A Tribute to Marvin Pakman

Volume 116, No. 11November, 2016

Jill Pakman

UPDATE: Marvin Pakman passed away on Sept. 19, 2023 at the age of 95. Please enjoy this tribute below written in 2016 by his daughter Jill when he was 88 and had just achieved Honor status at Local 802.

Local 802 member Marvin Pakman with his accordion as a young man.

Local 802 member Marvin Pakman with his accordion as a young man.

Fiddler on the Roof is enjoying a triumphant return to Broadway. Famously, there is a lyric in the song “Tradition” that goes, “At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten I learned a trade…” Well, my father, Marvin Pakman, never went to Hebrew school, but by age ten, he had definitely learned a trade: that of musician. Dad began that trade by playing drums in the Jewish War Veteran Band (Trenton, New Jersey chapter), which his father directed.

Dad’s stint as the “little drummer boy” then brought him to the accordion. He was a bit of a prodigy and my grandfather thought he had a little Mozart on his hands. He was good, and the local teacher, a lovely old Italian man named Emile Dinzo, who charged my grandparents 25 cents per lesson, finally had to tell them that Dad had surpassed his talents.

So, at age 16, Dad needed a new teacher. His older brother remembered that he had gone to Trenton High School with a fine accordionist, Angelo Dellaira. My uncle got in touch with Ange and learned he had made the move to NYC, where he had already joined Local 802 and was playing and orchestrating for the NBC orchestra of the day. Angelo was teaching out of Joe Biviano’s studio on 48th Street, very near Local 802 headquarters. The best of the best NYC accordionists were in and around Biviano’s studio. Ange Dellaira became my dad’s mentor and virtually a surrogate father, as my dad was no longer getting support for his music from his own parents by that time.

Dad was barely 5’5″ in those days (shorter now at the age of 88) and he would schlep his accordion on the train from Trenton to NYC for his weekly lessons with Ange. He paid for the lessons and the train with his Trenton Times paper route.

His mother (my grandmother) had cousins in Brooklyn. When Dad went for his membership in Local 802 in 1948, he lived with them to establish residency. In those days, the only gig a musician could play without being a member of Local 802 was a club date. Ange made certain that Dad played as much as he could. Dad would tell Ange that he hadn’t memorized all the songs. But when he got fired from one gig, Ange would just find him another one.

Dad’s first real gig after becoming a member of 802 was playing with a ship band on a 30-day cruise to South America. That’s where he began to pick up the Latin rhythms that he became so fond of. While he was living in the deep recesses of the ship, he was playing for those passengers in first class in all its 1948 glory. He even played private parties in large staterooms upon request, sometimes strolling with and accompanying the solo violinist. This all took place on the Moore McCormick Cruise Line, the only American cruise line at the time. (Fifty years later, he found himself on a refurbished version of one of those ships with me serving as Jewish clergy doing Chanukah music on a Christmas cruise!). A Jersey boy who had never been anywhere but Atlantic City, he got to see all of South America during a period in history resurrected on Broadway years later in “Evita.”

As I mentioned, Dad was good. While on the ship, mid-cruise, he got word that he was chosen to perform on the Ted Mack “Original Amateur Hour” talent show, but, as he couldn’t exactly swim back to NYC for the show in the two days after receiving the telegram, a rival performed in his stead who was then able to forge a longstanding performance career.

When the cruise gig ended, Dad was booked with the Raymond Ramos Band, playing the Statler Hotel chain. Buffalo, Washington, D.C., Detroit…you name it. If there was a Statler Hotel, they played it. He met the band in Detroit in his one and only tuxedo and brown shoes. Needless to say the older band members, like violinist Lou Stone, who went on to become a musicians’ contractor in NYC, and the fine, fine, pianist “Juli” Cerulli, had to take him under their wings and show him the ropes.

Besides being the house band, they also accompanied the shows that came into the hotel. Dad ended up backing up and playing shows with the likes of Marge and Gower Champion and Señor Wences. He was witness to the late Buddy Rich, already wearing his famous turtleneck, cursing out a hotel manager for reminding Buddy that he needed to be wearing a tie in the lobby of the Statler hotel! Dad even had the honor of meeting Bess Truman, who stayed at the hotel. According to Dad, she loved to ballroom dance to the Latin rhythms.

After the Raymond Ramos Band got fired when Raymond fell off the bandstand from too much whatever, Dad returned home to Trenton. He put forth the idea of a little jazz radio show at the local station WBUD called “The Coolest 15 Minutes in Jazz.” He was doing all the arrangements and was singing a bit in those days, as well as playing his now-prized possession, an Excelsior accordion. After just a few shows, they were getting calls and fan mail. When they ran a contest, Dad’s little radio band received 1,500 responses. That was a lot in those days for a local radio station.

So, he was doing pretty well – and then he received a letter from Uncle Sam. It was late 1950. Fortunately, Dad remained stateside throughout his two-year stint in the Army. However, he was placed in an infantry unit and saw the Korean writing on the wall, if you will. He knew there was a band at Fort Benning, Georgia, so he marched over and told the “old man”/commander that he was a musician. They dragged out their accordion and he had to prove himself. He won the audition and spent the rest of his Army days in the 201st Army Band. He strolled with a great violinist who played clarinet in the band and, of course, they were “illegally” playing gigs across the Chattahoochee River in Alabama, crawling in at 4:30 a.m. and “falling out” for Reveille at 5 a.m.!

Dad came home to Trenton after his enlistment. At his parents’ behest, he sort of left behind his music and became a watchmaker/jeweler – a rather unsuccessful switch. He spent 13 years trying to make a go of that. What he did make a go of at that point in his life, however, was finding a wonderful woman to marry (my mother) and being blessed with a baby girl – me. He always played gigs on the weekends, continuing his club date career in and around the Trenton area, with even a little Philadelphia work at times. By special permission, he always maintained his full Local 802 membership even while being a member of Local 62. The musicians’ union was always that important to Dad.

Eventually, he could not financially maintain his watchmaker/jewelry business. He took a job in local industry and did well, but wanted to return to a musical career. He began night school as an undergraduate music education student, returning to his first instrumental interest – drums and percussion– working with his friend Tony DiNicola at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey.

He had earned 36 college credits by 1968 when the Trenton riots occurred. Most people are familiar with the aftermath of riots in the major New Jersey cities; they left the school districts scrambling for teachers. By this time, my mother, Leatrice, was well ensconced as a business education teacher in the Trenton public schools and helped Dad land his teaching position in Trenton’s Junior High School #1 in October 1968 with what was termed an emergency teaching certificate. He was hired when two teachers left after only a few weeks and the third didn’t even bother to show up. His classroom was the school auditorium with 800 seats, and he was slated to teach general music. His experiences there are a whole other story…

Suffice it to say, through sheer will, along with all of his musical experience, he was able to create an award-winning stage band with his students, some of whom couldn’t recite the English alphabet. He got scholarships for three of his students to the acclaimed George School. He completed his teaching career in the elementary schools, teaching elementary general music, choir, strings and band instruments.

Dad has been retired since 1988, due to his first bout with cancer that was supposed to be his demise. He continued to play his Cordovox on club dates and then graduated to electronic keyboards when he and I created a duo and started playing gigs. I sang 1980s top-40 hits and played the violin, and he sang and backed me up.

In 1985, I went on to the USAF Strategic Air Command Band in Omaha. My one enlistment led me to a cantorial career in the Reform movement of American Judaism. All the while, Dad continued to play solo, while also accompanying, arranging and transposing music for me. We performed together for many years, and our show consisted of standards and Broadway music in the straight-ahead jazz style that Dad’s ear was trained in – the sounds that emanated from so many windows on 48th Street between 1946 and 1950.

That’s why Dad is so proud to still be a full dues-paying member of Local 802. Each month, he reads Allegro (especially Bill Crow’s Band Room) and thinks of some of his experiences on the road, including his two years in the NYC musical scene. He’s proud to support the best musicians in the world and, in a small way, sees himself as part of what they still do.

Jill Pakman is a cantor and a member of AFM Local 62 (Trenton).

UPDATE: Marvin Pakman passed away on Sept. 19, 2023 at the age of 95.