Dale Woodard Lethbridge Herald
In the past 21 years, Paul Walker has played alongside many musicians with the Rocky Mountain Turf Club Dixieland Band.
Now he plays in the memory of some past bandmates as well.
As horse racing fans filed into the Rocky Mountain Turf Club on Saturday for the second weekend of the fall schedule, Walker and his quartet of bassist Greg Paskuski, trombone player Blair Proctor and trumpet player Don Robb were already tuning up for another afternoon of racing.
Since starting in 1999, Walker has seen a number of bandmates come and go, but the multi-instrumental band recalled the contributions of Rocky Mountain Turf Club Dixieland Band founder Grant Erickson and Ernie Block.
Erickson passed away in 2013 and Block died in May at the age of 94.
“They asked him to put a band together,” said Walker of Erickson, a legendary trombone and trumpet player. “Dixieland bands are a common thing at horse racing, so that’s what they decided to do. We started with about six people and there wasn’t enough money for that, so we cut it down a couple of years later to five and then eventually four with a drum machine.”
Block played professionally in southern Alberta for 70 years.
“So everybody in Lethbridge knows Ernie, you saw him in a band from all those years,” said Walker. “Ernie played everything. So along the way he filled in on all the instruments. He played the drums, trombone and saxophone.”
Since starting, the Rocky Mountain Turf Club Dixieland Band has supplied the between-racing entertainment.
There’s a reason for their time slot.
“We discovered horses don’t like drums,” said Walker. “You have to be careful, they’re kind of jittery.”
Playing out front of the grandstand has put the band at Mother Nature’s mercy over the past 21 years.
“In the first 10 or 15 years they didn’t like us inside because we made too much noise,” said Walker. “So we stayed out here in every kind of weather, wind, sand, snow, it was crazy trying to play with gloves one and all kinds of silly things. And then there was the heat and everything else.”
Of course, the southern Alberta wind factored on more than one occasion.
“We’ve had sand storms that have blown music stands over and cracked my clarinet in half and put sand all over the trombone slide so it wouldn’t work,” said Walker. “We had a really bad one in July. We were playing harness racing and my wife was playing. We just came in shorts and T-shirts and a summer storm came through and we just froze to death. But the music must go on.”
Starting out, the band played the Dixieland standards, such as “When The Saints Go Marching In,” said Walker.
“But in the last eight or 10 years I’ve started to add a bunch of new things. So we play the Super Mario Brothers and the Cantina song from Star Wars and some Disney tunes. We still do some of the old, traditional things that nobody maybe even recognizes anymore. But we try to do some of this more modern stuff.”
However, there’s one rule when trying out new music.
No rehearsals on the new stuff.
“Most of us are retired or band directors or music teachers,” said Walker. “We all play in the Lethbridge Big Band and Lethbridge Musical Theatre and all kinds of symphonies. But we like the challenge here. If I bring something here we don’t want to see it ahead of time. That’s the fun, seeing if you can play it perfectly in front of an audience. We’re reading musicians and that’s what we like to do. We don’t play by ear so much.”
Thanks to Alberta Health Services loosening its COVID-19 regulations Friday, singing and wind instruments can now be played indoors as long as there's proper physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and other precautions.
“So up until today we weren’t allowed to play indoors because brass and woodwinds are considered singing and huge spreaders,” said Walker, adding they can play indoors for 30 minutes and then they have to take a 10-minute break. “So indoors we have to put masks on our instruments. We have to leave the trombone six metres in front because of the slide and they have to worry about the spit on the brass instruments.”
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Dale Woodard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Lethbridge Herald