Trumpet master continues to hit the high notes in Las Vegas

Trumpet master continues to hit the high notes in Las Vegas

  • John L. Smith
May 16, 2019 12:00 AM

I ran into Las Vegas trumpet master Tommy Porrello recently after he’d finished another gig, albeit a somber one.

He played taps at the April 27 celebration of life for former Las Vegas journalist and casino communications specialist Gary Thompson, a proud former member of the U.S. Air Force. Porrello for many years has been part of a small group of professional musicians who volunteer their time to honor military veterans at funeral services throughout Southern Nevada.

Las Vegas trumpet master Tommy Porrello

Suffice to say most of Porrello’s work is far more up tempo. Now in his eighth decade, he continues to highlight bands big and small despite dramatic changes in the Las Vegas music scene.

Once a haven for skilled musicians from across the country, at a time when casino showrooms had large bands and even orchestras backing legendary singers and entertainers, and jumping bands filled lounges up and down the Strip, Las Vegas has evolved along with the rest of the world. Nightclubs are full of high-tech recorded music and highly paid DJs. Even entertainers who use live musicians are comfortable with smaller bands.

Denizens of the old Las Vegas would be fortunate to find more than a pianist in a lounge these days. Against lengthening odds, Porrello has more than survived.

“The business has changed,” he said in an interview for my 2014 book Vegas Voices: Conversations with Great Las Vegas Characters. “A lot of the country acts don’t use horns. A lot of the rock acts don’t use them. It’s all changed. The Cirque shows are the big shows now. They’re huge, huge shows with small, small bands.”

He laughed, but it was tinged with nostalgia. There was a time Porrello had far more gigs than even a guy with his energy could handle. He was in demand in Las Vegas and in the Hollywood recording studios. His horn is heard on two-dozen albums, and he’s worked with Barbra Streisand, Elvis, Neil Diamond, Frank Sinatra, and James Brown among a galaxy of greats.

More recently, he’s backed Lady Gaga during her Enigma residency at Park MGM.

Porrello’s passion for the music rises from every note. As a boy growing up in a musical household in Easton, Pennsylvania, people who heard young Porrello play so well as such a young age called him gifted. And there was something to that, of course.

But that didn’t make him a master or a fellow in demand decades later on a Las Vegas Strip that barely existed when he first picked up a horn.

“A lot of people like music,” he told me. “But this isn’t about a like of music. It becomes a passion. When it becomes a passion, it just grabs you and you have to go with it.”

He trained with good musicians, played wherever he was welcome. And he practiced. Not because he liked to play, but because he had to play at the highest level of his ability.

Las Vegas was once the perfect place to gig. There were times he literally played in one showroom, ran out the stage door and rushed to another showroom. In a city full of top musicians, that was no mean feat.

Once a player gets of a certain age, it’s natural for outsiders and casual fans to wonder why he doesn’t retire like most of the rest of the world. They might never understand what drives Tommy Porrello.

“I still love the work,” he said. “And I still have to practice. There’s not as much work as there was. The phone is liable to ring, and it could be a very difficult date they want you to do. So I have to be ready at all times. At this point I still have to do at least two hours a day if I’m not working. You get a little routine. I have stacks and stacks of books, so I don’t get stale playing and practicing the same thing over and over. I try to be in top shape in case that call comes and I have to go in there really quick.

“I don’t think about being a senior player. I don’t have time for that.

“That’s the thing with the music. It’s not a job. If it’s not a passion, you’re not getting it. I mean, it’s gotta be a passion, otherwise I wouldn’t still be doing it. When I don’t like what I hear coming out of my horn, I’m done.”

It’s 2019, and the trumpet master still likes what he hears.

We do, too.

Contact John L. Smith at jlnevadasmith@gmail.com. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.