Johnny Knorr Orchestra takes to airwaves in new TV specialWritten by Jeff McGinnis | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“Thanks for the Memory.”
That’s the name of the special airing on Buckeye CableSystem Channel 58 for multiple showings on New Year’s Eve and Day. It features a performance by Johnny Knorr Orchestra. Founded by the late, legendary bandleader and now headed by his son, Jerry, the orchestra has presented classic, soul-stirring music for more than 50 years.
The televised concert was taped in June at Hansen Hall of Christ Presbyterian Church and emceed by Toledo Free Press Editor in Chief Michael S. Miller. It can be seen as a way for fans of the band’s classic style to celebrate its legacy and thank the group for decades of wonderful memories. But also, Jerry hopes, it will provide new fans with the first of many wonderful memories to come.
“It really started out, I realized there was a lot of memories of the orchestra’s 53 years, for most of the orchestra and for the audience,” Knorr said. “And I chose to title the concert at Christ Presbyterian Church ‘Thanks for the Memory.’ And some of the unique things about that was there are several families that we’ve played for three generations of the family —for their parties, weddings, anniversaries and special events.
“And also, there’s a family of musicians that we’ve had three generations of the musicians play in the band. And while we’re on the threes, I guess I should mention I’m a third-generation musician, myself — not just my father, but my grandfather played piano for the silent movies.”
But there are challenges for any group over time, especially a group with more than a half-century of history behind it, especially in an era where that thrilling big-band sound seems — superficially, at least — to be out of style. Early in 2013, Jerry Knorr found himself, and his family’s legacy, at a crossroads.
For decades, a tradition for the Johnny Knorr Orchestra had been its big New Year’s Eve gala. “In recent years, due in part to the economy, and the fact that people were just not going out as much as they used to, crowds started to dwindle somewhat,” said Michael Shaw, owner of American Restrospects, a company that specializes in multimedia presentations of classic material.
“I was having lunch with Jerry Knorr, I guess it was this past spring, and he had announced to me that he had decided not to have the annual gala,” Shaw said. “And I understood why — I mean, it was a lot of work, and it was costing money rather than making a few dollars. So, I suggested to him to put together a television show that might even reach a broader audience. So he concurred with that, and over a period of a couple months, the idea began to develop.”
“It was just becoming where, financially, it wasn’t … feasible to do it anymore,” Knorr said of the gala. “And so Michael thought that this program would be good to air on television on New Year’s Eve in place of the gala that we normally did.”
Knorr said for the dozen musicians and two singers who make up the orchestra, the energy present during the recording at Christ Presbyterian was tremendous — but then, performing in front of an audience always is.
“It’s always exciting performing for a live audience and getting the live response,” he noted. “That’s always an exciting and enthusiastic time. … Whenever there’s the live audience, that’s when it’s most enjoyable, in creating an energy with the musicians.”
Jerry has had a lifetime of experience preparing for such moments. Ever since he took over the orchestra that bears his father’s name, the younger Knorr has led the group with a smooth confidence and style that lets you know he is his father’s son. But he admits he has always felt a pressure associated with the position — a position he was groomed for from a young age by a father who was very, very painstaking about how his son learned music.
“Dad was a very particular taskmaster, and was very particular about things. And he made resources available to me, but was very specific on how they were utilized and how I tried to understand them,” Knorr said. “He was a difficult person to please in that respect, and it made it hard for me. But in hindsight, it has all been better.”
His father’s firm guidance extended into Jerry’s first days as the Johnny Knorr Orchestra’s new bandleader.
“Really, I started leading the orchestra, five, six years ago, when Dad was physically not capable of fronting the band. He still played in the band, so his eye was right there upon me, to see that things were done in the proper fashion. And so it was a heavy weight to do things the way he wanted or expected them to be done.
“So by the time he was no longer being able to be a part of the band, I was pretty well groomed into his philosophies and his way of doing things.”
So as the Johnny Knorr Orchestra takes the airwaves on New Year’s Eve — in celebration of memories old and new — the guidance of its namesake and founder will still be very much in evidence. But it will be his son holding the baton and leading the group into a new year — and maybe, into the sight of a new generation of fans.
“Some of the musicians will sometimes think, ‘Well, we’re playing the same things time after time.’ But I believe it was Tony Bennett one time that was asked, [why] he does do the same concerts with very little change. And he says, ‘When you have something that’s good, don’t change it.’”