A thing for swing

Posted: Thursday, October 07, 2004


  Bob Ramponi practices guitar in his Soldotna home Friday. The musician played with San Francisco band Swing Fever on its Kenai Peninsula tour recently. Photo by Jenny Neyman

Bob Ramponi practices guitar in his Soldotna home Friday. The musician played with San Francisco band Swing Fever on its Kenai Peninsula tour recently.

Photo by Jenny Neyman

Soldotna musician Bob Ramponi has caught a fever and hopes it spreads, though it has nothing to do with the impending cold and flu season.

Ramponi was invited to perform with the San Francisco band Swing Fever as it toured the Kenai Peninsula recently, giving him a chance to indulge his love of swing music and make him wistful for more such performances on the peninsula.

"The response was just fantastic," Ramponi said of the performances in Homer, Kenai, Seldovia and Valdez. "... I'm kind of on a mission to get it out there more."

Ramponi has been a swing and jazz devotee since he was starting out in music as a kid in Boston. He began lessons at age 7 following the influence of musician family members from Italy, and by age 10 he was a performing accordion player.

Then it was the early '60s and Ramponi's jazz and swing interest took a back seat to a more popular music trend of the time.

"By 12, like everyone else, I started playing rock and roll guitar," he said.

But by the time he began attending Berklee College of Music in Boston, he had returned to his swing and jazz roots, now playing guitar, piano and accordion.

"The feel of swing is something that most everybody likes," he said. "It's a little more refined than rock and roll was at that time."

The refinement of the music and the challenges posed by a style of music that relies so heavily on improvisation appealed to him.

"The whole goal is to have an openness to it for improvisation," he said. "... The more complex it is, the more avenues you have to go on. ... You get to go further, you get to go more places with it."

That doesn't mean he spurns other music styles, however.

"I still love a good simple blues tune, too."

Along with music education, composing and conducting skills, his college program taught him to be an all-around musician for hire capable of playing any style, whether it was recording jingles for commercials, working on film scores, backing up some touring performer or being part of the orchestra in a musical.

Ramponi achieved the difficult goal of being a full-time musician straight out of college, a career which took him to the Caribbean, up and down the East Coast and on some road trips elsewhere in the country.

Back then, performers didn't travel with full bands as much as they do now, so there were opportunities to perform with big-name acts when they came to town.

"You were trained to play for whoever showed up," he said.

Ramponi said playing with comedian and musician Joe Pesci was particularly memorable, since he was such a top-notch performer. Working with big-name stars can have its drawbacks, however, such as dealing with their big-name egos. But a good working musician was prepared even for that.

"That's something we learn," Ramponi said. "To be a great entertainer, they need to have some kind of ego and we learn to deal with that and our job is to support them."

Though making a living as a musician often can mean taking whatever jobs you can get, Ramponi still was able to land swing gigs from time to time. Jazz and swing weren't the music crazes of the time, but there still were some dance bands around that Ramponi was lucky enough to play with, he said.

An interest in climbing instigated his exodus from the East Coast.

"Just like everybody else probably, (I moved to Alaska) by accident," he said.

After a climbing trip on Mount McKinley, Ramponi stopped by the University of Alaska Fairbanks to visit a friend of his. While there he met the personnel director, who offered Ramponi a job. He took it and spent a year teaching singing and band in public schools in the Lake and Peninsula District. After that he ran the instrumental music program in Tok for 10 years. That was nice because he could get to Fairbanks to participate in its up-and-coming jazz program, which satisfied his itch for the music, he said.

After meeting his wife, Jill, they moved to the central Kenai Peninsula to take jobs in area schools. He gave up public school teaching in order to start his own business and raise his kids, while his wife still teaches. Now he is a private music teacher, teaching mainly college music program-bound students guitar, bass guitar, piano, accordion and improvisation. His own kids, Angela, 12, and Theresa, 14, play a range of instruments themselves, so there often is music in the Ramponi home.

"If anybody's doing anything in the house with music, they can go at it," Ramponi said. "They have to be allowed to experiment."

No matter what the popular music trend of the moment is or whatever his kids decide to listen to, Ramponi will never succumb to the parental urge to tell them to "turn that racket down," since he is open to all music.

"We need to be accepting of all styles in order for music to evolve," Ramponi said. "... We need to have the simple styles to come about that are a little different to get that evolution."

Now that his kids are older, Ramponi hopes to go through a little evolution himself in his music career -- namely being able to travel and perform more, like he did with Swing Fever.

"They were real, real professional and really good players. Not just good -- excellent," he said of the band.

Ramponi is in a jazz quartet that plays once in a while on the peninsula, as well as the Masters of Jazz and Alaska Swing Company groups that play mostly in Anchorage. He hopes to find more venues to share his thing for swing with area audiences.

"I'm going to keep pursuing it," he said. "With the reception we had with Swing Fever, we'd like to try and do more swing music here."

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