Los Angeles Times, 1985

Chip Hoehler, Hero on the Norway

by Leonard Feather

Chip Hoehler has a unique story to tell. He is not famous, yet musicians who have worked with him call him an unsung hero. Ask Joe Williams, Benny Carter, Clark Terry or any of the dozens of others who know.

One problem is that he’s a moving target. An interview with him can end 25 knots away from where it began. During the conversation he may say that he has the best job in the world for a working musician…better than any job on earth. He means that literally, since he does not work on terra firma.

Why the best job? Consider this: security, a permanent gig, no charge for food or shelter, insurance and the other perks of a regular employee; anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks a year vacation with pay; a sunny Caribbean climate most of the time, and a chance to join forces with world class jazz and pop musicians.

Hoehler has it all. Since 1980 he has been the bandleader aboard the S.S. Norway. He has also been involved with a company that books some 135 musicians for eight Norwegian Caribbean and Royal Viking ships.

A superior trombonist, he leads what is beyond doubt the best of all floating ensembles, and the most versatile. “On a normal week,” he says, “we play for a Broadway type show, a Las Vegas review, all the cabaret acts, trio jobs, cocktail parties; and we expand into a military band to play Souza marches out on deck.”

Of course, the jazz festival weeks are not “normal.” Hoehler looks forward eagerly each year to October, when there is a rise in the level of audience sophistication and a slight drop in the average age of the passengers, most of them jazz fans. During these weeks the Hoehler orchestra puts on its hippest face, pulling out the Basie style charts and backing up whoever brought special arrangements aboard.

“When Mel Lewis was sitting in,” he recalls, “we played some of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band charts. Last year, with Bob Wilbur playing clarinet, we played a whole set of charts by Fletcher Henderson and Mel Powell in a Benny Goodman tribute.”

This chameleonic crew has also been augmented by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Erskine Hawkins (“We became his old band”), Zoot Sims(He sat in all the time!”), Al Cohn, Buddy Tate, Jake Hanna, Bucky Pizzerelli; has been guest conducted by Michel Legrand and Peter Nero, and has backed Joe Williams, Cab Calloway, Sarah Vaughn, Mel Torme and many others.

One of Chip’s great admirers is Benny Carter. One night last October I heard him tell Chip: “I’ll be glad to sit in, but only on one condition: that you play some solos.” So Carter sat in the reed section; playing third alto parts and insisting that Hoehler’s own alto soloist, John Lux, play the solo on Carter’s tune “Souvenir.” Hoehler, always modest about his trombone playing, took some truly spirited solos. Louie Bellson sat in throughout the set.

The following night Chip made a rare appearance (at Carter’s suggestion) in a small combo setting: with Carter on trumpet, Dick Hyman on piano, Bob Haggart on bass and Chip’s own drummer, Lorne Hamilton, he played a delightfully relaxed quintet set. He and Carter then repaired to the ship’s Saga Theatre, where Chip sat back in his trombone section while Carter conducted and played; this time he did solo on “Souvenir.” Bellson again was a volunteer sitter-in.

Hoehler’s present job is the outgrowth of a series of lucky accidents. Born in Staten Island in 1941, he was immersed in music from the start.

“My dad, who played bass, was friends with the guys in the Lunceford band; he used to go to the Savoy Ballroom a lot, and to 52nd Street; so I got to know a lot of his musician friends and decided to take up drums.

“I studied with Charlie Perry, but then I saw the movie “The Fabulous Dorseys” and decided to switch to trombone. I took exactly one lesson with an old Italian professor in Staten Island. When I came back for the second lesson unprepared, he said, ‘Hey, you no practice, you no play. I don’t want you any more.’ So, I just learned listening to records.”

“Kai Winding was my early favourite; I began copying his solos note for note. Oddly enough, I wound up playing with him when he had the four-trombone band in the early 60′s.”

Before that time there was a long line of band credits, starting with Marshall Brown’s Newport Youth Band, which Hoehler joined at 17 and quit at 19. “We played the Newport Jazz Festival in ’59 and ’60. That band was a great experience; it enabled me to do everything that I’m doing now.”

The 60′s brought jobs with Billy May, Buddy Morrow, Charlie Spivak, Maynard Ferguson and three ghost bands; Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.

“In 1966 I got a wire offering me a job in the Bahamas. I’d just gone through a blizzard in Minnesota and it seemed a perfect way to get out of New York for the winter.”

A six-week job in Freeport led to 11 years, during which he became conductor of the show. “I got to know a lot of people who worked for cruise ships that stopped at the island, and they kept saying, “Hey, when are you coming to work on my ship?”

“One day the Bahamas government decided they didn’t want any foreign entertainers, so they kicked us all out. I called one of those guys and said ‘Okay, I’m ready.’ So I spent 14 months aboard the S.S. Emerald Seas and then I settled in Miami.”

“I got a summer job filling in with a band for Norwegian Caribbean Lines, and the guy who hired all these bands learned about my qualifications. He had the contract to supply all the music for NCL; he and I set up a program – NCL had just bought the S.S. Norway – and I put my own band together. In April 1980 I took the band to Germany to join the ship, and I’ve been here ever since. We normally just cruise the Caribbean, though we go to Europe once every couple of years.”

Because of the ideal working conditions, Hoehler has no trouble keeping sidemen (or sidewomen) aboard for months or years on end. “Even in a non-jazz week,” he says, “we are able to play plenty of jazz-orientated music. But it’s great to see the jazz festival expanding. We started in 1983 with one week, then expanded to two in ’84, then four – not counting smaller jazz events on the other NCL ships.”

In view of the quality of his music and the unanimous enthusiasm shown for his band by passengers and guest soloists, why has Hoehler remained unknown and unrecorded on solid land?

One solution to the problem suggests itself: why not, next year, bring a team of first class recording engineers aboard to arrange a recording debut for this long-respected group? Given his unique track record, this is the least Chip Hoehler deserves. With up to 1900 eager listeners on board every week, any album he makes would seem to have a guaranteed captive audience.

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  • This is so great! Folks, this is my very own big brother. I love this long overdue website. I haven’t seen this guy for a very long time, but I am enjoying reading about him. Thanks!

    When was this created?


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