were enrolled in a conservatory run by the prestigious Munich State Opera.

Over the past 20 years, Jack has conducted JP’s Swing Band on the last Saturday night of each month at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo.

On Saturday, Nov. 26, Jack Pierce will conduct JP’s Swing Band for the last time at the Madonna Inn ballroom. Come listen and you’ll want to swing to Glen Miller’s “In the Mood.”

We will follow Jack to the ruins of post-war Germany and back to San Luis Obispo in future columns. We will resume the saga of Vietnam War veteran Louis Mello II and his family next Sunday.

Dan and Liz Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.

JP’s Swing Band

7 to 11 p.m. Saturday

Madonna Inn, 100 Madonna Road, San Luis Obispo

805-543-3000 or www.madonnainn.com