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Keeping big band alive

Dallas icon strikes the right chord

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October 22nd, 2013
Jack Melick
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Over the span of his 67-year career, Jack Melick has never been out of work.

“That’s not bad for a musician,” says Jack, a pianist and big band leader who got his start when Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and Ray Anthony dominated the American music scene.

Jack’s first professional gig was a summer engagement at Camp Sagamore, a resort in the Poconos.

“I was 16 at the time,” says Jack. “I formed a band with kids from school. Most experienced musicians were away fighting in World War II.”

Jack completed his own time in the service during the Korean War before returning to the States, determined to make his way in the music business.

On the road

After a series of engagements at the Hollywood Palladium, the Mapes Hotel in Reno, Nev., and the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, Nev., Jack joined Guy Lombardo’s band for a six-month stint as a dueling piano player.

“Although I was based in Los Angeles, I traveled all over the country,” says Jack. “I played for Frank Sinatra, Betty Grable, and Milton Berle, among others.”

Songs like “The Nearness of You,” “Stardust,” and “In the Mood” were oft-requested favorites from Jack’s repertoire, which originated from The Great American Songbook, a compilation of songs published from 1930 to 1950.

“That was the golden age of music,” says Jack. “Greats like Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin were writing their hits.”

In December 1966, Jack relocated to Dallas, where he made connections with other musicians who joined his orchestra.

“Dallas remained a viable market for big bands long after The Great American Songbook faded away in other parts of the country,” says Jack, who enjoyed a 34-year run at the city’s Chaparral Club.

Famous in certain circles

Jack is currently working on a memoir titled Famous in Certain Circles: 65 Years of Big Band Memories (and the Beat Still Goes On).

“The title came from my daughter, who once asked if I was famous,” says Jack. “I told her I was well-known in certain circles.”

Some of Jack’s most memorable encounters took place at the Warwick Hotel in Houston.

“I can’t forget the time Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana requested a private after-hours performance for him and his girlfriend, singer Phyllis McGuire,” says Jack.

Neither can he forget the time that baseball hall-of-famer Stan Musial sidled up to him and asked if he could accompany Jack’s orchestra on his harmonica.

“Musial was in Houston for the 1968 All-Star Game,” says Jack. “I grew up watching him play, so it was such a thrill to meet him.”

Ushering in a new era

As big bands gave way to rock and roll in the ’70s, Jack adapted to changing tastes without compromising his big band sound.

“The older generation—the ones who were paying for the parties—still enjoyed big band music,” says Jack. “But the younger crowd preferred rock and roll.”

For many of Jack’s well-to-do clients, the solution was to hire two bands. Jack and his orchestra performed until

11 p.m., then a rock band closed down the party.

Performing at home

In 2006, Jack moved to Highland Springs, an Erickson Living community in North Dallas. He performs with his orchestra four to six times a month.

One of Jack’s most recent engagements was the Highland Springs Gala, held at the North Dallas community on September 20.

“Jack and his orchestra have played at our gala for the past three years,” says Community Resources Coordinator Barbara Blachly. “They’re such a big draw that tickets to this year’s gala sold out in three days.”

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