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A Life in Tune: Symphony orchestras and jazz ensembles coveted the services of bass player Joe Wallace

One in an occasional series

Sunday, May 11, 2003

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Joe Wallace sits silhouetted, peering out of a third-floor window in his Lawrenceville apartment. Across the street is a row of houses, and in one of them lives a young bass player.

Joe Wallace, a former principal bass player with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and a local jazz musician as well, picks at imaginary strings in his Lawrenceville apartment while recalling almost 80 years of playing and teaching. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Wallace doesn't know him, but he occasionally sees him toting that instrument around. Sometimes that nameless fiddle player arrives and departs in a limousine, the kind that stretches a city block.

As he gazes, you have to wonder if Wallace is reflecting on another time and another bass player. You have to wonder if he sees himself.

A little more than a year ago, after successfully undergoing surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his lung, Wallace moved into this neighborhood, settling into an assisted-living facility called Canterbury Place.

But for nearly eight decades, Wallace, who turned 91 last week, toted a bass around, too.

Wallace performed his first job in 1917, playing violin during a Methodist church picnic in Wilmerding.

Later, he performed with everyone from Eddie Peyton, Deuces Wild and Jimmy Zummo to Jack Purcell and Nick Lomakin and his Dixie Flyers.

For 45 years he was a member of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. He also was principal bassist for the Pittsburgh Opera Society, Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre Orchestra, Johnstown and Wheeling orchestras and others.

In 1950, Wallace joined "The Fort Pitt Supper Time" television show at Dumont's WDTV, forerunner to KDKA. The band was led by Maurice Spitalny and featured Wallace on bass.

"He was the busiest bass player I ever met," said retired drummer William Condeluci, who performed with Wallace on the show. "He was so busy sometimes that he had to hire substitutes. Joe was absolutely the best bass player in the area and was very serious about his music."

Wallace knew at a young age that he had the talent to be a musician.

"If I were a ballplayer, I would have practiced to be the best ballplayer I could be ... so that's what I did with my music," he said.

Ironically, if not for an illness when he was 7, Wallace might never have played an instrument. After a week of lying in bed, he asked his mother, Willa, if he could play his father's violin. Lester Wallace, a schoolteacher who later worked in the publicity department at Westinghouse Airbrake, played violin, guitar, trombone and piano.

The elder Wallace, who didn't think music offered much security, was adamantly opposed to his son becoming a musician, so the young Wallace practiced in secret, eventually taking a few correspondence classes.

After a few weeks, he began performing during church services. His parents attended different churches. His mother was a Methodist and his father was a Lutheran.

One Sunday, his mother invited his father to a special service during which Wallace performed for the congregation.

"My dad nearly flipped out, and I just knew I was going to get it when we got home," Wallace recalled with a chuckle. "My father didn't say anything. After lunch, he invited me into the living room, sat at the piano and told me to get the violin, and we played for several hours. He was so happy. That was the day I became a musician."

Wallace and his younger sister, Esther, who played piano, began taking lessons from T.F. Miller, who eventually opened a small studio in the Wallaces' living room. Miller offered free lessons to the Wallaces and taught other students from the Mon Valley area.

Later, Wallace began taking classical lessons with a music professor who taught at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, and with instructors at the Beaver Conservatory of Music.

Things were starting to look up for Wallace, but in 1924, the family was struck a blow when Lester died of cancer. He was 36.

"Things got really tough for us then," said Wallace. "We didn't have any money because all of it had been spent on radiation treatments trying to get my father well.

"I remember there used to be a knock on the door, and when we would open it, there would be a wash basket full of food. That's how we lived, the neighbors got together and gave us food. After a while, it was important that I contribute, too."

Wallace continued to practice violin, eventually switching to the bass at the request of his teacher at Union High School in Turtle Creek.

Within weeks, he was performing in accompaniment to travelogues at a club in Edgewood, earning $6 a performance. At 14, he joined Zummo's band, one of the busiest groups in the city, performing on bass and tuba.

"I learned to play the slap bass technique, and everyone started calling me 'Jazz Wallace,' " he said. "The walking bass lines and the slap technique were characterized in the playing of Wellman Braud, a member of Duke Ellington's earlier band.

"Braud could play it all. Contrary and parallel motion. All those things were happening in Braud's playing, and no one had ever heard that before in jazz. I went to hear him play one night, and back then there weren't any amplifiers. He just blew me away. I really like the way Ellington used him."

After three years, he left Zummo to join Eddie Peyton's group.

"Eddie came to hear me play one day, and he said, 'Meet me Downtown tomorrow at noon.' The next day, he took me to New Kensington to join the musician's union. Back then, you had to be a member of the union to get the good jobs. So I joined the union in New Kensington ... [but] we drove back to Pittsburgh and I put in a transfer to join the Pittsburgh union."

The group's busy morning and afternoon performances at Dimlings restaurant and Gimbels department store prompted Wallace to quit school for a while. He later returned to get his diploma.

"I was working six days a week," said Wallace. "I needed to help my mother and sister."

From jazz to classical

In 1932, Wallace married Edna Mae Hansen, a dancer from Millvale. The couple, who have two musical children, Bruce and Alison, met aboard the Showboat, a boat that was docked on the Allegheny river. Hansen was a member of the chorus line and Wallace was performing with the Red Fluke band. The couple, who eloped in West Virginia, were married 58 years before her death in 1990 at 78.

"After I got married, I got a job writing music for musical theater," he said. "I didn't do anything but sit in the cellar and write music. All the acts came to Pittsburgh from New York and would build their shows here. Guys would come here with piano parts missing, bass parts missing, this and that missing, and I would write the parts. That job was right up my alley."

When he wasn't writing music and performing around town, he continued to practice and take lessons, this time from Herman Clements and Luigi Giobbe, two bass players who performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

In 1935, conductor Antonio Modarelli auditioned Wallace and gave him a job with the symphony on a one-year trial basis.

"I had no experience playing classical music at that time," recalled Wallace. "I was the youngest guy in the bass section.

"In those days we would audition in the middle of the stage. The assistant conductor would conduct the piece while the conductor sat in the audience. We played the passages and no one said a word. The next day you would find out if you passed or failed. For the older guys, it was nerve wracking, but I didn't know enough to be nervous, plus I had a great job playing with jazz bands. But the symphony was great. It allowed me to play some great music and to play with some of the greatest conductors in the world."

Otto Klemperer replaced Modarelli, reorganized the orchestra, and all of the musicians had to audition again.

In 1938, Fritz Reiner succeeded Klemperer and all the musicians again had to undergo auditions. Wallace was the only bass player Reiner retained -- a position he held onto until his retirement in 1979.

Wallace dressed impeccably and had a regal bearing, which left a strong impression.

Retired Pittsburgh Symphony bassist Rodney Van Sickle recounted a story about a night in Munich, Germany, when he and Wallace returned to their hotel.

"The guy gave me the key and asked, 'By the way, who was that distinguished English gentlemen that just walked in? Is he the conductor of the orchestra?' "

Wallace wasn't all looks. He was a first-rate musician, said Van Sickle. And classical music wasn't his first love.

"He always talked about jazz and loved it," said Van Sickle. "He used to talk about the early days when jazz bands came to town, and they would have jam sessions at the musicians union or some club, and they would get together and pass around ideas and new licks."

That wasn't an unusual progression. Van Sickle, too, started off in jazz performing with big bands. In pursuit of greater proficiency with the bass, he took lessons from a symphony musician.

"Before I knew it, I was playing Beethoven. Gradually my sentiments began to shift toward that field, and I think that's what happened to Joe. [But] his first and strongest instincts were toward jazz, and he loved that lifestyle, staying up all night, hanging out. You don't get a lot of that in the symphony."

Driving home after one of those late nights, Wallace crashed his convertible into a guard rail in the North Hills and crushed his hip.

After rehabilitation, he went back to work with the Pittsburgh Symphony, this time with the assistance of a close friend, Joe Bonidio.

"I've known Joe for nearly 60 years," said Bonidio. "He was my bass fiddle teacher. After he was injured, I went on the road with the symphony and would carry his bass on and off the stage. He was my mentor on bass and was a tremendous jazz player."

Wallace was the local bassist of choice for some of the greatest jazz performers. When Coleman Hawkins, Pittsburgh-born trumpeter Roy Eldridge and others came to town, Wallace was often their pick.

And for good reason.

The stretch limo

Back at the window, Wallace is thinking once again of the bass player in the stretch limousine. He's grown more curious and less reflective.

He talks about asking his son, Bruce, who also plays bass, if he knows the guy. Since Bruce also owns a bass repair studio, it's a logical thought.

"Yeah, Bruce probably knows him," he says.

Only makes sense.

But in a manner of speaking, Wallace probably knows him, too.


Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.

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