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is my mistress"
Ever at the ready, trombonist Morris Repass '52 (MM '64) kept his lip up and answered the call to play.
By Rick Waters '95
If you watch television or listen to the radio, chances are you've heard the work of Morris Repass '52 (MM '64).
He's played with Sinatra, performed for Stravinsky, and jammed with a Beatle. There have been countless others: Hollywood crooners, world-class conductors, rock 'n roll stars.
That's the life of a working musician, often a series of "right place, right time" moments that build a career. Sometimes it's a matter of knowing the right people. Sometimes it's a matter of luck.
"But it's always about keeping up your chops," Repass said. "There's no telling when the phone will ring. And when it does, you better be ready."
Growing up in Littlefield, Texas, the son of a mechanic and housewife, Repass got interested in the band when he got to high school. He saw older brother Ernie '51 (MM '55) having fun and thought, "Maybe I'll play, too."
It was just a matter of picking an instrument.
There wasn't much choice. The school had two baritone horns -- a good one played by a senior student and an older one stashed in a closet. That one was missing a case, wasn't lacquered and turned his hand green. But Morris picked it up and got it into working order.
"It leaked like crazy and the joints were unsoldered. I took it to my dad, and he became my first instrument repairman," Repass remembered.
In the summer the family harvested wheat in the Texas Panhandle, inching north, field by field, stopping in Wyoming or when school started again. Teen-aged Morris and Ernie would take turns driving the truck, sitting on pillows to see over the dash, bringing gasoline and supplies to their father.
In the back seat were Morris's baritone and Ernie's E-flat sousaphone. "In the evenings, after the day's labor, we'd get cleaned up and have supper, then we'd play some Dixieland tunes for the truck drivers and combine operators. Ernie would play the rhythm and I'd play the tunes. It kept our chops in good shape."
By his senior year, Morris knew he wanted to go into music as a career and spent every spare minute in the band hall. He liked Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and often cut their pictures out of magazines. That Christmas, his parents surprised him with a trombone.
Repass took that trombone to TCU, where his brother had enrolled, mostly because it was the school their high school band director, Don Hayes '38, had attended.
Though he'd had the instrument less than a year, Morris quickly showed his mettle with the trombone, earning a spot in the marching and stage bands and also a $25 per semester scholarship.
He picked up another $25 for being a member of the orchestra and still another $25 for becoming the band librarian.
"Ernie and I were together at TCU and musically together. Those were very happy days," he remembered. (Ernie went on to spend a 32-year career directing bands in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district.)
While an undergrad, Morris learned from the first chair trombonist with the Dallas Symphony, Carl Smith. It would be a friendship that would eventually land Repass a seat with the Symphony as Smith's replacement.
But first, there was the Korean War. Ernie, who graduated a year before Morris, was drafted and shipped to Fort Sill, Okla., for basic training where he convinced officers that he had the lip to play in the post band. And when Morris was shipped there a year later, he had the chance to play too, skipping artillery training. It beat going to Korea.
After the war, Morris returned to TCU on the GI Bill and earned a master's degree in composition/theory. The university needed a trombone instructor and Morris agreed to teach the trombonists and all the lower brass.
He did it for four years. One semester, he agreed to play in a graduate student's recital. On a whim, he invited Smith, his old trombone instructor, to watch.
"I was surprised he came," Repass said. "After the show, he came backstage and was full of praise. He told me that he was retiring at season's end and that I should take his job. He said, 'You play better than I do.' "
That began a career of juggling multiple gigs.
Right place. Right time.
He played 10 seasons with the Symphony and eight
as first trombonist for the Casa Manana musicals in the summer.
He'd enjoy another moment of serendipity while hunting for a new horn in Dallas. Spotting a large tenor trombone with a powerful, rich sound, he took it to the back of the store and started belting away.
"What I didn't know was that in the front of the store was a man who wrote radio jingles," he said. "He heard me playing and told the store manager he'd never heard anyone in this town play the trombone like that."
A week later, Repass was in the jingle business -- a welcome change. It paid well and regularly provided new and different styles of music.
That job ultimately prompted Repass to leave the Symphony and move with new wife Lieux Dressler, a Dallas night club singer, to Los Angeles where they would both start a new life.
Once again, Repass used his connections to land gigs in the tough L.A. market. To start, a band mate from his Fort Sill days gave him a spot in a jazz band. Another friend got him a job playing string bass six nights a week with a trio in Santa Barbara. Morris wasn't wild about the 185-mile round trip, but he kept driving home each night so he could stay by the phone -- a decision that paid off when a 12-piece band playing at the Century Plaza Hotel for one of L.A.'s last supper clubs asked him to fill in. That eventually led to a full-time opportunity and decent income.
"For me, it was back to the trombone and no 185-mile drive." It was just a few months after he'd arrived in California.
Right time. Right place.
He worked four years with that band, which opened up opportunities with other groups and some studio work. He even was asked to conduct a 56-piece orchestra for an animated Japanese film called Blood: The Last Vampire. Other television hits followed, including "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Alf" and "Moonlighting."
Those shows led to his current gig, playing the music of the cartoon classic "The Simpsons" in a 34-piece orchestra. Fifteen seasons and almost 300 episodes later, he still loves it.
Over the years, Repass has mastered five instruments: the tenor trombone, bass trombone, euphonium, string bass and tuba. He's also dabbled in conducting and arranging and performed on international tours. "People have asked me, 'How do you keep your enthusiasm up?' " he said. "That's easy. Music is my mistress."
Morris will turn 76 years old this year and the phone keeps ringing. And he keeps answering.
"My whole life I have been paid for a hobby. Anybody who can say that is lucky."
Write to Repass at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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