By Laura Samuel Meyn
Photos by Ron Jenkins
Jim Milan is the first to arrive for the Bucket List Jazz Band’s Tuesday gig at Shipping and Receiving Bar just south of downtown Fort Worth. He moves slowly but purposefully with a wheeled contraption that serves as a dolly for gear. It’s a cold night, but heaters keep the warehouse cozy even with the rollup door open. “I think this building is just a few years older than I am,” says Milan, who celebrates his 98th birthday this month.
Milan, who was a trumpeter in the Army’s big bands during World War II, formed BLJB in 2011 to address a personal bucket list item — playing the arrangements from Matty Matlock’s The Dixieland Story. Some of the area’s best jazz musicians (with an average age of 66) flocked to fill his 11-piece band. One of them, trombonist Mark Thomas, says, “The best thing about playing with the BLJB is getting to sit next to Jim Milan every Tuesday night. His playing is totally authentic because he learned to play when all of these tunes were new.” Milan is philosophical about getting older; he still plays the occasional round of golf with his son and tends to the yard at his Fort Worth home. He has given up alcohol and coffee, and he still plays the trombone effortlessly. The band and loyal fans celebrate Milan’s birthday Jan. 7. We talk music and more.
360 West What keeps you coming back to Shipping and Receiving Bar each week?
Jim Milan We are playing big band jazz that the last three or four generations have not been exposed to, hopefully with the idea that they will come to hear us play. We strive for a listening audience.
360 Is it challenging to perform so frequently?
JM There have been Tuesdays — not many — when I have felt poorly. However, when I get on the gig, and we take off on the first tune, all concerns vanish and I feel years and years younger, even though I still have to deal with the thing that almost all really old people face, and that is getting up from a chair or sofa, or getting in and out of a car. No matter how good being able to play makes me feel, reality sets in when we stand to play.
360 What’s the secret to your longevity?
JM I have no idea! My father died at age 44, my mother when she was 71. My two sisters lived to be 86 and 97. I am into genealogy a bit and have a couple of grandparents and great-grandparents that lived into their 90s. I was a heavy smoker between the ages of 16 and 41 — up to two packs a day — and drank more than I should until age 50. At the expense of being accused of proselytizing, I will tell you that my drinking stopped when I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I believe that move has helped contribute to my longevity.
360 Do you have a favorite song?
JM Tough question, no easy answer. I enjoy playing all of the charts — jazz-speak for arrangements — that got us started in the first place, but we have added so many great charts to the library by other arrangers. Brian Standridge, a trumpet player in our band, writes in the Matty Matlock style, which has a Dixieland flavor. Curt Wilson, our clarinetist, writes in the style of the swinging big bands, with a definite Count Basie flavor.
360 Is there anything left on your bucket list?
JM Not really. I think I am probably one of the luckiest guys you will ever interview. To be able to do the thing that has always given me so much pleasure, playing music, and jazz in particular, closes out my bucket list.