Ken Skitch. “Kenny.”

spanish_Ken_Skitch_1By George Halas

There are a number of very good reasons why you might recognize the name, despite the fact that he is a very humble, self-described “utility man” who deliberately avoids the spotlight.

Perhaps you know him as the co-leader and trombonist for The Big Band Reunion, the 18-piece jazz big band now in its 24th year, and playing every Tuesday night from October through May at Frank’s Pizza Palace on College Ave.

“I’m a utility person and that’s how I see myself,” Skitch said. “Except for a couple of times, I’ve never taken a leadership role.” He estimates that, since his arrival in Wisconsin in 1987, he has been a member of over 25 bands, and has subbed in over 30 others.

Skitch is “complemented mightily” by BBR co-leader and trumpeter Marty Robinson, but the two have taken the reins of the BBR for the last two as the result of careful consideration by BBR founder Bob Levy.

“Ken is one of the original members of The BBR, he is an excellent lead trombonist and he has led his section very well,” Levy said. “First and foremost, though, is that he is very highly respected for his musicianship.”

“Bob’s vision was to make sure that his successors were respected as musicians, because you have to lead by example,” Skitch said. “It is also my role as MC (master of ceremonies) to get the audience involved and enjoying what we’ve got.”

“There is a fine line between being a community band and being elite. It’s tough to do both,” he noted. “We have focused the members on producing the highest quality music and they feel privileged to be in the band.”

Skitch and Robinson have also created set lists that enable The BBR to play more songs per night.

“People come to hear the band,” he said, “and we’re giving them more.”

While The BBR library has over 1500 compositions and the band rarely plays the same tune twice in a year, “there are a couple of real favorites that we should and will play more often.”

Skitch also plays with Vic Ferrari Symphony on The Rocks – he and bandmates Chris Felts and Jack Naus form The HD Horns, but he may be best known for his work at Heid Music.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in performance and composition from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and auditioning “for some symphonies,” he studied instrument repair at Allied Music.

spanish_HDHorns_1A horrible repair job on a new trombone that brought a fellow band member to tears inspired him.

“I’ve always been mechanical and started to think about it as a career,” he said. “A guy who did a very good job on one of my instruments told me to go to Allied. In 1987, I moved to Appleton for my first wife and a job….and I kept the job.” (laugh)
The “job” was as a repair technician at Heid. He was promoted to service manager in 1995, a position he has held ever since.

“I don’t want anyone to be disappointed,” Skitch said. “I don’t want anyone to have to go through what my friend did.”

He has gained worldwide recognition by giving clinics on repair and serving as the president of the National Association of Professional Band Instrument Repair Technicians (NAPBIRT). Some of the best musicians in the world – Clark Terry, for example – know him as a “lifesaver.”

Tom Washatka, one of the best saxophone players in Wisconsin, is a big believer.

“It was early 90’s, I was packing up after a late gig and I dropped a PA speaker on my saxophone,” Washatka said. “I knew what the damage might be so I waited until the next morning to peak into my case.  Sure enough the horn was schmushed.  The point of impact was about half way down the horn and compressed the body of the horn into an oval shape – should be round – and bent numerous keys and rods.  It was unplayable. I called Kenny and dropped off my horn later that day. Up to that point I knew him only as a bassist/trombonist, but was aware that he also worked as a horn repair guy.”

The next day, Skitch called. 

“He had taken the horn apart and pulled the body of the horn back to its original shape,” Washatka said. “He put the keys back on the horn to check alignments of the keys to the tone holes – and this is the expertise of one Kenny Skitch – all the keys lined up perfectly!  Unbelievable!  He had the horn for another day to make final adjustments.  I got the horn back and it looked and played as if NOTHING had happened. Well, needless to say he’s been my repair guy ever since. He’s gotten a big head and charges me an arm and a leg for repair (laugh).  But worth it he is!”

Roger Rosenberg of Steely Dan is also a big Skitch fan.

“While I was on the road, I was having problems with my bass clarinet. When we got to Appleton, I contacted Bob Levy and he immediately recommended Ken,” Rosenberg said. “He not only did it quickly and in a very professional way, he was nice, friendly and very accommodating.”

“As a touring professional, it is vital to be able to make that kind of contact in that situation,” he said. “I absolutely recommend Ken to anyone.”

Very good player, great guy and his wife, Paula…is glad he kept the job.

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