Forty years ago this month on August 9, 1974, legendary trumpeter Bill Chase and three other band members of the pioneering jazz-rock fusion group Chase were killed in a plane crash on the way to perform at the Jackson County Fair in Minnesota.
“In retrospect, it seemed inevitable,” admits original Chase bassist Dennis Keith Johnson, who recalls a number of “close calls” in the days he was with the band. “One winter, our concert ended early, so we thought, ‘Let’s fly to the next gig tonight.’ It had snowed, but our pilot wasn’t concerned and said he would just run the plane down the runway and blow the snow off. He cranked it and you could feel the tail going down and could hear both engines shutting down. The next thing you know, we’re all asked to get out and ‘push the plane.’ We got out and the nose of the plane was sticking out over a seventy-five-foot drop over a four-lane highway and we all had to push an 18,000 pound DC3 back on to the runway!”
Johnson, who is best-known in the years since Chase for having been a founding member and original bassist of the group Survivor and for leading the Dennis Keith Experience, is organizing what he describes as “the last call” performances of “Chase Revisited” to commemorate the fortieth anniversary of that fatal plane crash and to coincide with the band’s induction into the Iowa Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Association Hall of Fame on August 31 in Arnolds Park, Iowa, as well as with the Chicago Jazz Festival.
Bill Chase began his career as a “screech” trumpeter in big bands, including stints with Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton before becoming the lead trumpet in what is generally considered to be the best of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd in the 1960s.
In 1970, Chase put together a genre-bending, cross-generational nine-piece band bearing his name that included no less than four virtuoso jazz trumpeters alongside of an electric rock rhythm section and a power vocalist.
The group’s debut album “Chase” on Epic Records went Gold and charted for twenty-six weeks, was nominated for a Grammy Award for “Best New Artist” and featured the group’s No.1 hit “Get It On,” which spent thirteen weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart during the summer of 1971.
“I don’t think Bill was interested in running a big band,” says Johnson. “Too much trouble, you got to have sax players, trombones. He wanted a power band that featured trumpets. He didn’t organize Chase like Woody Herman organized his Thundering Herds. Even though it was called Chase, and Bill Chase obviously was a central figure, it was always a band. It was divided and all of us had a percentage of everything. I think that contributed to what happened on these albums. It was a band. There were guys in their thirties and twenties, I was the youngest at twenty. Jazzers, yeah, but rockers as well. But it wasn’t peace, love and groovy, the attitude was more like, ‘Let’s get the job done, we’re gonna kick ass.’ It was an exciting time.”
Johnny Carson heard the group in Las Vegas and immediately booked them for a “Tonight Show” appearance. “Doc Severinsen kept poking his head into the Green Room,” Johnson recalled, “he and Bill went way back.” Other television performances included “The Smothers Brothers Show” and a half-hour concert telecast devoted exclusively to the dynamic music of Chase.
After various personnel changes and two follow-up albums, “Ennea” in 1972 and “Pure Music” in 1974, Chase and then-guitarist John Emma, keyboardist Wally Yohn and drummer Walter Clark were killed in that fateful plane crash.
Chase music remained popular among trumpet lovers and brass aficionados and is still widely performed by marching bands at half-time, “but everything is down four octaves,” says Johnson. “It’s always fun to hear my bass lines played on a tuba.”
In 2007, surviving trumpeters Joe Morrissey and Jim Oatts put together some special concerts that included members of the original and second-band Chase lineups and billed it as Chase Revisited.
Chase Revisited played a single area suburban concert in the fall of 2011 that wonderfully re-created the excitement of the original band, playing note-for-note its frenzied original charts which always allowed for as Johnson puts it, “designed areas of uncertainty.”
For the first and only time, Chase Revisited will return to Chicago—the city where the band made its home base in its heyday—with a special weekend of farewell band appearances at Reggies.
In acknowledgment of the cross-generational appeal of the music and legacy of Chase—which remains an inspiration to brass players of all ages—Chase Revisited will play a Saturday afternoon all-ages show in addition to its Friday and Saturday evening shows.
International trumpet sensation Eric Miyashiro, who Johnson says “wore out Chase records growing up,” is coming in from Japan to take the role of lead trumpeter for these special concerts. “I asked him if he wanted me to send the music and he said, ‘No, I know every note.’ He’s actually smoother than Bill Chase. He’s not as big, not as edgy, but he has a smoother sound. But he does a real good job of channeling Bill. He grew up in Hawaii but lives in Japan now.”
Lead singer G.G. Shinn, from the second incarnation of Chase and reportedly Chase’s own choice for original band vocalist, will be the featured lead vocalist. “He had a five-octave range back in the band days,” says Johnson, “and still gigs every weekend and still has a four-and-a-half octave range.”
The first and original Chase lineup will be represented by trumpeter Alan Ware, who will emcee, keyboardist Phil Porter, Johnson on bass and drummer Jay Burrid.
Other former Chase members performing will be drummer Gary Smith from the second Chase lineup and trumpeter Jay Sollenberger along with trumpeters Morrissey and Oatts, all from the third and final Chase lineup.
“One of the last things Bill was working on when that plane went down was a band arrangement of ‘Tubular Bells,’ ” says Johnson. “With that in mind and with our wanting to go out with some new music, [composer/arranger] Gary Fry has penned a new arrangement for us Chase-style that we will premiere at these performances.” (Dennis Polkow)
Friday, August 29 and Saturday, August 30 at 7pm, $35-$50. Saturday, August 30, 3pm, all-ages show $20 ($10 for students), Reggies, 2105 South State, (312)949-0120, reggieslive.com.