A ‘living treasure’ keeps on swingin’

Chico’s oldest working musician has been keeping big-band music alive for nearly 70 years

SAXFUL OF SWING<br>Durham bandleader Sam Lasell in his music room with his horns and volumes of music filling the shelves.

Durham bandleader Sam Lasell in his music room with his horns and volumes of music filling the shelves.

Photo By Tom Angel

“Our main product is a compost and worm casing mix for landscaping, gardening. … People find out about it by word-of-mouth. That’s the secret to any business. If they like you, they tell their friends. Like [local guitarist] Charlie Robinson: If someone likes his garden, they say, ‘How’d you get that to grow like that?’ and he tells them. … He had an area that nothing would grow in, and now it’s 20 feet high!”

The wise words of a successful worm farmer, right? Well, yes, but that’s a small part of the story. Eighty-seven-year-old longtime Durham resident Sam Lasell is passionately explaining to me as I sit with him and 76-year-old pianist and singer Marie White in the “music room” on his ranch—surrounded by two pianos, numerous woodwind and brass instruments and countless books of sheet music—the ins and outs of The Worm Farm, which takes up a portion of the huge piece of land he lives on.

Lasell talks about the farm as if he is still actively involved, but early this year, after running it himself for six years or so, he turned the reins over to daughter Arlita and her husband Mark Purser. Before worm farming, Lasell was a chicken farmer (1936-1995) on this same ranch that he shares with his wife Arlie and that his father owned 80 years ago, raising “50,000 new fryer chicks every 10 weeks,” occasionally having to stay up most of the night to see the chickens through a particularly bad, upsetting storm.

This gregarious and determined man who has worked hard pretty much all of his life, and to great success, has a lot to be proud of: a beautiful rural property on which he raised six children—daughters Severance, Arlita, Rosy and Melissa and sons Sam Jr. and Willis—and countless tens of thousands of chickens and worms.

But, he tells me—paraphrasing the words from a yellowed newspaper article about him from about 20 years ago that he pulls out of an album—"Chickens were my business, but music was my life.”

Very likely the oldest working musician in Butte County, Lasell has lived and breathed music since 1936, leading various bands comprised of a Who’s Who of local musicians. And he still plays more gigs than many musicians half his age, playing his big-band swing music “about 19 times a month.”

A reed and brass man, Lasell actually started as a violinist in the seventh grade and changed to clarinet about a year later after seeing his father’s friend playing “a black, long thing … and I fell in love with it.” He also plays tenor sax, cornet and mellophone, a brass instrument similar to the French horn. When I comment that it is unusual to see a musician who plays both woodwinds and brass because the embouchures required to play them are so different, Lasell states simply, “It’s a lot of work. I’ve got to practice all the time to do it.”

AH ONE AND AH TWO… Sam Lasell’s Smooth Swing Band play the Durham Grange Hall earlier this year: Sam (center) on tenor sax; Marie White on piano & vocals; O. T. “Stoney” Stone (left) on sax; and Frank Ficarra on drums.

Photo By Sam Lasell

As if that weren’t enough, Lasell also sings and plays drums. “When The Beatles and Elvis Presley got going, all of the horn players were out of work … almost overnight. That’s when I took up the drums,” he explains matter-of-factly.

White, Lasell’s musical partner for more than a decade, began performing at age 9, singing “The Old Rugged Cross” at “[her] first funeral.

“Mr. Strother died, and my mom said, ‘They want you to sing.'”

White is an accomplished self-taught pianist who plays by ear, and, Lasell says, “For me, she’s the best piano player around.” He motions to the bookshelf crammed full of music books. “Marie knows them all by heart.”

Lasell pulls out a book. “Sentimental Journey,” “Jersey Bounce,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Tuxedo Junction” are just a sample of the countless ‘30s and ‘40s big-band swing tunes that Lasell and White know. “The most popular big bands [back then] were Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Duke Ellington, Count Basie. … Those are the songs we’re playing,” Lasell tells me.

“I think Sam is probably the most knowledgeable person about swing music…” White contributes, admiringly.

Widely known local jazz musician and jazz history teacher Charlie Haynes, who also plays with Lasell, describes him to me in a recent phone conversation as “the most musical person I know. … He’s totally dependent on music,” referring to Lasell’s great, abiding love of the art.

Haynes compares Lasell to pianist/bandleader Duke Ellington, known as “The World’s Greatest Listener.” If Lasell isn’t playing music, he’s listening. “Sam has a certain worldliness about the history of music,” Haynes points out. “He is a living ambassador of another time,” America’s big-band era, when “people followed big bands the way people watch sports [teams] today.”

PLAY IT AGAIN, SAM<br>Sam Lasell and Marie White practice a familiar song.

Photo By Tom Angel

Haynes sums up Lasell, whom he affectionately refers to as “a long-lost musical uncle": “This guy is a road warrior. … He still leads the band like he was in his glory days, keeping the people happy. He’s got this determination. … He’s a storehouse of musical knowledge. He’s got the history and he’s still performing—he’s one of a kind!”

“Basically, the people we play to want to hear a melody, something they can tap their foot to, sing along with,” Lasell says. “The important thing is not how good you are but what you’re contributing right now to the people you’re playing for, and you don’t have to be the best musician in the world to do it. … Eighty percent of the musicians I play with are better than I am.”

Lasell and White perform in “most of the convalescent and retirement homes in the Chico area,” places like The Inn at Sierra Sunrise Village, where they play every Monday night, usually with a guest musician, and The Courtyard, where they play every Friday.

“Most of the places we play, people are younger than we are in those wheelchairs,” the sprightly White points out.

“People come in, and Marie knows what their favorite song is,” Lasell tells me with pride.

"'Always’ is Vivian’s favorite song, and Virginia and her husband’s favorite song is ‘Fascination,'” White offers by way of example, with clear affection for the women she is referring to. Lasell, before health issues recently intervened, “would go around to every person in the [audience] and talk to them” before a performance to find out what they wanted to hear,” White elaborates. “Now he has me do it. … He wants to make the people happy.”

Lasell refers to swing-era pianist/bandleader Count Basie a number of times during the course of the conversation, an influence who epitomizes to Lasell the ultimate bandleader/musician—disciplined, well-liked, sharply dressed and swingin’.

“Count Basie said the definition of swing is something that makes your foot tap. Count Basie was always playing to the people.” And to Lasell, it is of the utmost importance that the audience have a good time.

As Haynes puts it in our phone conversation, "In Japan, if you make it to [age] 80, you’re given the title of ‘living treasure.'" Men like Sam Lasell, who have kept a slice of true Americana alive for decades, have more than earned that title.