Woodwind Studio Legends Roundtable

An Interview with Gary Foster, Ronnie Lang, Gene Cipriano, and Don Ashworth

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The interviews that have appeared as part of the Woodwind Legacy Series to date have all taken place in New York City. However, I realized that there were a number of musicians on the west coast whose careers and achievements were important to present. During August of 2019, I traveled to Los Angeles to conduct video interviews with several of these artists. Gary, Gene, Ronnie & Don were kind enough to make this roundtable interview possible. Having the opportunity to spend time with four of my musical heroes made this interview a memorable moment for me. Thanks guys.

I first met Gary Foster through our mutual friend, Ron Janelli, in 2004. I invited Gary to my university to be a guest artist with my woodwind doubling students and jazz ensemble. We became fast friends and my respect for Gary as a musician, educator and friend has only deepened since that initial encounter. During these past 15 years, Gary has been the most generous colleague one can imagine–sharing music, recordings, stories and views on life with me and always offering encouragement. It’s as if we had been friends for our entire life and I am eternally grateful. Gary’s devotion to his craft is unmatched and serves as an inspiration for all of us.

Gene Cipriano was a name I had known about for many years. I first heard the renowned NY reed player Harvey Estrin speak glowingly about Gene in the 1970s. When I finally got a chance to meet him in 2009 while in Los Angeles, I understood why Gene is beloved by everyone. He loves life, music and his colleagues. Having the opportunity to sit and talk with Cip is something I wish every woodwind instrumentalist could do—he’ll give you an honest assessment of the music business and you’ll come away with the feeling that devoting your life to music is worth it. He continues to amaze all of us with his musical excellence at age 90! Yo Cip!

Ronnie Lang has been an alto sax hero of mine as well as many others for generations. I had never met Ronnie in person until this interview but had spoken with him via phone several times. During these conversations, it quickly became clear to me that he was full of energy and life and loved talking about music, the industry and golf! Ronnie is like the energizer bunny—able to provide instant excitement to any conversation as well as musical scenario. His in-depth knowledge of the industry and uncanny memory are on clear display during this interview.

The reason I decided to devote my life to multi-woodwind instrumental performance was largely due to the late-night TV big bands that I grew up hearing. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson was the #1 show in that time frame for 30 years and during that time, the sax section members were among my role models. Don Ashworth was one of two saxophonists who remained with the band when the show permanently moved to L.A. in 1973. (Tommy Newsom was the other.) I remember Don always providing funny moments on the Show, either during the “Stump the Band” segments or watching his clarinet come apart while playing the Rhapsody in Blue clarinet solo. The annual holiday TV specials that the Tonight Show Band often featured Don’s beautiful oboe/English horn playing and the foundation that he laid down on baritone sax for the sax section was always stellar. It was a privilege to finally meet him during this interview.

*Editors Note: The audio track at the opening is Ronnie Lang playing alto saxophone on the theme from “Taxi Driver.” The audio track at the very end of the interview is Gary Foster playing alto saxophone on “A Beautiful Friendship.”

About the Artists

Gary Foster has had one of the most distinguished and diversified careers as a saxophonist, woodwind multi-instrumentalist and music educator. Gary is a virtuoso performer in the classical, jazz and commercial genres. He has over 25 solo jazz albums to his credit, has been a member of over 500 film-soundtrack orchestras, and has worked on numerous television shows including The Invaders, Streets of San Francisco, The Carol Burnett Show, along with the Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globe and Academy Award shows. He has been a featured soloist on recordings with singers Johnny Mathis, Mel Torme, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Cole, Harry Connick, Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester, and has had close collaborations with jazz greats Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Jimmy Rowles, Clare Fischer, Pat Williams, Alan Broadbent, Louis Bellson, Shelly Manne, Cal Tjader, Sammy Nestico, Marty Paich, and Bill Dobbins. Gary has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The L.A. Chamber Orchestra, The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the L.A. Opera Orchestra in addition to his work as a member of the Louis Bellson and Toshiko Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Bands. A recipient of the Most Valuable Player Award for woodwind doubling from NARAS, he has also been active as an educator. Gary has presented clinics and master-classes throughout the U.S., authored method books, and been the saxophone professor at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and UCLA.

Ronnie Lang has been a much-admired saxophonist and woodwind doubler for 60 years! After making his professional debut with Hoagy Carmichael’s Teenagers in the mid-1940s, he gained national attention as the lead alto saxophonist and featured soloist with Les Brown’s Orchestras from 1949–1956. He also recorded with the Dave Pell Octet in the mid-1950s before entering the world of the L.A. studios fulltime in 1958. His work in this area of the music business is legendary having recorded over 1,000 movie soundtracks and hundreds of tv films over the next 40 yrs. as a favored player of composers including Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Henry Mancini, Andre Previn, Dave Grusin, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, Lalo Shifrin, Pete Rugolo, John Williams, Elmer Bernstein and David Shire. Among his more famous solos are the alto sax solos in films such as Taxi Driver & Body Heat (heard during the course of the interview); soprano sax in Heaven Can Wait; and jazz flute in How to Murder Your Wife. Ronnie worked for many years as part of Henry Mancini’s sax section on TV shows, recordings, and movies and was often heard playing/recording with singers Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis, Jr, Sue Raney and Judy Garland. Ronnie was a member of the Academy Awards Orchestra for over 35 years.

Gene Cipriano (“Cip”) is one of the most revered and recorded musicians in the history of the music business. A living legend, Gene is still going strong today at age 90 playing jazz gigs, recording dates & the Academy Award Show. A veteran of the big bands of Claude Thornhill, Gene Williams, Tex Beneke, Tony Pastor and Tommy Dorsey, Cip established himself in Los Angeles in 1954 and quickly became the most requested oboe doubler in town. Over the next 65 years, he has earned the distinction of being one of the most recorded woodwind musicians in history having recorded for artists in all sectors of the industry. Among them are Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, the Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, Lady Gaga, Barry Manilow, Paul McCartney, Ray Charles, Stan Kenton, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Henry Mancini, Tom Scott, Natalie Cole, Frank Zappa, Nat King Cole, and Rosemary Clooney. His many tv and film show credits include Peter Gunn, My Three Sons, Bewitched, Love Boat, Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, The Godfather, The Sandpiper, Mission Impossible, Star Trek, Dynasty, Family Guy, The Emmys, The Grammy’s, and The Academy Awards (48 times!). His first solo CD was released in 2012—First Time Out. The CD can be purchased at: http://www.resortmusic.com/gene_cipriano.html

Don Ashworth has had a formidable career as a multi-reed instrumentalist both in New York and Los Angeles. He began his professional life as a member of the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra and then moved to NYC where he quickly established himself as one of the pre-eminent oboe doublers. He did studio work and Broadway shows (Li’l Abner, Do Re Mi, Goldilocks, I Can Get It For You Wholesale) before becoming a member of The Tonight Show Band in 1962. While he is known primarily for his work on this Show, which he played for 30 years, Don also played woodwinds on numerous other TV shows including The Carol Burnett Show, Dallas, Dynasty, Batman, Trapper John M.D, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall and The Merv Griffin Show. His years of studio work include albums with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, George Benson, Johnny Hodges, Grover Washington, Weather Report Jr., Gerry Mulligan, Doc Severinsen, Tommy Newsom, Benny Goodman and Wes Montgomery. His film credits include Mickey One, Savages, Life Stinks, and Indiana Jones. Don holds two bachelors degrees in Music Ed and Performance from Carnegie Mellon University and a Masters in Music Ed from Columbia University.

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