Alfred Vrazel has received countless letters and emails in his 55-year career as a polka DJ onKMIL 1330 AM in Cameron, but one he got recently really stood out. “I wanted to send this email to you to let you know about the impact you had on my life,” wrote Gary Schutza, Jr., principal trumpet player with the Kansas City Symphony, a position he has held for 30 years.
Gary went on to explain. “When I was very young (6 or 7), my parents would go to almost any dance that Vrazels played in central Texas. They were usually in some hot, tin barn-like dance hall in a town I didn't know. They would start dancing and leave us kids to fend for ourselves. As I never knew anyone I generally spent my time up by the bandstand watching the band up close. I watched the trumpet players particularly, how they used the different mutes and all. I thought that to be a musician on stage playing for appreciative people, getting to wear a tuxedo and everything, would be the coolest thing in the world.”
Alfred says he was touched by the email. “The fact that he took the time to write me and knowing something you’ve done has had such an impact on someone. It just made my day,” he says.
Vrazel recalls the band’s trumpet players in the late 1950s into early 1907s were Larry Oljenik and Julius Dubcak, who were featured on a few album recordings, including Golden Polkas on the TNT label.
Gary talked his parents (his mom was a Patak) into letting him play the trumpet. He played all through school and into college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, eventually studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Gary’s first job after college in 1980 was playing first trumpet in the Omaha Symphony, then a year later he landed the first trumpet job in the KC Symphony.
“I just wanted him to know that his band is the reason I’m playing trumpet,” Gary says. “It’s wonderful making music and getting paid to do it!”
In addition to playing with the 75-piece symphony orchestra, Gary formed a brass quintet, featuring two trumpets, horn, trombone, and tuba. They’ve recorded one Christmas album and are working on a second. Gary has done all the arrangements for the second album and he says you can definitely hear the Czech music influence. “I remember Christmas at my grandparents. My grandpa (Frank Marek) played the accordion. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer was a polka, all the carols were polka,” he says. One of the quintet’s Christmas performances this past year was called Beer Barrel Carols. Hope it comes out on CD!
Gary’s favorite classical composer is, not surprisingly, Antonín Dvořák. Czech music is just gorgeous, he says. Gary comes back to Texas to visit his dad (Gary Sr.) and brother in Dallas, but not as often as he’d like. The symphony has 180 performances in 44 weeks of the year, including playing The Nutcracker up to 24 times during Christmas. “That’s a lot of Nutcrackers!” Gary says. The musicians get a break with eight weeks during the summer.
Gary told Alfred in the email that he still enjoys listening to a good Czech polka. “Just sort of makes me smile, remembering a small 7-year-old boy leaning up against the bandstand hour after hour drinking it all in. I've also become a composer and arranger here in Kansas City, and you'd be surprised to know how often a polka style creeps into my writing. My friends in the orchestra ask me, ‘Why is there a polka in that arrangement?’ I just tell them that nothing beats a good polka for making people happy.”
No argument here, Gary!