- Written by Chelsea Peifer Chelsea Peifer
When Bob Troxell was 11 years old, his neighbor said, “You look like a trombonist. Let’s make you a trombonist!” His response was, “What is that?”
Troxell’s neighbor, who was a band director, helped him to order a trombone for $13 from the Sears-Roebuck catalog and get started.
And now at age 92, Troxell has decades of experience playing as a trombonist and leading the Big Big Jazz Band that he started.
“Once a trombonist, always a trombonist,” laughed Troxell, who grew up in the coal region of Shamokin in an era when big bands and jazz music were thriving. He served in the United States Navy during World War II and used the G.I. bill and supported himself through school at Penn State University.
“I was the first one in my family to go to college, so nobody knew anything about college,” he explained.
Troxell was toying with the idea of pursuing a career in music when his professor pulled him aside to offer a bit of wisdom. He cautioned Troxell against majoring in music and encouraged him to consider engineering instead.
“He said music is a tough racket, but if you become an engineer you’ll always have a job and you can make music your avocation,” recalled Troxell. Troxell heeded his advice and graduated with a degree in engineering in 1948.
“He said, ‘Sixty years from now, you’ll thank me.’ And I have thanked him every night for many years.”
Troxell took a job offer from Armstrong World Industries and worked at plants in Pittsburgh and Macon, Georgia, before ending up in Central Pennsylvania. He worked for Armstrong for 40 years and made lifelong friends that he stills sees on a regular basis.
“It was a lot like playing the trombone,” he said. “There are always some new tunes.”
He was even able to play trombone in a jazz combo with some of his coworkers, and in 1968 he worked with Don Goldstrom, who put together a show that spoofed politics at the Fulton Theatre.
“He and Sen. Dick Snyder wrote the show, and I handled the musicians and the musical conducting,” Troxell said.
The performance was such a success that they held it for three nights in a row for the next three years to a sold-out crowd every time. When somebody suggested they organize a big band, they did that too.
The Big Big Jazz Band, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, was made up of engineers, factory workers, doctors, lawyers, and all sorts of busy musicians who didn’t want to play in dive bars on the weekends but loved to play and jumped at the chance to perform for audiences who were just as eager to listen and dance.
Troxell’s Big Big Jazz Band focused on playing benefits for nonprofit organizations throughout the county. One year the group was brainstorming ideas for a fun new venue to mix things up.
“At first someone said, ‘What about a fall tailgate?’” Troxell recalled. “But someone else said, ‘No, why don’t we do something in the winter when the blahs set in?’ And that’s how we came up with the Beat the Winter Blahs Ball.”
About 800 people showed up, and they ran out of seats.
“People wanted to come and dance, and it was delightful,” said Troxell.
The Beat the Winter Blahs Ball is still going strong 34 years later, and continues to draw crowds every March.
Troxell led the band until about three years ago, when he decided he wanted a break from all of the administrative work and to “just have fun.”
The Big Big Jazz Band is now led by Gary Peters and has 18 members. More information on the band is available at www.bigbigjazzband.org.
“Some of the musicians are right out of college in their early 20s, and the oldest goes all the way up to me,” said Troxell with a laugh.
Music has certainly been one of the key components in making retirement so enjoyable and full for Troxell.
“The essential thing is that you need to have something that you enjoy, and something that is meaningful,” he said. “And not just watching football on TV or even reading a book, but something where physically you’re interfacing with other people. That’s what keeps you going.”
In addition to playing in the Big Big Jazz Band, Troxell is a substitute trombonist for other big bands and plays in pickup bands and at his church.
He and his wife, Kay, have been married for 65 years and have two children. For the past 20 years, the couple has traveled to the North Carolina Jazz Festival in Wilmington each February.
“These are the best traditional jazz musicians in the world,” said Troxell, explaining that a highlight of the festival is when the performers invite musicians in the crowd to come onstage and play along.
“We get to play with the best, and it’s just a very wonderful feeling,” he continued. “It’s sort of like walking back in time to when you were a kid and you thought about doing this, and now you are.”