Taking Life by the Horn
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."
Kramer's shipboard shows required the ability to play in various styles and a knack for getting along with other musicians in close quarters. Downtime on the ship also gave him chances to rehearse his instrument and improve his playing while bankrolling some money each month.
In 1994, Kramer resumed the landlubber existence when he followed a cruise-ship dancer to her home in Las Vegas. "I'd pick a casino a night," he recalls. "I'd go hang out and meet the musicians, sit in if I could and start compiling a list. Pretty soon, the gigs started happening." Within a year, he says, he was working every night of the week. In his fourth and last year in Vegas he had one to three gigs every day.
While playing casinos, Kramer encountered a former college classmate, a fellow horn player who was touring with Tom Jones. Kramer quickly invited the pal to participate on a disc he was recording in Vegas during his off hours. ("You can only drink and gamble so much," Kramer says.) Eventually released as the debut recording from the Darren Kramer Organization, the collection of eight instrumental songs covers a range of contemporary jazz and funk, highlighted by complex horn parts, heady progressions and occasionally dizzying compositions. The tunes (all written, arranged and produced by Kramer) stretch from the percolating power funk of "Turbulent Altercation" and "Fried Dough & Hops" to the atmospheric jazz rock of "Keep It Closed" to such smooth-as-Sade songs as "Give No Strength," and "1.1." It's a top-shelf collection, heady enough for fiends (a glowing testimonial from jazz great Michael Brecker graces the disc's cover) yet accessible enough for the KUVO crowd.
Kramer's connection with Jones's people led to other payoffs. In 1999, he was hired as part of the Tom Jones Band by another former Miami classmate who was working as Jones's musical director. Kramer's tour with Jones lasted until September of 2000.
"There's never an audition for the road gigs, the good gigs," Kramer says. "It's all who you know." Of the Jones job, he says: "It was great. [We had] an eleven-piece band, three background girl singers, world-class band, totally slamming." In addition to hits such as "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New Pussycat?" the band also stretched out on hard funk and R&B. Jones, Kramer notes, was a devoted entertainer throughout the band's 200 yearly dates in the United States, Australia, Japan and Europe.
"He's 100 percent professional, man. Always on time, does his thing full voice, full energy, going crazy and sweating his ass off -- every night. He's one of the few of that era that are still doing it, not for the money, but because he loves it." Jones was a nice guy to work for, too, Kramer says, a man who still thrills the ladies at the age of 61: "The panties are flying at every show -- everyone from eighteen to eighty."
Audiences were considerably less racy for Kramer's Matchbox 20 stint, which he secured in the fall of 2000 through a college roommate who helped discover and break the band. Kramer led a three-piece horn section that toured with Matchbox (and included his sister). He held the slot through spring of 2001, and during that time the group toured Australia and the United Kingdom, played the Tonight Show and Late Night With David Letterman, taped a VH-1 special and played numerous large venues.
But the Matchbox run left him hungry for more playing time; during the tour, Kramer played just four songs a night. "Tom Jones is still a little bit old-school -- the horns are integral," Kramer says. "The rock thing, it's all about guitars and vocals -- the horns were an extra thing. It was a different thing for your head: You're making the most money you've ever made, and you're on these famous shows, but you're not really playing that much. In a way, you feel like less of a musician."
That dissatisfaction led Kramer back to Colorado and his current status -- far removed from his days of consistent, direct-deposit paychecks and heavy doses of limelight. Today he's slogging through the hassles of leading a twelve-piece band while writing songs and honing his club act. "This is the hardest I've ever worked. I write arrangements and call people; that's what I do now," he says. The concept for his new act is simple: "I'm not going to do any sort of catering to any club or person. I just want to do the tunes I like."
DKO has done a handful of area shows and is now working on a new disc, which will feature the current lineup and Kramer's latest batch of songs. Last year, one of those compositions, "Not Far From Here," won honors in the nationwide John Lennon Songwriting Contest, an annual competition. (Kramer was also featured in a recent issue of Recording Magazine.) Aside from working with DKO, Kramer is playing trombone with Conjunto Colores and a few other horn acts.
In the meantime, he's hoping that his new group will lead to a rejuvenated interest in horn-oriented bands in the area. "All trends can be traced back to the leaders and the people who did it first," he says. "That's not my goal, but I would be very happy if that came true."
If that sounds like man tooting his own horn, so be it.
"I'm a fully educated musician," Kramer says, "and I've had a lot of success in my life. So why would this not work? Every other thing I've kind of wanted to do I've done, so this is the next huge step. It's proving to be challenging, and it's certainly not easy. But it's satisfying even if I'm not succeeding as much as I want. At least I'm working on my goal instead of obsessing about it."
Granted, pursuing that goal involves hard knocks and lower-paying work, much of which is far less glamorous than many of Kramer's previous jobs. But that reality isn't tarnishing his horn of plenty. "I have no money in my bank account," he adds, "and I'm happier than I've ever been."
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