Thursday, April 23, 2015

Memories of a Jazz Journalist - Part Nine - Pete Salemi by George A. Borgman

Here is the ninth installment of a series of entries entitled Memories of A Jazz Journalist written by George A. Borgman.

Rhode Island trombonist Pete Salemi, was known for his keen humor and amusing anecdotes. When I interviewed him for a story in the December 1997 edition of the Mississippi Rag, I queried him for his birthplace. He said, "Corleone, in Sicily. I am the Godfather, but I need a godmother." He also described how he used to goose girls with his trombone slide when they danced near the bandstand.

At age ten, Joseph "Pete" Salemi played guitar with his father and two brothers in a mandolin-guitar group. In 1915, a year after arriving at Ellis Island, New York, he lost two fingers on his left hand in an accident at a paper box factory, so he decided to switch from Guitar to trombone and began years of trombone lessons.

Around 1918, Salemi witnessed a battle of the bands between the Original Memphis Five and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band at the Balconades Ballroom on Broadway. He began playing trombone in bands, and his first job with a Dixieland band was in 1919 or '20. He became a charter member of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in August 1921, and by 1924 he was playing in small bands in Brooklyn and worked in the pit band at the Gaiety Theatre, a burlesque house.

Pete Salemi subsequently worked and recorded with Gene Kardo's 12-piece band, and he played in the pit band for Minsky's burlesque show at the Republic Theatre, 42nd Street, for such strippers as Gypsy Rose Lee and for comics Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. He was in bands at the Moroccan Village in Greenwich Village, Leon & Eddie's on 52nd Street, Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe, and the Arcadia Ballroom, and he worked with bands led by Eddie Duchin, Pancho (from Argentina), Vincent Lopez, Desi Arnez, Bob Crosby, Leo Reisman, Lester Lanin, Ted Lewis, Jimmy Durante, etc.; he played alongside Bobby Hackett and Bunny Berigan; he accompanied singers Sophie Tucker and Frank Sinatra; he was in the pit band for "Follow the Girls," starring Jackie Gleason; and he was in society bands that played for President Eisenhower's and President Kennedy's inaugural celebrations.

During his New York Years, Salemi turned down job offers from Guy Lombardo (he didn't like the band's style), Xavier Cugat (he didn't want to go on the road), and Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra (the pay was too low).

Album featuring Pete Salemi.
In 1967, Pete Salemi and his wife, Josephine, moved to Rhode Island, where as a member of Local 198, AFofM, he worked with many bands, including, since about 1994, Wes Gough's Jazz Strollers at the Larchwood Inn in Wakefield. In 1995, he was with Jeff Hughes' Brahmin Bellhops on the CD "Who's She Jazzin' Now?" and later appeared with Lost in the Sauce at the Sherborn Inn, Sherborn, Mass. Salemi's last appearance with the Jazz Strollers was September 12, 2002. Three days later he celebrated his 100th birthday. He passed away in his sleep at a nursing home in Coventry, Rhode Island, on January 17, 2003.

At Salemi's wake, according to Hughes, four or five members of a motorcycle gang stood at Salemi's open coffin, and they were crying. They and Salemi belonged to the American Pooling Association, and they respected his expertise at eight-ball pool, which he still played at age 99. Salemi was buried on January 20th with his trombone in his coffin.

Salemi's wife died in 1995. He left a son Joseph A. Salemi of Cranston; a daughter -in-law, Jean Salemi of Coventry, with whom he had resided, and six grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and four great-great-grandchildren. He was the father of the late John C. Salemi (d. 1993).

Pete, his music and his humorous stories will be missed by all who knew him.  

Pete Salemi is on trombone on this performance recorded in 1931.
The vocal is by Dick Robertson.


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