Las Vegas Sun

October 1, 2014

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When music ruled Vegas

When jazz saxophonist Jimmy Mulidore arrived in Las Vegas in 1957, it was a golden age for musicians.

The names of great entertainers graced the marquees - Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, the Marx Brothers, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Jimmy Durante, Louis Prima and Abbott and Costello.

"It was a wonderful town for musicians," said Mulidore, who has lived and performed in Las Vegas long enough to become a legend here.

He and his pal, bass player Scotty LaFaro, had just finished a gig with Chet Baker's band in New York and were on their way to Los Angeles. They stopped in Las Vegas for a few days. LaFaro went on to Los Angeles and made a name for himself in the jazz world but was killed in a car wreck in 1961.

Mulidore remained in Las Vegas. The vibe in town was good for musicians, especially musicians who were good . And Mulidore was tops, even as a teenager.

In the '30s there were only a handful of clubs on what became the Strip, including the Pair-O-Dice, the 91 Club and the Ambassador Night Club. In 1941, the El Rancho became the first major resort on the fledgling entertainment corridor, followed by the Last Frontier, Flamingo and Thunderbird. In the '50s, the town picked up steam with the openings of the Desert Inn, Sahara, Sands, Riviera, Dunes, Royal Nevada, Hacienda and Tropicana. The Stardust would open the year after Mulidore hit town.

Every hotel had a house orchestra. Hundreds of musicians worked constantly, many playing two and three gigs a night at different venues.

Mulidore was a talented 19-year-old from Youngstown, Ohio, who was beginning to make a name for himself on the East Coast. He began playing the saxophone at age 10. In high school, he hung out at Cleveland jazz clubs, listening to jazz greats such as James Moody, Miles Davis, Billy May, Hal McIntyre and Ralph Marterie. Mulidore was solo clarinetist for the Ohio State University orchestra but quit to study at the Juilliard School in New York. After three months he dropped out but took private lessons in theory and composition from Juilliard's Hall Overton.

Vegas was perfect for the ambitious young musician. Music was everywhere - in the showrooms, the lounges and clubs off the Strip.

"There was this place at Tropicana and Paradise called the Black Magic . All the jazz players hung out there," Mulidore said.

Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald were frequent visitors. Count Basie, Harry James, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw dropped by.

A few days after arriving in town, Mulidore sat in with influential trombonist Carl Fontana. Saxophonist Jerry Dodgion, who played with the Red Norvo Quintet at the lounge in the Sands, heard Mulidore and took him to meet vibraphonist Norvo. When Dodgion was called for reserve duty in the Air Force, Mulidore was invited to sit in.

Fresh in town, the kid from Ohio had a gig. On his first night, Frank Sinatra came in.

"He would come into the lounge and remove his hairpiece after working in the big room," Mulidore said. "It was a fabulous beginning for me."

From the Sands he went to El Rancho, which burned in 1960, and then back to the Sands, where he played for the Rat Pack for several years.

"I've never seen anyone else create so much excitement as Frank Sinatra did when he walked into a room," Mulidore said. "Everybody who was anybody went to see Frank ... He walks into a room and it's like Joe DiMaggio hit a home run to win the World Series."

In 1967, Sinatra threw a tantrum at a craps table , and casino manager Carl Cohen threw a punch that knocked out the singer's front teeth. Sinatra moved to Caesars Palace.

Mulidore went to the new Bonanza with its grand opening hosted by Lorne Green, who played Ben Cartwright on the "Bonanza" TV series.

In 1969 Mulidore was named musical director of the new International, which became the Las Vegas Hilton. For a time he was the director for both the Hilton and the Flamingo.

He conducted for the likes of Liberace, Ann-Margret, Paul Anka, Bobby Darin, Natalie Cole, Olivia Newton-John, Raquel Welch and Louis Armstrong, who made his final Las Vegas appearance with Pearl Bailey in 1971.

Mulidore was there for the Elvis years, and his soaring flute solo was a highlight of Elvis' version of "An American Trilogy."

Those were heady times for Las Vegas musicians, especially for Mulidore, who was spreading his jazz all over town. "We had a 100-piece orchestra behind Tony Bennett at the Hilton," he said.

But Las Vegas musicians went on strike in 1989, protesting the use of recorded music. They lost. The house orchestras disappeared and once plentiful jobs dried up.

Many musicians who prospered in the golden age of Las Vegas had difficulty finding work locally, even though they were in demand elsewhere.

Mulidore formed a band and went on the road. He continues performing in festivals and clubs around the world, but only occasionally in Las Vegas.

He and his N.Y. Jazz Band have a once a month gig at the Las Vegas Country Club. The next is on Nov. 9 .

Then he goes to Anthology in San Diego, a jazz club in the Little Italy section of the city, and plays the Temecula Valley International Jazz Festival in July. Both gigs are close to his second home in Rosarito, Mexico, where he often plays at Bistro de Cousteau.

Mulidore would like to perform more in Vegas, but the money in Vegas is tight.

"This city is predicated on 'Can I get in free?' It's amazing. In San Diego fans will pay $30, $40 to hear us. Here, they complain if they have to pay a lousy $9.95," Mulidore said.

Maybe things will change.

"I'm an optimist. I'm always hoping."

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