James Pankow

James Pankow

Founding Member – Trombone, Horn Arranger, Composer

My career began one day when I was only ten years old. I was a restless kid. The kind of kid that was constantly tapping on things. Beating on things and humming. It was like I was possessed by this musical drive, and my folks figured, “We better channel this or he’s gonna drive us nuts.”

They took me to Musical Instrument Sign Up Night at St. Paul of the Cross grammar school. Like any kid my age, I wanted to try the drums, guitar, or saxophone. There were long lines for those instruments and my folks suggested I try the trombone- there was NOBODY in line for that!

I said, “There’s no line because nobody wants to play that stupid thing! I’m not gonna look like a fool and play the trombone”.

The Band Director, Mr. Sterm, said, “You know Jim, I’m a horn player and it has served me quite well. Maybe you should consider the trombone- less competition, hence more opportunities”.

There were three of them, my two parents and the teacher, and only one little me. I was out numbered, and my dad was quite a salesman. He could sell ice to the Eskimos. Sand to the Arabs, Trombone to me.

My first three years were hell. I was a little guy and my arms just weren’t long enough. There was many a time that I wanted to quit.

My dad became a huge factor in my sticking with the instrument. He would sit me down and play his entire music collection for me, take me to clubs to hear all the greats when they would come to Chicago. He would say, ”You hear that Jim? You could be playing like that”! He mentored me and encouraged me to create a vision. This vision lured me into practicing and ultimately developing an affinity for the horn and soon I was actually enjoying what I heard coming out of the bell- I was on my way!

Then came high school and my encounter with my next huge mentor. Fr. George Wiskirchen was well-regarded as an authority on high school jazz band. He could actually teach kids how to play jazz and really “swing”. Our band won the state stage band contest every year and were annual guests of honor at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival in South Bend. In fact, Count Basie and Quincy Jones actually came to our band practice and conducted us playing their charts – unforgettable!! During my Senior year, I formed my own combo called the Jivetet, got an agent, and began playing for dances and parties. The approval of an audience was addictive and I couldn’t get enough! And I was getting paid to play music!

After high school, I auditioned for and received a full tuition scholarship to Quincy College in Quincy, Illinois, where I majored in Music Education. It was my first taste of freedom and independence, living away from home. I aspired to be a fuck-off and as fate would have it, I had the perfect dorm roommate with whom I could accomplish that questionable feat. Together we would attempt every stupid Freshman prank that’s ever been done. And we made up a few of our own.

Toward the end of my freshman year, something happened that helped to alter the course of my life. An upper classman by the name of Randy Snyder, who was an incredible musician and composer himself, came up to me and said, “Hey Jim, don’t teach, play. You’d be a lousy teacher. You don’t have the patience – and you’ve got IT” (the gift).

I didn’t know what to think. I thought the guy was full of shit at first. I was a music education major and I wanted to teach. That was a good, respectable trade. I could earn a living and still be involved with music. I had it all figured out at the ripe old age of 18.

About the same time, after missing many morning music classes, because of too much partying, I was notified by the Dean that if I missed one more class, I would be failed for absences and risk losing my scholarship. Playing gigs at the local Elk’s Clubs, beer drinking and partying were at the top of my list in terms of activities, as opposed to an education, and my grades reflected it.

Music was my major and failing was not an option, so when final exams rolled around, I had to make a choice. Write a 20K word composition about Renaissance music or write an original composition to be performed before a board of examiners. Well, I didn’t know squat about the music of the Renaissance because I hadn’t been in class, besides there just wasn’t enough time to write twenty thousand words on ANYTHING! A failing grade would surely jeopardize my scholarship and I couldn’t allow that to happen. I would be a disappointment to myself, my parents, and my professors. So I knew that somehow I had to compose a musical piece.

I hadn’t taken composition, so I had to trust my ear and instincts. I sat at my desk, around the clock, for the next month and proceeded to write a three movement sonata for brass quintet. To this day I don’t quite know how I did it!

When I became absorbed in composing and no longer available to party, I became the target of all the barbs and pranks of my former cohorts. “Look at goody two shoes, mister studious who wants an ‘A’ in his stupid music”!

I’ll never forget this moment for as long as I live, because this moment single-handedly kicked me in the ass. This was the moment when I decided that I was going to make it and nothing was going to stop me. The Rolling Stones “Get Off Of My Cloud” was playing on the radio at the time, when I looked up at those guys and said, “You sons of bitches. You hear that song on the radio? Someday I’m gonna be on that radio and you assholes will be selling insurance. I’m gonna be a star.”

With that they really howled. They thought that that was the funniest thing they had ever heard. A trombone playing rock star.

Time and time again the memory of their laughter was all the impetus I needed to get back on track whenever times got rough. Whenever it looked like I couldn’t make it, I remembered that moment. That moment was as important to my success as my father was. Guys, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the biggest push I ever had, and I hope the insurance business has treated you well.

I did complete the composition and wowed the examining board, which not only assured me a great grade, but was performed as part of the commencement ceremony.

In the Fall of 1966, I transferred to DePaul University where Walter Parazaider and Lee Loughnane were already attending. Robert Lamm was a student at Roosevelt University across town while Terry Kath was a student at no university, but he was already known as a local, crazy guitar player in Chicago and a member of a band called the Missing Links with Walt and drummer Daniel Seraphine.

It was there at DePaul that Walt Parazaider mentioned this idea he had about forming a rock ’n roll band with a horn section. The idea sounded intriguing. It had a familiar ring to it. Almost as if it was an idea that I had had, but I wasn’t really aware of it until that moment.

It was on February 15, 1967, on the north side of Chicago, when we all met at Walt’s apartment. Upstairs from a tool and die company, in a two story walk-up, Robert, Danny, Terry, Lee, and myself, sat around the kitchen table, and the original six of us made a verbal commitment, a pact as it were, to devote all of our time and energy into making this thing work.

We put our personal lives on the back burner and devoted every free moment we had to practice. We just played – in the morning, late at night, before classes, after classes. Practice was the most important thing we had to do.

That was more than fifty years ago. None of us had any idea about the incredible journey we were about to take.

So much has happened since then, but the one thing I’m asked about most is composing the Ballet. The love of my life was attending West Virginia Wesleyan in Buckhannon, W. Virginia. I wrote this piece, Ballet For A Girl In Buckhannon, that was connected musically by little interludes and passages so it was like a story and it moved through the story both lyrically and sonically with many time signatures and key changes, which comprised an entire side of a record on the new album.

But when Chicago II came out, right there in the liner notes, Buckhannon was spelled ‘Buchannon’! What could I do? It was too late, and it forever will be misspelled – much to the chagrin of the good people of Buckhannon, West Virginia!

I was just 22 yrs old when I wrote the Ballet. We were on the road and I was listening to Bach. To me, his music was technically perfect. I was inspired by his voicing, counterpoint, and melody, so I sat at my little electric piano, between Holdiay Inn beds somewhere on the road, and started messing around and came up with these arpeggios that intrigued me and sketched a melody line. I woke Walt up and told him to bring his flute and after he played it I said, “So what do you think, is it any good? And he said, “Jimmy, I think this is gonna make me famous.” Colour My World was originally titled Andante Cantabile, named in relation to the mood and tempo like the movements of the ballet as the classic masters named their pieces. That doesn’t work well on a rock & roll album!

The guys tell me The Ballet is still a challenge, especially to perform live because you have to pay attention. It turns out that it’s still, to this day, a very unique piece.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years. It seems like I just blinked my eyes and we just started making music yesterday. We’ve seen it go from vinyl records to eight-track tapes to cassette tapes to compact discs and now everything is digital. It’s really amazing to have experienced the evolution of our music in all of these formats. I think the reason we’re still around, still relevant after all these years is because it’s still so damn much fun. I mean really, there is nothing I can think of that I would rather do, and it’s a testament to this music that, almost 50 years later, it continues to resonate with people and audiences of all ages and all walks of life!

Lemme tell ya, it’s been one hell of a ride!

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