Robert Baca Interview, pt. 2




Robert Baca is a professor of trumpet and director of jazz studies at the university of Wisconsin Eau Claire. This Oral History examines Baca’s experiences with music during his upbringing, including his time as a freelance musician and how he came to UWEC. Baca then discusses the music culture of Eau Claire which includes a large focus on the Viennese Ball. Baca gives his first impressions of the event, the importance of the Ball to the music department and students, and what it was like working with Ada Bors.


Interviewers Josh Yira and Jordan Roberts


May 5, 2019



Josh Yira: My name is Josh Yira.

Jordan Roberts: Jordan Roberts

JY: We’re here interviewing for the Sounds of Eau Claire History Project, and we’re

Robert Baca: Robert Baca

JY: About the Viennese Ball in Eau Claire. So we’ll get started with some easy background. Where are you from? Where were you born, and tell us a little bit about your upbringing, if you could.

RB: So, I grew up 40 miles south of Chicago, in a suburb called Lockport, Illinois. Which was a smaller satellite of a main suburb of Chicago called Joliet. It was the most southern suburb, I mention that because it had partly to do with my upbringing. Two blocks from my house were cornfields, and 40 miles north was downtown Chicago. So, a very pleasant town to grow up in in my generation, largely blue-collar, operated by two oil plants, the Texaco refinery, and I think the other one was Cisgo or something like that. I grew up in a family of six children, my father worked at the Texaco refinery, my mother was a housewife. They were depression-era folks. So, my father graduated from 8th grade and my mother went to High School for one year. Two of us, in the family went to college, and let’s see, my upbringing. So, I got into my profession in that everybody in family except for my brother and I played accordion.

JY: Cool

RB: And my older brother is Tom, who is four years older, played saxophone in the band
program, and we had, this was the late 1960’s, and so band programs in that time were very strict and militaristic. This part of Chicago, was one of the two hot-beds for music and band in the country. There’s a long story about how it got to be that way, but because of that, the band programs were of a high-caliber. So that, so they could require a lot. When I was in 6th grade we made our first record, and we made a record in 6th, 7th and 8th grade with this band program, 25% of my 8th grade class ended up majoring in music, or becoming professional musicians or some type of teachers.

JY: Right, very cool. So, you went over a little bit about what drew you to music and where did you go to College and how did that interest foster into, like, your major decision.

RB: Sure. Well I have to take one step back to do that. So, in my Sophomore year in high school, my Freshman year in high school we had a new band director, and he had a different point of view than the other band director. To his credit, for demanding his point of view was, rebellious, because the band director before him who had been there for about 35 years was this very famous band leader named, Earnest Keneva. And so if you watch the movie, The Music Man, and you see the marching band playing off in the end, that was the Lockport High School marching band, and because this band leader was like, so famous that this band is in this really epic movie. So he retired, and they had this other band director and he had an interest in orchestra music, besides band music. Orchestra’s were not plentiful in public school at that time, we didn’t have one. So to hear that music was really different, and for a lot of us on our first time we went to go see it, boring, because we couldn’t relate to it at all, and with our town being mostly blue-collar, blue-collar people don’t listen to orchestra. They listen to country music if
they listen to anything at all.


RB: So, it took a couple concerts and the first concert I fell asleep in after five minutes of
listening to it. The second concert they started out by playing this huge piece that was mostly brass, I had played trumpet already but just didn’t have that much of an interest, and this piece started out with this big trumpet solo alone, it’s called “Mahler's 5th Symphony” and after I heard that I thought “wow” that was really it. I met the person who had played the solo, and was kind of just like a little kid from then on out, holy cow, and then so when I looked for schools, I looked for many schools that were gonna have good orchestra programs, but found out that, my father had said in 7th grade “if you wanna go to college, we aren’t gonna be able to afford to send you there. So, you need to start working right now”. So I did, I worked at a flower shop in 7th and 8th grade, and then I worked at a hardware store all during high school, I still didn’t have enough money to be able to go to college. So I went to a community college and went there for two years until I could save enough money and finally went to Indiana University. I chose, we
had a great orchestra school in Chicago, named Northwestern College, but it only had one orchestra. So your chances of getting in, they only had four trumpet players, so your chances of getting in that orchestra are difficult. Indiana University had five, I was really interested in that, and also the trumpet teacher that I had at the Community College had gone there, and he studied with this epic trumpet teacher named, Bill Adam, and, I had no idea if the music school was good. He told me about the orchestras being there, but if I wouldn’t have followed his advice holy cow I could only imagine what things would have been like, but because he said so, I just trusted him and I went there and was able to study with Mr. Adam for several years about nine years actually and I went on and did a masters degree and close to a doctorate there. Got the top spot in the top orchestra there and was on my way to become just like Mr. Herseth in the Chicago Symphony and couldn’t get a job. So I was able to get a job with a jazz group, and so
that’s kinda the course that my career took, was with jazz music.

JY: So, following that, coming out of college, not really being able to find a job right away, as you said. What brought you to Eau Claire, Wisconsin?

RB: A job.

JY: A job.

RB: So, I played with some of these different jazz groups, and then I was supposed to get
married before going on the road with some of these different groups, and, so my wife Jodie, actually said “this is more important for you right now” and we put our marriage off by about two years and about three or four months actually. I got off of the road like two days before we got married, I don’t remember what, July 14, 1984. I don’t remember what day that was, probably a Saturday or something, but I got off two days before. She had planned the whole wedding and I just kind of showed up and then we got married, and she had been living in Indianapolis already. So, I moved to Indianapolis, and worked as what’s called a freelance musician, and a freelance musician is where you get paid, per service.

JY: Per gig kind of, almost?

RB: Kind of per gig, and back in that day, they had contractors that would employ you for, kind of like a job, where you would, unless, you know, performance is kind of like being an athlete you could get fired at any time, but you could be like the first call, the second call, the third call of a particular place, and so I did that and then freelanced with every type of music in Indianapolis and there were many reasons it was Heaven in so many ways.


RB: But in other ways it was not that great, it was not the greatest way to start a marriage off because not only do you play all the things in town, but they had a contractor that was there, that was called what’s called a national contractor, and that means that he would book tours. And so, when you’re young, that’s when you go on the road. Because when you have kids and a family, you can’t be gone for eight weeks or something, and so he did people like Frank Sinatra, people like Mel Torme, Tony Bennett and so he had this group of people that day touring and playing with kind of a studio orchestra. Thirty-seven piece studio orchestra was more common of what people were used to listening to. So, we would travel for, anywhere from five to seven to ten weeks at a time, and so it was great, but it just wasn’t a good way to get a marriage started.

JY: Time taxing I’m sure.

RB: Very taxing, but musically, holy cow, just really great. You get really close to the musicians, and we had a very special group of people there because Indianapolis is not too big, but it’s not too small. So, we had excellent musicians of very high quality and we were all challenged, but it was small enough where we were family. So there wasn’t lots of groups and you went from this group to this group to this group, but it was pretty much just us, and so we were with each other almost every day. There was a lot of recording back then, so recording would be from 8 to 9 o’clock in the morning until about 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and that was at least four days a week back then. That does not happen today unless you’re in just a couple of area’s, and then you’d go home for dinner and then play a broadway show at night, and then when you got done playing a broadway show, at least three to four nights a week there was a rehearsal band, and a rehearsal band is where it’s all jazz musicians, and they just read music, and pretty much like big band music, and you do that until like 1 o’clock in the morning and then you do that because that is more the on the edge musically challenging music when everything else you’ve been doing is more for the general public.

JY: Doing something for yourself a little bit?

RB: Yes, kind of intellectually challenge, but also whoever was playing in those bands were called for other types of gigs because they’d hear you an that band and they’d say “Oh that guy can really play” so we have this recording session that has something similar to what he did tonight let’s hire him. You know for that, and so we’d keep our connections up that way, and so for a musician it was really great. Another influence of coming here was, my father was really into fishing, and so once he’d been at the factory for about 25 years, he would load up the family in a station wagon and we would come here.

JY: Oh, really?

RB: And so we’d come to, we went to northern Wisconsin and then we went to northern
Minnesota, and the last couple of years before I had to work a lot, we went to Canada. And I don’t remember these places as much, but I do remember Canada. I think we were in 6th or 7th grade at that time and those would be going to an island in Lake of the Woods, fishing fourteen hours a day, and I just have incredibly great memories about what that was, about what that was like. So. to come to Eau Claire, Wisconsin was a little bit like coming to paradise, and it was, and it’s been paradise for thirty-two years now, as far as I’m concerned.

JY: That’s awesome, so what groups were you first a part of when you got to Eau Claire, other than being a professor at the University, and are you part of those groups still?

RB: Performing groups?JY: Yeah.

RB: Well, and I continued to be a freelance musician, and that means you play with many
different kinds of groups. So, interestingly enough you know we’re very much a family so
probably for about four years I travelled regularly back and forth to Indianapolis. For if they would have a large project.


RB: Like, I remember one that I would travel back for, is Indianapolis was doing the Disney Ice Show at that time, and so what that meant was, it was held there. I’ll try to describe the process very quickly. A person would write the music and in this case his name was Jerry Billick and he was a famous band writer, and he was the guy who was hired by Disney to do that at that time and he would write it all on piano and then he would send it out by fax machine, because we didn’t have internet back then. This is the 80’s and he would send that out by fax machine to people called orchestrators, and an orchestrator would take this thirty-seven piece orchestra, it was our orchestra, and then they would take that instrumentation and take the color that they think he intended from the keyboard and they would prescribe that particular part to french horns or to trombones and they had that background of being able to make that sound really good, and then those people would send in their things to people called copyists at that time, and now most copying is done digitally, but at that tie it was handwritten. And for that session in particular the turnaround time was about a week. So, he would send it out to the orchestrators. So let’s say we had eighty pieces, over the course of five days, eight hours a day we would be recording for the Disney Ice Show. The parts would be coming in by fax machine to the copyers, and then the copiers would write it out by hand really quick, and then a runner, would run in as soon as they got done with something they would run it in and the conductor, Jerry Billick, you know would say “Hey here’s 78, now what’s gonna happen here” you know, and then they would describe that and then we would just record that right away. So, it was really great, and it was a lot of activity, and then one of the wonderful advantages about being in Eau Claire is the fact that
we’re located near a very big city, but a very arts-oriented city. Minneapolis was just passed up by New York City probably about six or seven years ago now, as the highest city for arts entrepreneurship in the nation, per-capita. So, for its size, and New York was second until then, so for its size there was more, and what that means, entrepreneurship is creative projects for the arts. So, what does that mean? That means that broadway shows would start in Minneapolis. Somebody would write something and then they would start it here, or there’s so many creative musicians in all the different arts fields here that they would write something and they would make this ensemble and so it was really great for that. So I wanted to become involved with that and I tried to get things, the director before me did a wonderful job. But each person wants to
make something their own so I needed to spend two or three years getting comfortable with making a environment here, and then I went there to start to play, and I went to rehearsal bands. So I played in rehearsal bands and then somebody would hear you play just like in Indianapolis it was 10 o’clock till’ 1 o’clock in the morning groups, for practically free, but more high-energy music, and then they would say “let’s hire him for this project”. So there I went and for probably about, let’s see that would have been about 1986, when I started here, to probably about 1995 or 96. I did a lot of different things there. Now, Minneapolis is way bigger than Indianapolis, so there was not a group of musicians that did everything. There was a pocket of musicians that did this part of the city or this theatre. Are you familiar with Minneapolis?

JY: Yeah I grew up in Hudson, so pretty close.

RB: So I can describe it easily then.[00:20:00]

RB: So there was a group of musicians who played the Ordway, and everything having to do with the Ordway and the different projects and the things in that area was just kind of like it was its own city. And then there was a different group of musicians that played at the Orpheum and the different theaters around that area. So, I started in one and would play there and play with different kinds of bands, and then my kids were born and I realized, “oh no you’ve done it again, you’re like never home”. And now I have kids, and so I cut back. My estimate, I figured it out one time, that I estimate that I cut out about 70% of what I did, and before that, my wife and I at that point, she’s a musician too, so she understood about being gone and everything like that. But kids, they’re a different animal, you would really have to spend a lot of time with them. So, I think I concentrated on teaching here, but when my kids were born, I really concentrated on teaching here. It was interesting somebody asked me about this just today, it actually kind of switched where I play so that I can stay in the game so that I can understand where they’re
coming from, if that makes any sense. So, as opposed to twenty years ago I did this and the industry is totally different. Now, I tried to keep active on a smaller level, so that I could understand what they’re talking about and still be able to guide them in the right direction, because many of the players here want to play.

JY: Absolutely, so now we’re gonna focus in a bit more on the Viennese Ball. So, what was your first interaction and impression of the Viennese Ball in Eau Claire? That might be too big of a question but…

RB: Well, interesting, and I know everything odd is what always gets published, so I have to watch my words here. The Viennese Ball was about the most different idea of a musical event Ihad ever seen. I categorized it as being from Mars when I first saw it. And of course it had been happening before I got here. When was it 1983 or 70-something?

JY: I think it was late 70’s when it first started.

RB: Late 70’s, and the background of it I think is incredible, how it got started. But it was in a hay day when I first got here, it would be sold out a year in advance. Saturday in particular was sold out a year in advance, and Friday would sell out at least six months in advance, the tickets would be gone within two to three days after they sent on sale, and the Viennese Ball is in April, so maybe May 1st they went on sale, and it was certainly at that point viewed as a high-point for the entire city. Now of course we’re talking before digital technology, we’re talking before internet, and all of those types of things but it really showed me, to have something that big, and have that variety of music, it showed me that this was really a unique school. And I think that started out as weird but then it switched to just very, unique and very different. For the music department it was a wonderful atmosphere because all of the different areas in the music department were exhibited in it, and it was for scholarships for musicians, and so everyone was coming together to give their best for the audience to have scholarships for the students. And, so I obviously directed the Jazz Ensemble for that, for about two or three years, and then they hired another young person. I think I was 26 or 27 when I first came here, and they hired another young person for the orchestra job, Nobu Yasuda.


RB: In many different ways we think very much alike, and so we tried to do some things
collectively to enhance the idea of the Viennese Ball.

JY: Very cool. Yeah I also think Nobu got interviewed for this project.

RB: He should If he hasn’t

JY: I’m pretty sure he did. But yeah I’m sure he has a lot of interesting stuff to say on it as well. So going off that, that was back when Ada Bors was running the Viennese Ball. What was your first impression of Ada Bors?

RB: Strict. Very strict. And, whenever you’re in a new situation anyway you naturally view yourself as the lower part of the totem pole, so everything is “yes ma’am”. So we were told at that time what types of tunes, how many of those types of tunes that we could play, and I remember playing with different bands, but most of those bands were either there for the general public or for really advanced jazz musicians, and through meeting Ada Bors, I learned of the vast variety of dancing styles that were invented during the big band/swing era. And the different types of Latin dances, the medium swing. There’s like sixty of them, and I know it as medium swing and not only did she declare that you’ve gotta do this style and make sure, and this is a person who’s not a musician, make sure your drummer does this kind of a beat, and don’t play a quarter note equals one-twenty two it's gotta be a quarter note equals one-twenty or it’s not right. And did she have this background? No. but she wanted to make the Viennese Ball a very classy, the epitome of second to Vienna, in quality as well. And to do that she had to be very about it. So, she was the catalyst, and she put in the mechanisms to create this very high standard. So how do you get where it actually matters if it’s at one-twenty or if it’s at one-twenty two? You hire the elite dance group in town at that time, that knows the difference. And then she would come and she would way “they know the difference, and if we can’t please them, and if they talk bad about us, the whole event looks bad. So don’t play that at one-twenty two next time. Play it at one-twenty because they came and complained about that.” so you need to play this many Latin tunes, and they said not enough cucarachas and stuff. So, that was really a great education. On the same token she was the epitome of praise, and so because she was so strict, when she praised
something that you or the ensemble did, you knew it was really worth it.

JY: It was genuine.

RB: It was very genuine, and simple rules that we all try to teach our students, starting on time. That if we tell the audience we’re gonna start at 9:30 we cannot start at ten seconds after 9:30. It has to be waiting for a downbeat to happen at ten seconds to 9:30, and when the second hand goes, you start, and we had some, for one reason or another, the band before us played too long or something would happen, we would have all the bandstand set up, and at three minutes to the third trombone player would decide to tell you that his light doesn’t work.


RB: Or something like that, she didn’t care, it’s gotta start, and there was no excuse. So, because of that the Viennese Ball, the amount of detail and attention to detail, and the organization. There wasn’t a lot of networking. Yeah, there was there was always a friendly exchange, but it was led more of , we must meet the standard of Ada Bors. Does that make any sense?

JY: Yeah it does.

RB: So there was never a feeling of “oh, she’s not a nice person” or anything, but it was, we want to be able to meet the standard of this person who lives for this event. And did you hear that background of how she got the gig?

JY: More or less she appealed to the old chancellor right? And said we don’t have an event like this in the U.S.

RB: She was in the events area, and was like so many of the other people, and he said “ Yeah, go with it” and she did such an incredible job they said “You need to make this into a full-time job” for the full year , that’s what her job ended up being, and she did that until the day that she died. She did not continue with the Viennese Ball until she died, but she was involved with a couple of other projects as well. Because her standard was like it was, everyone wanted her to organize, because they knew it was going to be good.

JY: She’d run a good event.

RB: Yeah, and so I had an event that I wanted to start. I had somebody running it before and then when I heard she was retiring I went right to her and said “What’s the possibility of being able to run this event?” and this event was called the Big Band Bash. The Big Band Bash was a program that was established under the encouragement of a man named Jack O’Farrell, and Jack O’Farrell had a radio program in town called the Big Band Bash, and he had me on the program a lot, and was constantly talking about people loving big band music, and going to hear live music. This was probably 1993-94 and the people, because of digital technology and the internet, on how less and less people were going to live performances, and if a high quality big band jazz experience could be given to the audience they would come. He was thoroughly convinced that that music is
the bridge, between whatever people are listening to that is pop-oriented to be able to go into other types of music where they just become music lovers, and he was right. And so we put on this event, and he was a very popular name in town and he would stand up on that stage and say “I believe in these guys, and if I believe in them you should believe in them too” and was a wonderful catalyst for getting this event off the ground and then he passed away. And then we went for several years and kind of floundered a little bit keeping that event live. And then when Ada had retired from the Viennese Ball I thought it would take somebody like that, and so I asked her, and she said “Yes” and within a year or two, the only place we could have the Big Band Bash was in Zorn. It would totally fill up the main lobby, and I remember one time we messed up and we didn’t get complimentary tickets for the chancellor and he had to sit in the gallery, because that was the only seats we could hey for him. And so it was kind of under her
direction that gave it that push, and then she passed away, and that event floundered again. Because of just not having a person that could really pay attention to detail like she could.


RB: And because of that and a couple of other things in 2008, that’s one of maybe five or six reasons that I formed a nonprofit organization called Eau Claire Jazz Incorporated, and Eau Claire Jazz Incorporated is a nonprofit corporation that gets recommendations for interns from our business faculty, and we have a board of fifteen community people that are pretty incredible at this point, and then we have six offices, right down the hallway here, and then we have interns, about fifteen of them and they run the business. And what is the business? The business is doing all the stuff that Ada Bors used to do. So have you heard of the Gatsby Gala?

JY: Yeah.

RB: The Gatsby Gala is what became of. So, it floundered and one of the board members from Eau Claire Jazz, I was telling him a story about Ada Bors, and they were like “We’ve gotta change the whole thing, it’s just like a bunch of old people that go to that, and let’s get all the college students. So, let’s give them the music that they really like but we’ll put it in a big band setting.” and that was Garrett Dene who was the first social media, while he was still a student at eau Claire and that’s how The Gatsby Gala got started and now that organization runs the Jazz Festival as well. So that pretty much came out of inspiration that we had gotten from Ada Bors.

JY: Right, just an absolute workhorse it sounds like.

RB: I think that she would still survive very well today too, but back then a person could just New York wise, tell you you’re wrong on something, to get your act together and you wouldn't get offended with that, and I know she was that way to me sometimes. But I have no lack of respect for her, and it was just like if she says this I better do it right.

JY: Of course, so transitioning a little bit here back to the music program. Obviously the
Viennese Ball is something that means a lot to the students. I know its kinda transformed throughout the years, because I don’t think it’s quite as big of an event now as it used to be, but what does the Viennese Ball mean to the department and all the students who play in it.

RB: Oh gosh. So many things. Number one, it’s something that the music students don’t just perform in, they participate. So, they’re out on the dance floor, they’re dressing up for breaks, they’re going around and seeing everything too. For the music students and for the faculty, it’s probably our only chance where we get to actually see each other. Because in music we all have such specialty areas, that we really don’t see each other. We actually try to do really wonderful collegian things like get together and exchange ideas and that, but we don’t actually get to hear each other perform unless we go to each others concerts. But most of us now with the current faculty, this was not this way back the 1980’s and 90’s but most of us play. So we’re doing stuff outside, we’re all kind of doing that example, so we play. So, for the students, I’ll just start naming some things off. They get to see teachers that they have in different classes doing what they do. Because it’s the Viennese Ball, the audience for the Viennese Ball is a high integrity, wide audience, and in music a lot of the things that we do are kind of at the top of the triangle.
Where just a certain group, like you know for our area it might be the people that play with no beat and no chords, and it just sounds like they’re warming up. But if you do that right, we call that music. But there’s very few people that would understand it or even like it. Opera, solo Piano, for many people, Bach, List, Debussy. And so the Viennese Ball the orchestra plays waltzes. Well everybody knows waltzes, and so it gives you a chance to dress up and be able to dance to waltzes the big band plays when jazz was the most popular ever, and that was during the big band /swing era, we play tunes from that era.

Robert Baca talks about the various kinds of music at the Viennese Ball ranging from Opera’s to small choral groups and how that has the potential to spark someone’s interest in the style of music, regardless of Music Knowledge.

Robert Baca continues talking about the various types of music within the Viennese Ball. He then transitions to talking about how much the experience means to the music students that get to perform in it, simply because they get to just “play”.

Robert Baca continues talking about how much it means to the music students, and how they get to play music without rehearsing and try to perform it at a high level.

Robert Baca talks about the uniqueness of the Viennese Ball and hw different musicians are paired together for acts and how unique that is. Robert Baca also asked me if I had been to the Viennese Ball to which I responded “No”. I then proceed to ask him if the music at our Viennese Ball differs significantly than the music that would be played in Vienna.

Robert Baca talks about the wide variety of music that is played at an actual Viennese Ball in Vienna and how unique and diverse it is. He also talks about how the music in the artistic capitals of Europe such as Paris or London is very unique. I also briefly talk about my trip to Paris.

Robert Baca continues talking about the variety of music at the Viennese Ball in Vienna, and how it is all across the spectrum of music, as well as the art that is exhibited there.

Robert Baca continues to talk about Vienna and how unique of an experience it is.

Robert Baca goes into the dress and the elegance of the Viennese Ball, and draws comparisons to the Gatsby Gala, that is also held at UWEC.

Robert Baca continues to talk about the Gatsby Gala and calls it the “Dark side of the Viennese Ball”.

Interview wrap up, Robert Baca asks his teachers assistant Quentin Volk if he missed anything. I remember to as about the transition from old to new Davies Center and what impact that had on the Viennese Ball.

Robert Baca talks about the transition from the old to new Davies center and says it is much better now, and a lot of elegance was added in the new Davies center as opposed to the old one, as well as maybe trying to transition to a Viennese Ball more like the ones held in Vienna, where it really has much more variety and diversity in the arts.

Interview wraps up with Robert Baca talking about the direction he thinks the Viennese Ball is heading. As well as talking about some wrap-up paperwork, and him consenting to the interview.

Interview concludes.

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