Bob Knapp –trombone, euphonium
“It pays to be hopeful.”
I was born in Modesto in 1932 and my dad died when I was three in an automobile accident. My mother had three kids and no sign of support so we had to move in with my grandmother. She was over in Riverbank over ten miles away. I went through first grade in Riverbank and then my mother remarried and we had to move up into the hills to Groveland. We lived on a ranch about six miles out of town so it became a very rural upbringing for a while.
I was the youngest of the kids. We lived in Groveland but I couldn’t go to the Groveland school because our ranch was in Mariposa County and Groveland is in Tuolumne county. Mariposa County was another “metropolitan” area–Buck Meadows. There’s not much there. Brown’s Lodge used to be there and that was about it except during The Depression there was a CCC camp. I guess Roosevelt started that. My dad would drive in from the ranch to Groveland and then leave me off with the teacher and then I would ride with her the 11 miles to Buck Meadows.
The ranch was pretty hard scrabble, you might call it. My stepfather worked for the county. He drove road graders–a heavy equipment operator. The ranching was left to my mother, my brothers and I. Except my brother, the one that I dearly loved.
When my dad died, my father’s brother said to my mother, “Why don’t I take one of the boys and raise him and it will lighten the load.” Well, she evidently didn’t have anything to say about it so off he went. I didn’t see very much of him but he spent one year with us living on the ranch and going to Buck Meadows Grammar School. And it was just the best year of my existence. We had a great time. Boy, when my he had to go home that was heart wrenching. That was terrible.
We’d ride horses, feed the chickens, take care of the garden. I had my own horse.
It was very spare. We didn’t have a lot of things that kids had growing up. We had a telephone. It was called a farmer line. It went into town to the general store and they had a switchboard there and if you wanted to call someone you’d simply plug in the phone and you’d ring the bell and it would ring out there. If you wanted to call out you’d have to go and pour a bucket of water on the ground wire because it had to be grounded real well. I never used the phone so I didn’t know anything about it.
We had chickens; we had pigs. In fact my stepfather used to collect garbage from the CCC camp and the Oakland Recreation Camp and the Berkeley Recreation Camp and the San Francisco Recreation Camp. The San Francisco Camp was up near Hetch Hetchy Dam. I guess those places still exist. He’d collect garbage from them and we’d feed it to the pigs.
When we got up to the ranch someone unearthed a trombone and put it together. Nobody knew how to play it but we would go out and make noise on the porch. BEAAAHHHH! And all of the horses would run up to the porch and look. We thought, “Hey, that’s cool.” So we’d bring the cows up to the porch . . . AND the horses. So that was my early trombone lessons–how to call the horses. I’ve intended to take my euphonium out somewhere here and just park alongside the road and see who came up.
That went on until 1944, 45. I remember all the people on the main street of Groveland the day that the war was over and everybody was very happy about that, of course.
I never knew what went on between my mother and my stepfather because at that point she said, “We’re going back to Riverbank.” It was right after the War so we moved from Groveland back down to Riverbank and I went to 7th grade in Riverbank.
I started playing trombone in the first grade. And you can imagine what a scene that was because I couldn’t hold it up so we had a piano at home and a piano bench with a back that raised up so I would raise up the back of the piano bench and rest the slide on the back of the bench and then I could move it all right. But I couldn’t hold it up. I would play like that. When we moved up to Groveland we must have taken the trombone with us because that was all the lessons I had for the trombone. I never continued.
So we moved back to Riverbank and I ended the 7th grade there and I didn’t leave Riverbank until I went off to the army. I went to Oakdale High School. Riverbank didn’t have a high school then but they have one now. Got to be a big town, got its own high school. Oakdale High School was five miles away. And there I got into music because the music teacher had had my older brother. He was six years older than I was and when we moved over to Riverbank he started high school there and he played in the band. He was very musical and the music teacher remembered him.
For some reason he called my brother Charlie. His name is Edward but he called him Charlie. He played trumpet primarily. He learned to play piano all by himself. He couldn’t read music but he would play to accompany me. My mother had dreams of me being a rising star like Shirley Temple. And she had sheet music that Shirley Temple made famous. “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine” was one of her favorite songs. She figured I was going to go into music. I had to sing and Edward had to accompany me. She bought me a pair of tap shoes. She was insistent that I was going to be a tap dancing star. And I wanted nothing to do with it but I went through the lessons and I put on my tap shoes and I went through the drill and I guess she realized that this was hopeless. It disappeared. I never performed tap dancing. I used to sing because Edward would accompany me and I would sing for all kinds of things. But what I wanted to do was ride my bicycle, swim. I wanted to go to the swimming pool.
After high school went to Modesto Junior College. I was a music major. This music teacher I had in high school, something about him, he liked me. He thought I was great. I wasn’t. I never learned to read music. I played a baritone solo at my graduation and I remember he brought the music. We were practicing the band for graduation. He had the band there and it came time for me to play the solo. He had just given it to me recently and I had to memorize it . . . and I hadn’t memorized it. So he got one of the trumpet players, she was a fine musician, and she would play it so they could hear what it was going to sound like. So I played it at graduation. I don’t know what people thought of it.
Then I went off to Modesto to start my music education and I had a wonderful teacher there. Frank Mancini was his name and he had been a clarinet soloist with the Souza band. First class. (editor: Frank “Proof” Mancini was playing with the John Philip Sousa band in San Francisco at the Panama Pacific Exposition. He went to Modesto to play in the orchestra for the opening of the Strand Theatre in 1921 and decided that the Central Valley was very much like his native Italy so he stayed. He was the award-winning band director at Modesto High School, helped found the Modesto Symphony Orchestra and the Stanislaus County Boys Band) He had a ranch out of town in Modesto somewhere. He was great too, just a nice person. I used to go back after I got out of college and visit my mother in Riverbank and then I’d go over to Oakdale and see him. Good guy.
And he introduced me to Spike Jones. I thought that was the bee’s knees. I thought, “My god!” This guy could make music like that? And it was good music. They were good musicians. But it was funny. That’s for me! I still have a lot of Spike Jones records. He was a fine musician. Those guys were all good.
So I went off to junior college, started my music career. I was always reading treble clef when I was playing baritone. When I finally started to read music I was reading baritone treble clef parts and I go off to San Francisco State and entered as a junior. I was going to finish my degree there. That was different. I wanted to major in trombone. What convinced me was that I had an old clarinet. It was a metal clarinet. It came apart in the middle. It was a Conn, I think. So I thought, “Why not learn to play clarinet?” So I go into the clarinet major class at San Francisco State with all these guys with their La Blancs and Selmers and things and I didn’t even open the case. I walked in and sat down and here I’ve got this case. I had painted it up to look fancy. I thought, “I think I’m in the wrong place here.” So I tiptoed out, never opened the case and that was that.
So then I went to trombone major class and walked in and he said, “Okay boys, I want you to go out and buy a treble clef Arban’s. Arban’s is the bible. That’s what you learn on. And I had one. And I had been playing it learning to play the baritone. I had used the Arban’s to practice. So I read treble clef. And I had thought, “Wait a minute. This is going to be a problem because these guys are all going to play bass clef.” But he walks in, a little Italian guy, played first trombone in the symphony and he taught at San Francisco State. And he said, “Okay boys, I want you to go out and guy a treble clef Arban’s.” “Treble clef Arban’s?” “Yes. We’re going to learn tenor clef.” What the hell is tenor clef? Well, most trombone players can play bass clef, tenor clef and alto clef. They’re just three different ways of writing music. And so I would practice like hell and learn the exercises but they were in the treble clef Arban’s book so I was doing great.
Meanwhile I was getting help from a couple of the guys in the band . . . what’s this bass clef stuff? They showed me. So I had to work on that too. It was just incredible that I ever got through. Amazing.
It was great to come to the city, just fine. I loved it. I needed some money so I got a night job. The city ran a kind of a school for people who had to work during the day so they could go to school at night. It started out in one place and then they moved. I learned to ride the bus. I thought that was great too. Everything was so different. I loved it.
I was at the old campus of San Francisco State. It was at Haight and Buchanan Streets just off of Market Street and near the new mint. Good old rickety place, funny old place. And we had classes in a church just down the street from us. We had some music classes there and the rest were up in the old campus and then they had a bus to the new campus that I took to a humanities class and the only things out there were the gym, the science building and maybe the library. That was from’51 to ’53. The humanities class was in a hut, an old farming hut of some kind out in the sand dunes. The bus would drive over Twin Peaks and come over and he would park on 19th Avenue and we’d get out and go through the sand dunes over to the school hut.
And also I was on the swim team. In junior college I swam. In 1951 I made All American in the 220 yard free style and I was number 10 in the nation in junior colleges. I couldn’t believe it. My coach–he was a great guy–found this booklet that had listings from all over the country and he gave it to me and . . . “Oh my god. Look at that!” I couldn’t believe it. So I was doing a lot of swimming in San Francisco too. Nothing official. I played water polo. I liked that. That was fun. All the other guys were going to the practice rooms and practicing their horns and I was out playing water polo. But it was fun.
We had a great band, some great musicians there, guys who later went on to all kinds of things. My favorite guy was Stu Dempster. Stuart Dempster. He played trombone. Oh, man, did he play trombone! He could play anything I guess. He could play baritone, valves. Bass clef, treble clef, tenor clef, alto clef–he didn’t care. Amazing musician. I still talk to Stu once in a while. He lives back east. He got into this far out . . . he plays didjeridu. He would perform on the didjeridu and do all kinds of funny things. (editor: According to Wikipedia he is credited with introducing the didjeridu to North America. After Dempster completed his studies at San Francisco State College, he was appointed assistant professor at the California State College at Hayward, and instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory (1960–66). During this period he was also a member of the Performing Group at Mills College, and from 1962 to 1966 was first trombonist in the Oakland Symphony Orchestra. In 1967–68 he was a Creative Associate at the State University of New York at Buffalo under Lukas Foss. The following year he was appointed assistant professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle, where he was promoted to full professor in 1985. In 1971–72 he was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study at the University of Illinois, and in 1973 he was a senior Fulbright scholar to Australia. And in 1979 the University of California Press published his book, The Modern Trombone: A Definition of Its Idioms. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship award in 1981. ) He never did any formal trombone soloing, I don’t think.
The San Francisco State Band had here and there a lot of really good musicians. My favorite guy was Chris Bogios. It’s Greek. He was a fine musician but he was a real energetic, driving kind of guy. He was just great to be around, really fun. But he wound up on second trumpet on the San Francisco Symphony. So he did his wood shedding. He was a good musician.
There was another guy. Joe Smiell. He had a German band. He was of German extraction and that German band was something. He used six trumpets in the front row and I guess he used three trombones, two euphoniums, a number of clarinets and several tubas. It was a big band. We played for Octoberfests. I was lucky. I didn’t measure up to the rest of the guys in the band. They were really good. (editor: Joe Smiell played button box accordion, an instrument that his Austro-Hungarian father had played, at the Cotati Accordion Festival and was honorary director in 2001. He played bassoon, clarinet and accordion, and composed. He died in 2012.)
I graduated from college in ’53. And then I was in the army. In those days the draft was on and they would let you go until you got your BA but then you had to go in the army so I did. I was in an army band in Germany. The Korean War was just finished and all these guys were coming back and I was at Fort Ord for my training. These guys were sitting around, just waiting to get out. They were a funny bunch.
It was good fortune that I went into the army for two years because when I came back I went back to college and got that on the GI Bill. That was easy on my mother because she had footed the bill for everything before that. I was working some but not enough to sustain me.
That’s when I met my wife. Her parent were living in Marin where she grew up and her father was a research professor at UC Medical School in San Francisco. We met at San Francisco State. She was a French horn player–very good. She did a little professional work after she got out of school though I don’t think she majored in music. She played in the band and knew all the musicians. I was getting a teaching credential in music education. After I graduated we got married.
When we got married I got a job in Boonville teaching music in the elementary school and the high school up there. But they didn’t have a high school band. My first day in school I was in the band room and three guys walked in and sat down. I said, “Okay, what do you play?”
“What do you play?”
They didn’t play anything. They just wanted to take band. So I said, “Well, why don’t you go look for something else.”
And I started working with the elementary school that was next door and we wound up with a very small choir. I found a kid in high school there that played piano and she was willing to be an accompanist. So I had an accompanist and willing people so we had a choir.
But after two years–no more of this for me, no more. And my wife didn’t like it. She was a city girl. And we had two kids. One was a newborn and the other was two. So from Boonville I moved back to San Francisco and went back to school and got a credential in mathematics. It didn’t take much. I couldn’t teach anything but algebra and geometry and arithmetic and I worked at a really good high school–Washington.
So we moved back to San Francisco from Boonville and I got a credential in math and I started working in the high schools. I lived in a variety of places. The last place was over on Cambridge Street. The first school that I taught in was Mission High School. Oooh, that was something else. It was crowded. I was there for three years. The first two years we had kids from Hunters Point coming in as well as from the Mission District. Then when Hunters Point opened up–pheeooo–it got a lot more opened up. It was crowded! But we had a nurse and we had a psychologist, both great people and everyone was fairly united in thinking the principal was an idiot. So that helps. But then evidently–and this is weird–evidently I went to Balboa because in my collection of yearbooks there’s a Balboa yearbook with my picture in it but I don’t remember it at all. And then another one at Galileo that I don’t remember so I sort of skipped around I guess. Well, that’s when I was going through a divorce. The marriage really ended when we got back to San Francisco. She was back in the Big City. She got a job. Then she got an apartment . . . That was a rough time. Strange . . . strange. The kids were always with me. She didn’t want kids.
But we did and now my youngest boy, he works for a Japanese electronics company of some kind. They make lasers. He’s the representative in the United States. He spent twenty-two years in Japan. He couldn’t find a job here so he went to Japan to teach English. Great! So he spent a lot of time there and he’s fluent in Japanese. In fact he married a Japanese woman who was from Hiroshima where the first atom bomb was dropped and next thing you knew she had cancer and died. And this is while he was teaching English over there and living over there so then he got acquainted with a Chinese woman and he married her and then they moved back to the states. They live up in Portland now. They have two kids. He speaks to the kids in English, she speaks to them in Chinese, and he and his wife speak to each other in Japanese because that’s where they’re most fluent. She’s not good in English and he’s not good in Chinese. But he’s learning.
Jeff is the younger of the boys. The older one is a doctor for Kaiser in Vacaville.
And then I taught at Washington High and that’s where I met Muriel. She was a teacher and she belonged to the teacher’s union as did I. The head of the teacher’s union at Washington was a real sweetheart and she was a good friend of Muriel’s and she knew me and one day I walked into teacher’s room, grumpy and scowling–“RRRR! Damn kids!”–and she said, “Y’know, there’s somebody I know that you should give a call to.” And Muriel was going through a divorce at the time. She had been married to the president of the teacher’s union. I guess I saw her one time. Her oldest boy, Mark just retired. He’s 65. Well, he was in my algebra class. He knew I was interested in music and he was taking classical guitar lessons at the San Francisco Conservatory. He was in a program and Mark told me, “You ought to go to that concert. I’m going to play in this recital,” he and other musician. So I said, “Oh, I’d like to hear that.” And Muriel and her husband were there of course to hear Mark. So after the concert Mark came over to me and said, “I’d like you to meet my mother.” “Okay.”
I already knew her husband. He was the president of our union. And so he introduced me. I said, “He’s a good musician, he’s a good student, you’ve got everything.” And that was that.
So things got heavy with me. Our union rep at Washington said, “You better go and talk to somebody.” So he gave me her phone number and I called her up and said, “Jerry said that I should come and talk to you.” And she said, “Yes.” And she had heard about me because Mark thought I was a good teacher and I thought he was a good student. And she said, “Oh, would you come to dinner?” And I did and the rest is history. Best phone call I ever made.
And we’ve been married–oh mighty!–45 years or something like that.
She had two kids and I had two kids so that was enough. We had a good time.
And boy, Mark is our lifesaver nowadays because we’re living in this assisted living and he comes over and fixes the television. And then we screw it up again. And then he comes back–“No problem. I’m over here anyway.” And he straightens it out. Right now we can’t use it. He got a beautiful TV for us but it’s got a zillion channels and I can’t figure it out.
I retired at 62 in ’94. Before I retired my kids and I all moved in with Muriel. She had this big old house out on 46th Avenue in the Richmond District just above the Cliff House a little ways. It was a nice area. We got married and then the boys and I moved in with her. We lived there until we moved to Petaluma because Mark was in Forestville and we wanted to get out of the City. I love San Francisco but it is so damn crowded and we wanted a little peace and quiet so we moved to Petaluma. And it was great.
I was playing in the Golden Gate Park Band but I decided that I was out of my league. Those guys had been playing that music for all their life. I recently he saw a notice or a flyer or something that said that they were honoring a good friend of mine that I met in college–a tuba player– for playing tuba in the Golden Gate Park Band for 50 years. When we went down to play at the band course, I tried to get in touch with him. I saw him come in and I called to him and one of the other members of the band who was right there said, “Oh, he’s not going to hear you. He’s deaf as a post.”
Hank Niebolt. Tuba player extraordinaire. He played it like a violin. (editor: Henry Niebolt – tuba – who joined the band in 1961, is in his 57th year and may have performed in more Golden Gate Park Band concerts than any other player in the band’s history. He also performs regularly with the Symphony Parnassus. Hank has also performed with the Marin Symphony, the Ringling Brothers Circus, the Ice Follies, and many other groups. He retired after a 32 year career as an elementary school teacher.)
I was playing in that band when the earthquake hit. I went over to the band shell there. It had rained the night before and there was a hole in the roof. The earthquake had broken something. I went over and one of the guys in the percussion section was in their library sorting things out. It had rained on their library and he was despondent, just heartbroken, and there was an old timpani there that had been rained on and the head was ruined and it was all dented and he said, “Oh, we’re going to throw that out.” And I said, “Can I have it?” So I took it home. But I also took home a bunch of sheet music that was all wet and I had rigged up a drying rack in the basement garage of Muriel’s because it was on a hill so when you drove in you went down and then it was level and there was maybe a 14 or 15 foot ceiling. So I rigged up a drying rack that we could hang from the ceiling and lower it down to put clothes on it and then raise it back up to the ceiling above the car. So I took a bunch of music home, put it on the drying rack, raised it up to the ceiling. Of course it was all wrinkled. I wasn’t about to iron it. I took it back to him wrinkled. Maybe he ironed it out. I don’t know.
When I got up to Petauma I hooked up with Swing and a Miss and was playing with them. The woman that runs Swing and a Miss was an elementary school teacher in Petaluma. One day I saw her at rehearsal and I said, “Oh, you’re a teacher.” And she said, “Would you come and help my trombone players?” So I started teaching over there. Oh, they were great kids, wonderful kids. They gave me a plaque. There were two girls–one big girl, one little bitty girl. And I had loaned the little girl one of my trombones. I’d go over and help them and show them how to hold the horn and work with them. When finally they left, they gave me a plaque that showed their picture on it, both of them playing trombone. I treasure that. They were cute kids.
But if you were a kid in grammar school now . . . what a future they have now. The future scares me. Climate change scares me. It pays to be hopeful.
And it was through Laura Cummins at Swing and a Miss–a nice friendship. Good people.–that I got hooked up with New Horizons.