Obituary: John E. 'Jack' Purcell / Trombonist led go-to band for Pittsburgh society events
December 8, 2013 11:16 PM
Trombonist and orchestra leader Jack Purcell of Brookline plays a tune in 2012.
Longtime band leader Jack Purcell.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
John E. Purcell was everywhere. His orchestra, the Jack Purcell Orchestra, performed at nearly all of the society galas and venues in Pittsburgh -- country clubs, balls, you name it. The trombonist and bandleader played for Sen. H. John Heinz III, Jackie Gleason, the Mellons and the Hillmans. He was even friends with the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, despite their differing political views.
In a Post-Gazette video from 2012, Mr. Purcell said he played at the Stanley Theatre before it was the Benedum, on AM radio before there was FM, at the Penn Theater before it became Heinz Hall, and at the Nixons both old and new.
When you have a 70-year-long career, you make your mark.
In Tune: Trombonist and orchestral leader Jack Purcell
This is an occasional series -- called "In Tune" -- that explores Pittsburgh's musical legacy through the people who built it. The focus here is on trombonist and orchestral leader Jack Purcell. (Video by Nate Guidry; 6/17/2012)
"He was always called the Lester Lanin of Pittsburgh," said his son, Rick Purcell of Pittsburgh.
Mr. Purcell died Friday at the age of 94. At the time of his death, he was living in Mt. Lebanon.
He grew up in a family of coal workers in Frackville, Schuylkill County, and then in several Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
While attending Brentwood High School, he picked up a trombone -- for $20, which included five lessons -- and started the first iteration of his Jack Purcell Orchestra in 1935. He suspended it while studying at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University.
After graduating, he served in the Navy during World War II, taking part in the invasion of Okinawa. Upon his return, he met his wife, Jeanne, to whom he was married for 67 years.
In 1948, he joined the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Because the PSO season was shorter and less lucrative in those days, he rekindled the Jack Purcell Orchestra on the side and became a booking agent. He eventually decided to do both full time, resigning from the symphony in 1956.
Among his thousands of performances, he played at the Cinderella Ball, the Medallion Ball, the Pittsburgh Opera's Diamond Horseshoe Ball and countless weddings.
With 150 to 200 gigs a year, "he was busy as heck, and booking other things probably two, three times that amount," said Rick Purcell, whose own band now performs at many of the same venues.
Until his retirement in 2005, Mr. Purcell's band was the go-to musical group for many Pittsburgh society events.
"To many of us, he was the consummate bandleader," said Helen Hanna Casey, president of Howard Hanna Real Estate Services, who worked with Mr. Purcell for the Medallion Ball of St. Lucy's Auxiliary to the Blind.
He owed his long-term success to his chops -- his "sweet sound," as his son put it -- but also to his ability to please customers.
Instead of sticking with swing alone, he learned other genres, such as rock and disco, in keeping with the times. And he was a terrific entertainer.
"He engaged the audience to want to get up and dance and want to be a part of what he was doing on stage," Ms. Hanna Casey said.
That enthusiasm extended to his personal relationships and investment in the community. He served as a deacon at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon, raised funds on behalf of charities and participated in local social clubs. And he shared his love of music with everyone in his family, for 27 years working in the business with his son Rick.
"To be married 67 years is quite a testament. They're really a wonderful family," said Betsy Teti, who also attends Southminster Presbyterian and is a member of the Cinderella Women's Committee, which organizes the Cinderella Ball.
"He always watched the newspapers for something good about someone and would always call you or send you a note," said Mac McIlrath, director of the Royal Order of Jesters, of which Mr. Purcell was a member.
Although Mr. Purcell worked in the entertainment business, it was not just for show.
"He was so chipper and had a twinkle in his eye all the time," said his daughter-in-law, Vera Purcell.
In addition his wife and his son, Mr. Purcell is survived by a daughter, Leslie Purcell Upchurch of New York, and four grandchildren.
Friends will be received from 1 to 4 and 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at William Slater II Funeral Service, 1650 Greentree Road, Scott. The funeral will be held at 11 a.m. Tuesday at Southminster Presbyterian Church, 799 Washington Road, Mt. Lebanon.