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Dan Fox and the Rhythm Kings have a blast with 1920s jazz

Dan Fox spent more than 50 years transcribing the music of classical composers and popular recording artists so that amateur musicians could play the classics.

"I basically put books out for people who are not very good piano players, of which I consider myself a proud member," he said. "It was a great job — great work in an exciting time. I was arranging for the Beatles and just about every other well-known artist."

No doubt.

The 17 Reader's Digest songbooks Fox worked on sold millions. His John Denver Songbook was another bestseller. Other artists he penned arrangements for include Bob Dylan; Billy Joel; Led Zeppelin; Crosby, Stills and Nash; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Luciano Pavarotti.

That's a lot of work to cram into one career, and when it came time to retire, Fox thought he might start taking it easy. But the long-held desire he had to start a new band with an old sound was hard to shake.

• • •

On Wednesday nights, Fox, 81, makes the trek from his New Port Richey home to the Heritage Museum in Tarpon Springs. There, he sets out a dozen chairs and music stands, then takes his spot as the leader of a 1920s and '30s jazz band.

Just 10 months in, the Tarpon Spring Rhythm Kings are a well-oiled machine, churning out songs that recall an era of bootleggers, bobbed flappers and Duke Ellington at his best.

Rehearsals go 2 1/2 hours at a stretch, as the band works through an ever-changing list of Fox's not-so-easy arrangements ­— The Mooche, Moonglow, the ballad A Garden in the Rain, and South American tango.

"This is the best band I've ever played with," said Christopher DeAngelis, a baritone horn player who also sits in with the Dunedin Community Orchestra and for theater pit bands in Pasco and Hernando counties. "I waited months for a spot to open here, and honestly, he (Fox) arranges so well, I haven't played one song I didn't enjoy."

The locals enjoy it, too.

The band's inaugural performance — a Gatsby Night party held in June to kick off the city's Summer Solstice arts program — was a sellout that had locals doing the Charleston under the white rafters of the Heritage Museum.

"It felt like I was in the band that was on the Titanic," said Dunedin trumpeter Doug Ritchie, 67. "All these people dressed in suits and hats and flapper dresses. They danced all night (until) the last song."

It was a night to remember for the band's director and founder.

"I couldn't believe it," Fox said. "They were turning people away at the door."

The event was such a success that Tarpon's Cultural Treasures program plans to offer a monthly dance starting in September.

If he has his way, the Rhythm Kings will be fronting a revival of a sound that has tugged at Fox ever since he was a teen and happened across an old Bunk Johnson 78 record in a Manhattan record store. That 1940s recording re-created the music of Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans cornetist and jazz pioneer at the turn of the 20th century.

"I wore that record out," Fox said. "There was an honesty to it. It was innovative. There was a motivation that came from the heart."

• • •

Fox was born with a good ear, the second child of a tone-deaf father and a French-born mother who sang arias around the house.

As a youngster, he favored the cornet, but didn't have the embouchure to pull it off. He opted for a sorry-looking guitar he picked up for $15 in a New York City pawn shop when he was 13.

"I loved chords. I loved harmony, and you can do both on a guitar," Fox said.

He went on to work the club circuit, a 1950s bebopper digging the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and playing swing.

"I played in places and with people that nobody anybody heard of — a lot of small towns," he said. "I never hit the big time doing that, but I liked it for a while."

In his early 20s, Fox decided to take formal lessons and landed at the Manhattan School of Music on partial scholarship. He earned a bachelor's and master's in music composition while studying under noted American composer Wallingford Riegger.

"It was great in that you could hear your own compositions played by a full orchestra," Fox said, adding that he wrote a symphony, a short opera and a tone poem about Thomas Paine.

That led to a career as an arranger. He worked for Charles Hansen Publishing, Warner Bros. Records and other publishing companies as a freelancer while raising three children with his wife, June, in upstate New York and later New Jersey. In 1994, Fox and his wife moved to the west coast of Florida, where he continued to arrange music and penned an opera about Buddy Bolden. His arrangements can still be found on websites like sheetmusicplus.com.

"It's amazing how much he has out there," said Marianne Zboray, Kings pianist and retired Pasco County music teacher. "I would see his name on all this music I was teaching my students but until now couldn't put the name with the face."

Fox's playing days came to what he calls "an inglorious end," when he got up in the middle of the night and fell over a chair, breaking two of his playing fingers.

Even so, he still could direct and tinker some with new arrangements. And so he turned to the jazz sound he had always loved most.

"I'm too old to fool around with music that doesn't mean anything to me," he said. "I thought I was going to retire. But then I got the idea for this band, and now I'm having so much fun, that I decided to keep going."

Michele Miller can be reached at miller@tampabay.com.

. If you go

Tarpon Springs Rhythm Kings

The band performs 7 to 10 p.m. every third Thursday, September through March (excluding December) at the Heritage Museum, 100 Beekman Lane, Tarpon Springs. Free dance lessons start at 6 p.m. Reserved table seating. Tickets are $18 ($15 for members, students and groups of 10 or more). For tickets, call the box office between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday at (727) 942-5605, or purchase online at tarpon

arts.org.

Dan Fox and the Rhythm Kings have a blast with 1920s jazz 08/20/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 20, 2013 6:35pm]
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