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For a child navigating the uneasy interval of pre-adolescence, few things can guarantee nerd status like the decision to join the school band. All that lugging of equipment and shameless practicing is enough to crush the coolness out of any child who's unlucky enough to pursue musical knowledge.
Darren Kramer understands this. He took up the decidedly unpopular trombone at the age of eight while growing up in Erie, Colorado. Kramer heard his share of "geek" comments about it, from elementary school on up. "I didn't hang around too many football players," he says, laughing.
More than twenty years later, all music-dweeb jokes are on his former snickering classmates. Although trombonists are famously underpaid and hard-pressed to find steady work, Kramer has ridden the slide bar of his beloved brass instrument to life as a gainfully employed -- and prosperous -- player. He's done the type of high-paying, hipster gigs most Denver minstrels only dream of, from cruise ship and Vegas circuits to full-time touring with Tom Jones and Matchbox 20.
"Yeah," Kramer says, "I guess it pays off to do what they tell you and stick with it. It's so true what they say: Just do what you like and good things will happen. Playing with the Rolling Stones would be the only upgrade I can think of."
These days, however, Kramer is in the throes of a major, self-inflicted career change that, on the surface, looks like a backward move. He's traded in the touring life for a local address and the dream of building the ultimate, horn-powered Denver band: the new Darren Kramer Organization. "When I was on the road, I was always saying, 'I like the money, I like the traveling, this band's good.' But it wasn't filling my personal desire. I thought, 'How am I going to make myself happy? I'm going to choose the music. I'm going to choose who is in the band. If the members aren't cutting it, I'm going to go with somebody else who is the quality I want.'"
The ten-piece DKO performs locally, playing a mix of dance-friendly R&B, jazz and accessible club-crowd pleasers. DKO enlists area players, including vocalists Jennifer Burnett and Jym Britton, trumpet/flugelhorn player Peter Olstad (who still plays with Tom Jones) and Kramer's sister, Dawn Kramer, a trumpeter. The band honks and romps through familiar and obscure dance covers by artists such as Michael Jackson, Miami Sound Machine, George Benson, Chicago and Tower of Power; the Orchestra also plays numerous Kramer-penned tunes. "We play originals, funk, jazz, salsa and neglected retro covers," Kramer says. "Things that I've heard other bands do, but they don't have horns; they have some cheesy synth sound, or they don't do the songs right."
Doing things right is Kramer's main goal with DKO.
"I see bands with horns, and the horn players are kind of college age, or it's a thrown-together thing. It's still a glorified garage band, and the quality's not there. I think Denver needs something like this. There haven't really been too many groups that have tried to do something this big."
The difficulty of finding -- and paying -- skilled musicians might account for the modest horn sections found in many local combos. So far, Kramer's reputation has helped him overcome those hurdles and lure top-notch talents who also value excellence over commercial returns. "Everyone wants to scale down because of money concerns," he says. "But I'm not going for money; I'm going for quality. And as a side note, I'm going to get money. I just know it's going to work, because it's so good."
Quality has been a constant in Kramer's musical life. His father was a saxophone player who graduated from the University of Colorado-Boulder with a degree in music theory and composition. Kramer's dad earned a living transcribing music manuscripts. His mom played and taught piano, teaching Darren the instrument when he was a toddler. Kramer took up the trombone to accompany his older, sax-blowing brother, partly because he was intrigued by the instrument's slide-bar feature. "By seventh grade, I already knew that's all I liked. I knew that was all I was going to be doing," he recalls.
Kramer's vision crystallized while he was in seventh grade, when Alan Wise (a local trumpet player who once played with Maynard Ferguson) visited his school for a clinic and was wowed by the thirteen-year-old Kramer's chops. Wise informed Kramer's folks that he was something of a prodigy who deserved support, and Kramer's parents took the advice to heart. So did Kramer. While enrolled at Skyline High School, he became a McDonald's High School All-American trombonist and a star among the state's horn players. After graduating in 1987, he entered the music program at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, where he earned a dual degree in classical and jazz music before graduating in 1993. (He skipped his commencement ceremony to tour with a Broadway production of Sophisticated Ladies.)
Once he was out of school, Kramer assumed the vagabond lifestyle that full-time tromboning required.
"You gotta go to where the gigs are," he notes. His first steady work came playing on cruise ships for two years. "It's the best way to travel; I recommend it to anybody. You get free room and board; you only have to play between two and four hours a day; you live on the ship and get to go into port just like the passengers do. It's a really good life. I've been all around the Mediterranean and all around Asia playing trombone -- pretty cool."