Bruce Kapler: Saxophonist

The extremely talented saxophonist Bruce Kapler joins us to talk about his musical life.

He was a member of Paul Shaffer’s CBS Orchestra starting in 1993. He left the show in 2012. Bruce Kapler also sings and plays several instruments including soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass saxophone, flute, clarinet, recorder, keyboards and percussion.
The list of musicians Bruce Kapler has performed with sounds like a who’s who of popular music, including Paul Anka, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Harry Connick, Jr., George Benson, Buckwheat Zydeco, Glen Campbell, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Ray Charles, the Dave Matthews Band, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson and the list goes on and on!

It is with great pleasure that we welcome Bruce Kapler of the CBS Orchestra. So, first of all, thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview with us.

Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for asking.

My first question: who is Bruce Kapler?

Uh, how far back do you want to go? (Laughs) I could tell you that the current and for the last 16 years, I’ve been the, um, saxophonist, vocalist, um, flautist, sort of utility infielder, uh, in the horn section on, uh, The Late Show with David Letterman. We’re going into our 16th year at this point and I sort of startedas a, um, an added musician back in, uh, 1988 on the old Late Night Show on NBC. I did about 30 shows for them over there, uh, as well as arranging, um, the last, uh, Letterman big, uh, Radio City 10th Anniversary special.

So where were you born?

I was born in Long Island, on the north shore of Long Island, in a town called Huntington.

And what music did you hear growing up?

Oh god, you know, I heard all sorts of music. My parents – we had the, uh, victrola, as it was called – they would play everything from Mario Lanza to, um, honky-tonk piano players to Jerry Lewis Sings to the, uh, sound track from Camelot. It was just a real wide variety of stuff.

Did you have a favorite?

No. It was just – I, my earliest recollections were just, um, sitting there, uh, enthralled with the sound that was coming out of this, uh, this hi-fi. I mean, I started studying music at a really early age so it sort of went hand-in-hand. I mean, my, you know, conscious recollection – I mean, I started studying music when I was five – and so it’s hard to sort of separate the two.

When did you realize you were going to be a musician?

It was pretty early on. I had a wonderful teacher when I was in elementary school. His name was Jack Carmen. He was a great guy with a great laugh and he was really a quite proficient musician. He was a trombone player and he also played an amazing clarinet. He was really into Dixieland music. He was also into gigging all the time, as well as being, you know, head of the music department. So it was kind of exciting because he would come in and, you know, we would sit and he would tell me about his gig last night, you know, and he’d be all excited about it. And I thought ‘This is great. This is what I want to do.’

Can you remember your first public performance?

I would imagine my first public performance was an elementary school band concert, very much as they are today. I guess I was in, uh, the 4th grade? Yes, nine years old. Don’t ask me what we played. And I can only imagine how we sounded. I had had an advantage going into, into elementary school having, again, studied music privately for three or four years. There was a fella in town, uh, his name was Jerry Petrie, and he was also on staff at Julliard. And he had a little, uh, garage studio behind his house and he would give lessons. And I started studying the recorder with him um, when I was five. You know what? I still have those lesson books today and it’s amazing to see that he had a five-year-old or a six-year-old doing sight-transposition, uh, and all the stuff that he had going on. It was a big step-up advantage for me going into elementary school where kids mostly are seeing instruments for the first time and, uh, getting to handle them and play.

So tell us about when you were touring with the Vegas Style Show Band.

A friend of mine from high school, in my high school band, rock band, called me up and said ‘I’m doing this band and we’re supposed to travel and it’s going to be playing hotels and it’s going to be playing a little of this and that, and why don’t you come down and do it?’ I had always been a vocalist, you know, in high school and all throughout. And so, it was just that sort of thing. We had a big green truck. We would load it to the gills with our personal gear and our, our equipment, and we would follow behind in our cars, and we travelled the entire country for about three years and – no, maybe 2½ years. It was the kind of thing where you would go, we would go to a hotel in, uh, in New Orleans and stay in the French Quarter in a hotel for three or four weeks and play their, um, their lounge you know? And we had and act, um, and we had outfits, and we had steps and we, you know, it was that sort of thing. We actually did play in Vegas at the old Stardust. But it was fun and it was my first road experience. And it was a little rough, uh, I mean just the travelling part of it. The rest of it was pretty, pretty comfortable. And making money playing music – that was, uh, that was the big deal.

You mentioned you born in Long Island. What got you, uh, interested in living in New York City? I think you, you mentioned it was the lower East side.

When I had finished that 2½ years, sort of touring with that Vegas Show band, some friends had, um, found a loft on the lower East side and they were moving in. And they said ‘We think you ought to come in and it would probably be a great thing for the three of us to live here and share it all and, you know, get our careers happening.’ Uh, it was a bit of a culture shock, again having been, at that time – when I was a teenager uh, really, and, uh, making pretty decent money and having no expenses whatsoever – to go into the “starving artist” lifestyle that ensued after moving to the lower East side, but it was just an amazing, amazing experience. I have to add that when I moved to the lower East side it was, uh, in 1976, right at the, uh, Bicentennial. I think folks who know the lower East side now, it’s a quite different, um, animal. It’s full of clubs and, and chic restaurants and stuff. And it was still really pretty dangerous to live down there when we, when we moved down there.

I understand that in addition to being a musician, for a time, you were also a record producer?

Uh, yes. Did do a stint as a record producer. And I had been asked by a publishing company to produce a single for, um, one of their artists. It just happen to come out really well. I was able to, uh, sell it to Mercury Records and it was released. And, as with most things in those days, it was about the amount of promotion money that’s put around it. But through that, I met some people at a company who were really making a lot of money putting out records. And, uh, I was sort of the guy who did the pet projects of, you know, the principals of the company. They were guys that I would’ve never chosen to record in particular (laughs) but, uh, it was a great experience to do that. And I got to work in fantastic studios with some guys who became quite famous as engineers and producers.

Tell us about meeting Mr. Paul Shaffer.

My first meeting with him, it was a phone meeting. I’d been playing in New York with a trumpet player, Al Chez, who is also – who plays on the, uh, on the show with us – and, uh, Will Lee, the bass player on the show, um, would sub for our bass player once in a while. And I guess a that time, uh, Paul had, uh, recorded an album and was about to go out on, uh, on the show’s dark weeks and stuff and weekends, and promote and do concerts. And their original plan was to just hire horns wherever, uh, wherever they were. And, uh, Will prevailed upon him and said ‘Listen, you know, I’ve play with these two guys – a sax and trumpet player – and these guys sound like four horns together. You gotta hear them. You gotta hear them.’ And I didn’t even know this happened. Uh, interesting sidelight – this band that, uh, this Latin funk band that we were playing in – Al and I – um, we were hired by La Toya Jackson to, um, be her back-up and for a, uh, world premier at one of the Trump casinos in Atlantic City. So we were rehearsing with her in one room and, unbeknownst to me, Paul and his band were rehearsing in another room. And they sort of – I guess they stuck their heads in and took a listen and liked what they heard because, um, a couple of days later, I got a call from, um, his road manager and said ‘Well, uh, Paul would like you to do this. Uh, we’re going to start rehearsing in a couple of weeks’ And he gave me details and all this other stuff. And before I ever got, we ever started those rehearsals, Paul called me up at home and said, um, ‘We have an artist coming on the show. Her record has horns on it and so I’d love you to, uh, write out the horn parts, and you’ll now come in and back her up with us. And also, pick five tunes that you’d, uh, you guys would like to play, you know, that we’d all know and sit in all night. That was the first experience. I met him when I walked in to Studio 6A at the Rockefeller Center.

What was going through your mind when you were officially were told that you got the gig of being a part of the CBS Orchestra?
As I said, I had done some 30 shows, and a lot of work for the show, and was really familiar with everybody around it. And when they were moving to CBS, I had sort of made a pitch to Paul about going over with them and being a utility infielder because I can play some guitar, I play keyboards, I can – I sing, I play percussion and my point being with that was I wouldn’t necessarily be always a saxophone all the time. Again, more like a utility infielder. So in the meeting, I thought the meeting wentwell, and he called me a week or so later, and said ‘You know, I think I’m going to go in a different direction. I want to try getting a second guitarist and another keyboard player.’ I thought that would sort of be the, uh, extent of my career on the Letterman show at that point. Paul and I were both nominated for Emmys for that 10th anniversary special so I, I did sort of think, well, I guess that was my highlight of my Letterman career. And I just happened to, uh, you know, in those days we had beepers and, you know, no one had hand-held cell phones. Uh, I had a phone in the car. And I was out somewhere and my beeper went off and I had this – you know, ‘This number looks very familiar to me. I better go call.’ So I went in and called and it was Paul. This was about, maybe the 40th show, or so, that they had done for CBS. And he said to me ‘We’re going to have Natalie Cole on the show. We’re going to add, uh, a few horns and, uh, I’d love to have you come in and do it.’ And I said ‘Great!’ So I figured, well there we go, I’ll be sort of called in occasion to do this again. And we talked for a little while longer and he said to me ‘You know, and the band just, you know, it’s just not working out the way I really wanted it to.’ At that point I sort of was frozen stiff in my seat and he had mentioned ‘Well, maybe – I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll have you come in and play a regular night once a week or every other week or however it’s going to work but let’s see what happens.’ And, uh, we went in and did that Natalie Cole show – and, um, Tom Malone and I were involved in that, the trombone player on the show. He said ‘Well, why don’t you come back the next night?’ And the next night and the next night. And I guess it was also that Dave liked the horns and the way the band sounded with the horns. So, it wasn’t just like ‘You’ve got the gig. Here’s the contract, dude.’ I sort of, like, eased into it over a period of four months or so. But it was just, it just kept, every Friday you know, they would say ‘Well, come back Monday.’ And then we knew we had another week, so it went along that way.

Playing on the Dave Letterman show, there have been so many great acts that I’ve seen perform on there. Was there one in particular that made you flip out when you found out they were going to be there?

Oh, there are so many. There’s so many. Uh, you know, getting to play with, um, just you know, the icons of the industry. I mean, one of the ones that comes to mind – because I think I might have mentioned to you earlier that past weekend, uh, Levon Helm had invited me to go up and play with his band at one of his Midnight Rambles at his barn-studio home in Woodstock, and that was a fantastic experience. I’ve always been a huge fan from the time I was in high school of the band and of him. So I guess one of, one of the great times was the first time that they appeared on the show and I got to meet them and, and play with them and, uh, meet Garth Hudson and have Garth Hudson explain to me how he liked the horns to be. That was really great. It’s really impossible to sort of name one in particular. I mean, you could just go through the whole roster of people who have appeared on the show. It’s all been amazing.

Well, tell us about what the experience is like being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame house band.

That’s correct. We’re doing two spectacular anniversary shows – 25th anniversary shows – at Madison Square Garden at the end of October, which will include all the obligatory superstars from, from Clapton to – you name it. And what, uh, we will be doing as the, um, sort of the house band that we’ve been for, since the beginning of the Hall of Fame, we’ll be backing up a sort of a soul review – I think it’s about a 40-minute set – a lot of people. And the, uh – headlined one night by Aretha Franklin, which will be amazing. And I’ve gotten to play with her before and that was amazing to play the saxophone solo on Respect, with having Aretha turn around to stare at you while you’re playing. It was a really wonderful experience. And on the other night the review will be headlined by Stevie Wonder. And that’s another amazing experience that we – he was part of the, uh, closing ceremonies for the Olympics in Atlanta a number of years ago and, uh, so we were sort of the house band for that as well and got to play with Stevie. Those two acts are just going to be amazing, amazing musical experiences.

Let me ask you – and I hope you don’t mind me asking this question. Is there someone in the band that feel closer to than the others?

Well, we’re a pretty tight-knit group and I would, I would say there’s a certain bond between Al Chez and myself because we’ve been together playing as like, uh, a unit for over 25 years starting in, you know, playing in the Jersey shore bands. And it’s funny because the guys that are in, uh, in Conan’s band, in the, um, now the Tonight Show band, we all played together. Mark Pender and Richie “La Bamba” Rosenberg – we had a band called La Bamba and the Hubcaps and we played all the big beach bars along the New Jersey shore for years together. So Al. And Will – you know Will is the guy who got me on this gig, you know, and there’s always, uh, a special place – and he’s, he’s an amazing person, an amazing musician. And the kind of musician you meet in life that you barely ever see having to break a sweat no matter what is called for – no matter what technical prowess is called for – in the music that you’re that you’re performing. That, coupled with the deepest groove that, you know, you can imagine. I remember seeing him one of the first times, years and years ago, in the 24th Street Band which is with Hiram Bullock, and just going ‘Wow. I know why this guy is one of the highest paid musicians in New York.’ Because he puts down a groove so deep that you’d need a ladder to climb out of it. There have been a couple of times Anton was, um, maybe playing with a feature band in the center of the stage, and wouldn’t have time to come back and play drums, where I sat down and play drums. And man, having Will playing bass while I played drums – it was just so easy. It was amazing. So I, I feel close to those guys. I feel close to all of them really. I mean Sid McGinnis, the guitarist, I mean he and I have, you know, been friends for a really, really long time. And, uh, well, all of them. Anton and I play golf together all the time. It’s hard tosay but I would still say Al because, I mean I, we’ve been friends the longest.

What is in the future of Bruce Kapler?

In the immediate future it’s, um, another three years, um, happily, uh, with the CBS Orchestra on the show with David Letterman. That’s what we’re looking at now. And, as you can well imagine, I mean it’s, it’s fun to go out and play and do other things but it’s impossible to really plan a future beyond that because, you know, who knows what will be going on at that point. You know, who do you talk to to say ‘Well, you know I would love to go on tour with you but, you know – and I’ll be available in three years.’ You know? (Laughs) So it’s a little, it’s a little far in advance to make those kind of plans.

When Dave calls it quits, I swear I’ll cry. (Laughs)

We all will. And not just for the final curtain of, uh, what has been an amazing run and the absolute best job that any musician could ever have but also because of just Dave himself. He would really shy from the accolades but he is the voice of a generation. And he is sort of like America’s conscience. And people look to him and his opinion when forming their own opinions about certain events that happen in the world. You know, he’s sort of the, the talk show standard-bearer – which has nothing to do with ratings. It has to do with the mettle of the man.

Wow. Very well put. I have two final questions that I ask all of the guests. Uh, this one sounds kind of light-hearted but I always find it reveals something about the person. What is your all-time favorite meal?

Well, see now, I’m a cook. I won’t say that I’m a cook – let’s make it a verb. I cook. I enjoy cooking. I’d have to say I make a really mean osso bucco. It is one of my favorites. I make it on the holidays for my family and they’re always looking forward to it. It is, uh, slow-cooked veal shanks in a sauce that, uh, is comprised of, um, some vegetables and, uh, tomato sauce. And it’s usually served with, um, risotto, which is an, you know, an Italian rice dish. I’m not at all Italian but I just happen to love that particular meal.

Well, my one final question for you. This broadcast is going out all over the world, thanks to the powers of technology, so what would you like to say to all the people that are listening in?

I would like to have them spend more time listening and enjoying music, and less time at some of the more destructive things that are going on in the world.

Very sound advice. Alright. Well, thanks so much Bruce. It’sbeen a pleasure.

It’s been mine as well. Thank you, Paul.

TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA.

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