By Joe Stumpe
Jazz formed the soundtrack of Bob Scheid’s childhood in pre-World War II south Chicago, a swinging big-band beat that some think has never been equaled. It was powered by famous drummers such as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, and it found its way into Scheid’s heart and hands before he could even form complete sentences.
“My dad told me I’d be sitting on the kitchen floor pounding the pots and pans while my mother was singing,” Scheid says. “And he would tell my mother, ‘Bob’s got it.’”
He still does, judging by a recent Sunday morning at R Coffee House in Wichita. Scheid sat behind a pearl Slingerland drum set, quietly brushing the cymbals as a singer soulfully rendered the first two verses of “Summertime.” Then Scheid and the band broke into double-time, the volume of the vocalist, saxophone, keyboards, bass and drums rising to a crescendo that left the crowd whooping and hollering.
It’s the last song of the weekly gig. When it was over, Scheid slowly crawled out from behind the drums. He greeted friends and fans, collected and distributed the take from the tip jar and checked to see which of the musicians will be available next week.
“From day one until now it’s been therapy for me,” Scheid, 91, said of playing music. “Once in a while, people ask me, ‘What’s your favorite kind of music?’ It’s all good. Just some is better than others.”
Scheid, who lives in Schowalter Villa in Hesston, picked up his first paying music job as an eight-grader in Chicago, not longer after the United States entered World War II.
“Suddenly all the musicians were going off to war,” he said. “Of course, I’m not old enough to be in these places, but in Chicago they always bend the rules to fit the situation.”
Scheid played every Friday and Saturday night and made union scale — $10 for four hours. Scheid’s father, who played piano, bought the set of drums Bob still plays today as a reward for his son never smoking during high school.
“Back in the days of the big bands, if you didn’t have Slingerland, you didn’t have a drum set. Buddy Rich used that, Gene Krupa use it, so I had to have it, too. That (set) is a museum piece.”
Scheid earned a degree in metallurgical engineering from Purdue University, playing music during weekends and summers. “One of my favorite gigs was at a hotel in Gary, Indiana,” he said. “This was steel mill country. There was money falling in the streets” after the war.
Scheid went to work for Union Carbide Corporation — later merged with Dow Chemical — a job that took him overseas for years at a time during stints in Sicily, the Philippines and Brazil. He served a two-year commitment in the military reserves in Japan at the end of the Korean War.
Wherever he went, he found people to play music with. “It was always an avocation for me, never a vocation.”
Scheid’s first wife, Sally, who he married in 1951, died of cancer 24 years later. With his second wife, Bonnie, who was a native of Hesston, he moved to Vail, Colo. and started a real estate business after 35 years with Union Carbide. They relocated to Hesston in 2008, when the altitude started giving Bonnie breathing problems. She died four years ago, after 40 years of marriage.
Scheid said both his wives “put up with all my music through the years. I was certainly appreciative of that. Some guys have a problem with that.”
In Kansas, Scheid started playing with some fellow jazz lovers at Hesston Mennonite Church, which led him to Moxie’s in Newton, where a group from Bethel College was playing a monthly gig. “When I got there, the biggest surprise I had was the drummer was a woman” – Kim Trujillo, an instructor at Bethel. Impressed, Scheid started taking lessons from her once a month.
“I just needed some new rudiments on the uptempo stuff,” Scheid said. “Bossa nova was new for me and the samba, she’s helping me with things like that.”
Scheid also connected with a group of musicians in Wichita, including the well-known vocalist “Lady D,” after going to hear her play at the Tropics bar on north Broadway and Mort’s in Old Town.
“I said ‘Hey I play drums. Would you mind if I sat in?’ I was surprised she said yes. That was a musical marriage made in heaven.”
Scheid went on to put together his own quintet. Named Jazz Play, they will perform at Mort’s on April 7. They also play at Moxie’s and the Candle Club. Breakfast Jazz, the group Scheid plays with at R Coffee House, performs from 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday.
Scheid said his favorite tunes to play are classics such as “How High the Moon,” “Take the A Train,” “Autumn Leaves” and “Body and Soul.”
All of Scheid’s bandmates are many decades younger, most coming from strong jazz programs at Bethel, Friends University and Wichita State University. Scheid looks and sounds comfortable keeping the beat behind them, each hand and foot carrying out different tasks in patterns burnished through thousands and thousands of repetitions. The only real difficulty, he said, is getting his drums to the gig.
“Most of the time, there’s somebody there willing to help.”