Former Fredonia teacher still enjoying jazz

"Rolling Along" showband with Farina on lead trumpet. Frank Farina with Farina and Friends is performing tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Barker Common.

Editor’s note: Farina & Friends will be performing tonight at 6:30 p.m. for the Fredonia Gazebo Concert series. Below is a profile on Frank Farina.

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It was 1959 when Frank Farina was drafted into the U.S. Army. A recent graduate of Albany State College with a master’s degree in education, Farina was not fazed by the precarious state of the world during that time; the growing threat of a nuclear war that had so many young Americans practicing emergency drills in the basements of schools was not a distraction for Farina as he auditioned for the Army show band “Rolling Along.” He passed the audition and was selected lead trumpeter for the top-rated Army band that would travel the world entertaining American troops during the height of the Cold War.

“I was really not aware of all of that,” he said in a recent interview. “It was a period between wars, and I was happy to be playing in a great band. We toured every U.S. Army base in the world playing hits like ‘Mac the Knife’ and ‘Love for Sale’. Some of the performers in the show band went on to do really big things. The comedian Jack Riley was on the ‘Bob Newhart Show’ many times, and Ron Masak was a regular as a cop on ‘Murder She Wrote’.”

One of the perks for Specialist PFC Farina was the opportunity between shows to explore so many different countries and cities, including (West) Germany, France, and Italy, along with stints in the Korean demilitarized zone and Japan, where the band was filmed for TV shows. When asked about what places were most memorable he responded, “Of course I enjoyed Italy, because that’s where my parents immigrated from as teenagers.”

After his two-year service in the military, Farina returned to Western New York, where he had earned his undergraduate music degree, and he began his teaching career in Eden, and then on to Fredonia Central School where he taught for 28 years. During the ’70s, he initiated a piano tuning and repair training program at the Chautauqua Institution.

Throughout it all, Farina played music. As a top-notch piano player and trumpeter, he worked clubs and dance halls across Western New York in small combos featuring with regional pros like Joe Strada, Tubby Wallace, Ralph Rasmusson, Tony Di Russo, and Vince Costello. He also worked in various big show bands, most notably the Sammy Kaye Band. He even performed for Hilary Clinton during her run for the New York State Senate.

Farina cites Doc Severinsen and Oscar Peterson as two of his favorite jazz artists — ones that are truly great jazz artists. When asked about some of the more experimental jazz forms, he was reluctant to offer his opinion at first. When pressed, he stated that many of those players “have skill and technique, and certainly can play their instruments, but sometimes they lose sight of the song. After a while you can’t even tell what the song is because they get so far away from it.”

The song is what Frank Farina is all about. And he will tell you proudly that he knows over a thousand of them. He will also note that while the great jazz standards are still appreciated by music lovers, the audience is not what it once was. “It used to be that a typical gig was from 9 to 1 in the morning. From 9 to 10, the people ate dinner. Then for the rest of the night, they danced. Today, nobody dances, and that’s why gigs are so hard to get.”

Here’s one of Frank’s favorite jokes: A small group got a New Year’s Eve gig at a local club. They performed well, and the audience liked them. After the show the owner asked them if they’d play again the next New Year’s Eve party. The band leader readily agreed, and asked the owner, “do you mind we leave our equipment here?”

Of course it’s not that bad. There remains a sophisticated audience that appreciates real artistry, and musicians that excel on their instruments still find a way to get out and play. In fact, you can catch Frank Farina perform with the Hilltopper Quartet at least one Saturday evening a month in Fredonia at The Liberty. Farina & Friends is also performing tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Barker Common, Fredonia, as part of the Gazebo Concert Series. With a thousand songs up his sleeve, you’ll be sure to hear some of your favorites.

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