Music & Memories

by S. Derrickson Moore, Sun-News Reporter

© Las Cruces Sun-News, Las Cruces, New Mexico, Saturday August 21, 2004

Do-it-all musician brings eclectic background, history to Las Cruces Big Band

Neidig in St. Petersburg with Marianna Gabbi, former Las Cruces Symphony at NMSU conductor.

Musician and writer Ken Neidig said he had two major goals for his retirement years, “No. 1: I believe that your retirement should be spent with someone you love and No. 2: you should use long-honed professional skills in your personal life.”

Neidig, 73, is filling both goals in style.

Since moving to Las Cruces in 1995, the teacher, author, magazine editor, band leader and musician has been involved in everything from symphonies to jazz bands.

The avid photographer even shared an exhibit of sensitive photos taken during his U.S. Army service in Japan at an exhibit at the Branigan Cultural Center.

His office and studio are filled with autographed pictures of musical superstars, from Big Band clarinetist Benny Goodman to multi-award winning trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. A music stand and woodwind instruments stand ready for active duty.

The Washington, N.J., native said he knew from early childhood that words and music would shape his life.

“I liked music, had done well in school since the first grade and admired people who were beyond the ordinary, like Les Brown,” the legendary band leader who was a neighbor and friend of his parents. “I enjoyed learning about things outside the boundaries of my little home town, and felt a need to express myself in print. A career was born.”

On his tenth birthday he received a life-changing gift: “a metal clarinet entered my life, mail-ordered from the Sears-Roebuck catalog. Total cost: $19.98. That day, my father and I both learned to play a chromatic scale.”

He was on his way.

“While in high school, I heard (live, in person!) many of the ‘name bands’ like Harry James, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman,” he said.

He studied at Juilliard and graduated from what is now Murray State University, where he played in a dance band.

After serving in the U.S. Army and playing with the 293rd Army Band, he taught for 25 years in Kentucky schools, writing and editing several Prentice-Hall guides, including “Band Director’s Guide,” “Choral Director’s Guide” and “Music Reading Made Easy” and freelancing for national magazines.

In 1970 he moved to Wilmette, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, and became an editor of the prestigious music trade publications, The Instrumentalist and BD Guide, which gave him the chance to meet and interview some of his boyhood idols, including Goodman, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.

In 1995, he moved to New Mexico to join “the love of my life, Marianna Gabbi,” then conductor of the Las Cruces Symphony at NMSU. He traveled with Gabbi, the first American woman to conduct major symphony orchestras in both China and Russia, and wrote program notes for symphony programs.

Under the auspices of his own Cloudcroft-based Neidig Services, he wrote and published “The Gabbi Years,” about the trail-blazing conductor, and compiled “Because Your Name is Neidig,” which traces his family’s American roots back to the 1700s.

He’s played with the Las Cruces Symphony and with a variety of regional jazz and swing bands and is a regular with the Big Band on the Rio Grande (he also does arrangements for the group) and the Mesilla Valley Concert Band.

“I love jobs that are ten minutes from home and two hours long,” he quipped. “I also like playing for older audiences at Munson Center and Good Sam. It’s wonderful when you’re playing something they recognize. You can see a special look in their eyes and suddenly they’re young again, dancing and having a good time.”

Over the past decade, he’s established his own free-floating band of musical amigos and colleagues who say he’s still teaching and at the top of his form.

“I’ve worked with Ken for so long, I’ve forgotten how many years,” said Eddie Brittle, who plays drums for the Big Band on the Rio Grande. “He’s a great guy, a good musician and a good leader.”

“Before he retired he would come here to visit and would bring arrangements for our saxophone quartet,” said Dr. Ulysses McElyea, who has played with Neidig in the Mesilla Valley Saxophone Quartet, formerly the New Mexico Sax Quartet as well as the Big Band on the Rio Grande. “Ken is an excellent musician and he understands serious music as well as jazz. He plays jazz really well. He’s taught the band a lot about the history of jazz and has given us an up close perspective on so many of the jazz greats that he’s had a chance to meet.”

Now the dad of four and the grandfather of eight has produced a brand new, very entertaining CD: “Ken Neidig: an admiring amateur,” featuring a “tribute to Benny Goodman” with Neidig on clarinet. “Dance Band Doubles” includes his own arrangements of pop and jazz classics like “Lover Man” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” with Neidig on his “double” instruments, saxophones, bassoon and bass clarinet. The final section, “Symphonic Dances” features his “dance band versions of melodies stolen from symphonic composers,” including jazzy takes on Beethoven’s 7th Symphony and Tchaikovsky ballads.

“I haven’t gone through all the copyright permissions, so right now it’s just for family and friends,” he said.

He performs with the Big Band on the Rio Grande at a variety of regional gigs, including dances from 2-5 p.m. the third Sunday of each month at Court Youth Center, 402 W. Court Ave. and with the Mesilla Valley Concert Band, which will present its first concert of the fall season at 3 p.m. Oct. 10 at the NMSU music Center Recital Hall.