Keeping the faith

Think about this: Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr. and Smokey Robinson have all performed arrangements by Detroit trumpeter Ed Nuccilli. It’s true. In fact, this 80-year-old founder of the Plural Circle orchestra has penned more than 400 big-band arrangements in a career that’s spanned nearly six decades.

“I always knew that I wanted to write music,” Nuccilli says. “I went to Cass [Tech] High School. I used to go across the street to this hangout, and that’s where I first got introduced to the music of Benny Goodman Orchestra and Jimmie Lunceford. I gravitated to swing and jazz.”

Sure, Nuccilli is known for his arranging, but he’s a skilled and gifted trumpeter too. He has a light, airy sound, such that you can imagine the trumpet floating from his hands at any moment. He’s also the father of five and has been married to the same woman, Jean, a former ballet dancer, for 55 years.

“He’s 80 and still playing trumpet; there’s something special about that cat,” says saxophonist Wendell Harrison, who recently rejoined Plural Circle. “He’s a survivor. His charts are so heavy that once I was playing one and I burst out crying. It just hit me on a spiritual level. Cats don’t write like that anymore.”

Even the best jazz songs are just skeletons — chords and melody — until someone like a Nuccilli turns them into full bodies with parts for each musician in the band.

Nuccilli, the son of a Detroit Symphony Orchestra trumpet player, wrote his first piece at 16. But his plans to become a pro musician were derailed in 1943; he got drafted and shipped off to Africa just after high school. There wasn’t much music for him during the war.

“When I went to the service I didn’t hear anything for the almost three years that I was in Africa,” Nuccilli says.

He returned home in 1946, unsure about music. “My father told me not to worry,” Nuccilli says. “And I began to practice and in about six months I got my lip back.”

With fit lip, the confidence came, and things happened quickly. Nuccilli landed a spot in Boston’s Shorty Sherock Orchestra and toured parts of the country. He returned to Detroit, and writing music, until he hit the road for a couple years with guitarist Bobby Sherwood.

Back then, the music wasn’t paying the bills, so Nuccilli entered college on the GI Bill, but bailed just short of a degree because he needed steady work; he now had a family to think of. But his integrity stayed intact.

“I thought, well, if I can’t play what I wanted to play, I may as well go into the factory and put fenders on cars. It was the same thrill,” he says.

Nuccilli didn’t touch the horn for four years while working at Ford Motor Company, and later as an insurance salesman.

In late 1956, Nuccilli was back in music via a Latin band. A big break came in 1961 when he won the second trumpet chair in the house orchestra at Windsor’s Elmwood Casino. His insurance job was history, and his star rose quickly. He led the casino’s house orchestra from 1972 to 1974.

While there he wrote arrangements for Bennett, Davis, Paul Anka and others. Later he was in Flint, playing with trumpeter Johnny Trudell. He began scoring commercials for Chrysler.

He got hired at Motown Records, where he arranged songs for the Supremes and Smokey Robinson, turning down a permanent job offer from the label upon its move to California in the early ’70’s.

A major New York record company offered Nuccilli a lucrative copyist gig. His wife talked him out it.

“She asked me if I want to be copying other people’s music for the rest of my life,” he says. “That was the answer for me.”

So Nuccilli started Plural Circle. There wasn’t a lot of work for orchestras in the late ’70s, and Nuccilli admits that he wasn’t a household name around Detroit. He’s not big on self-promotion; he’d rather just create “good music,” which is what, he says, keeps the band together.

What’s great about Plural Circle is they sound like several small combos swinging simultaneously. When the orchestra isn’t jamming on Nuccilli’s originals, they’re riffing on his arrangements of Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Tadd Dameron.

“My whole concept about the big band was it should not supersede the small band or take the place of it. It should be an extension of it,” Nuccilli says.

In 2001, Nuccilli was diagnosed with macular degeneration, a potentially blinding eye disease. His family purchased a machine that magnifies print for easier viewing, which made it possible for the trumpeter to continue writing music.

Now he’s even more productive. Last year he wrote 20 new compositions, and Plural Circle is now a monthly attraction at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge.

“Someone once said that Duke Ellington was totally consumed with music. That is the same way that I am. I’m not trying to put myself on the same level as Duke, but I just eat and live music.”


Ed Nuccilli and Plural Circle will perform Thursday, Aug. 11, at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge (20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-345-6300).

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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