The Story of Firefighter Julius Pontecorvo
By Douglas Hedwig
Originally published in The New York Brass Conference, 2002 Journal
During the weeks and months which have followed the terrible tragedy of September 11th, 2001, Julius Pontecorvo, Official Bugler of the New York City Fire Department, has had the somber duty and privilege to perform “Taps” for many FDNY funerals and memorial services. At churches, cathedrals, and synagogues throughout the New York City Metropolitan area, this lone bugler’s clear, focused, and resonant tone has given voice to an unspeakable grief.
For all but 16 of the 343 FDNY funerals and memorial services, there has been a bugler present to play “Taps.” As the Official Bugler of the FDNY, it was Firefighter Pontecorvo’s responsibility to play or arrange for someone else to play for each of them. At last count, the number for which he has personally performed stands at about 125. “I was suddenly thrust into this situation where all of this had to be done and taken care of,” he said. “Each family deserves a proper closure.” During the first week alone after the 11th, he got called for 28 services. Understandably overwhelmed, he began to call upon other members of the FDNY, New York City Police Department, one or two volunteer professional musicians, to help out. “I wanted to do every single one, I would have done six a day, if possible, but, I just couldn’t.”
For many years Julius has been active as a professional trumpeter in addition to his duties with the fire department. As the leader of a club-date band, “Nightmoves,” he books and works an average of 100 dates a year. So he knew he would do a good job when it really counted the most. But nothing in his prior experience could fully prepare him for the intense emotional toll which this crisis would inflict on him. Through it all, however, he has pressed on and provided an important service for the families of these fallen heroes, as well as for the thousands of other firefighters who have come to the many ceremonies from all over the United States and even the world, to show their respect. Julius Pontecorvo, age 48, has been a New York City Firefighter since April 7, 1979. He began studying trumpet with his father, Daniel Pontecorvo, then a NYC Firefighter and Bugler (now retired), who was himself a very accomplished big-band style trumpeter for many years – even leading his own group under his stage name of Sunny Daniels. After graduating from New Utrecht High School (Brooklyn), and then getting his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Education from Long Island University (Brooklyn), Julius went on to play lead trumpet with many latin bands throughout New York City, including lengthy gigs with Tito Puente’s band, as well as a stint with Lionel Hampton. Then, as can so easily happen to trumpet players who are constantly called on to play loud and high, night after night, he suffered a major embouchure breakdown.
The severe fiscal crisis in the city during the 1970’s resulted in what has been described as a near total dismantling of instrumental music programs in the New York City Public Schools. Even with his Music Education degree and State Teacher Certification, there simply were no teaching jobs to be had. So, for the next two years Julius went into the practice room to get his chops back; first an hour or so, then gradually up to 8 to 10 hours of practice a day. With the extraordinary gift of total family support, he was able to completely devote himself to rebuilding and strengthening his playing, while learning how to use his air more efficiently in conjunction with a more relaxed and balanced embouchure setup.
One day, in early 1979, he got a call to do a road gig with a disco band which would be traveling all over the United States. He jumped at the opportunity. Playing six nights a week his chops got better and better. Several months later the band arrived in Las Vegas for an extended engagement. Several weeks later, April 1st, he got a call from his Dad back in New York. This call was to change his life; in a way that would profoundly affect and influence the lives of thousands of others some 23 years later.
Julius had taken the Firefighter test some months earlier; mainly as a backup. He did very well, scoring high on both the physical and written portions of the exam, and his name had been placed on a waiting list. Being out on the road, and playing every night, had pretty much put all thoughts of becoming a firefighter out of his mind. But now, here was his father’s urgent phone call, saying that the fire department papers had come through. If he was going to become a firefighter he had get home to New York by the following Saturday to be sworn in as a Probationary Firefighter with the FDNY. His father explained that this opportunity would not likely come again any time soon. He could always quit the department if he didn’t like it, his father explained. But he had to get home right away if he wanted a shot.
Julius agonized for several days. As a boy, he had idolized his father, wanting to become a fireman just as he had. But, over the years the trumpet had become his great passion, his reason for getting up in the morning. And after all, here he was in Las Vegas, playing every night, having the time of his life, and getting paid for it. How could he give this up now? Yet he realized that when this gig ended and he was back in New York again, he would be struggling for years before there would be the possibility of making regular income as a trumpet player. And he knew he wanted to start a family and buy a house.
It was the great Hall of Fame baseball player and philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Finally realizing that it might be possible to continue playing professionally even while serving as a New York City Firefighter, Julius made the decision to return to NYC the next day. On Saturday, April 7, 1979, Julius Pontecorvo was sworn in and became one of “New York’s Bravest;” a member of The New York City Fire Department.
Over the years since that day, Julius Pontecorvo has had many duties and obligations as a member of the FDNY. His first assignment was Engine Company 247 in Brooklyn. Later, he moved to Ladder 149, also in Brooklyn. He wanted to move to a Ladder Company because he wanted to get involved with more rescue operations. Wanting to play more trumpet, and realizing the unusual hours of a regular firefighter made practicing and accepting gigs more and more difficult, he became a Fire Inspector. Fire Inspectors had regular 8 AM – 4 PM hours, so he was able to play at night whenever he got called and wanted to. The Department closed his Inspector unit after three years, at which point he went to work with Engine Company 151 in Staten Island where he stayed for another three years. And for the last two years he has been assigned to the Health and Fitness Unit, training new NYC firefighters.
Within a week of being assigned to Engine 247, Julius was involved in his first fire. It was a three alarm fire, and his company was the first in. He describes the scene as “pure bedlam,” and his first experience as “intense and very scary.” It was a “fully involved” fire, meaning the whole building was in flames. “Each time you go in you get stronger and stronger,” he said. A couple of years later, he was involved in the scariest moment of his life during another fire in Brooklyn. There was a “May Day” issued by the commander, meaning the whole building was in danger of imminent collapse. Julius was the last one out, barely managing to escape with his life. “I had flashbacks,” he said. “Events of my life were passing through my mind as I was struggling to find my way out.”
As Official Bugler for the FDNY, Julius has played at official functions other than funerals. He has performed The Star-Spangled Banner for events such as the important annual FDNY Medal Day Ceremony at City Hall; the FDNY Memorial Day ceremony at the beautiful and moving memorial statue to Firefighters located at Riverside Drive and 100th street in Manhattan; at various ceremonies at Fire Department Headquarters in Brooklyn, and for many VFW posts for veterans on Memorial Day each May. He also played our National Anthem accompanying his good friend, Vernon Cherry, the FDNY’s singer, at a service commemorating the infamous 23rd Street Fire of October 17, 1966. Vernon Cherry was one of the many brave firefighters who lost their lives on September 11th.
But it clearly is the performance of “Taps” which is the ceremonial bugler’s most important function. And, his performance of it is clear, resonant, musical, and heroic. “I was on the job one month, and I got my first ‘job’ playing ‘Taps.’ I was a ‘probie’ at the time. It was amazing. I was on the job no more than a month and here I am playing in front of almost 10,000 people. I had played professionally before, of course, but this was different. I was very, very nervous this first time.”
Part of this nervousness was no doubt due to the very limited practice time he had during the first six weeks as a “probie;” a kind of basic training period all new firefighters must go through. “I could practice a little, but, not much. I was studying to become a firefighter. Every day getting up at 5 in the morning to train, get home at 5 or 6 in the evening, then studying until crashing into bed by 9 o’clock.” But after a while he was able to start practicing more and getting his chops back in shape.
Julius Pontecorvo prides himself on doing his best every time he plays for his brother firefighters and their familes. “It sounds kind of weird, I guess, but I love playing ‘Taps.’ Most of the firefighters know me. It’s like they say, ‘OK, Julius is going to be playing and we know he is going to do a good job. The firefighters know that. The families maybe think it’s kind of a sad song, but that it is the right thing to do. It’s a great feeling for me to do that for them. Some families have come to say thank you. You know, they give me a kiss or a hug. Some, I know, express their thanks to the other firefighters – ‘tell the bugler thank you so much.’ They know that I have done something for them and I’ve done it with my heart and soul. And the firefighters know I do it because I love doing it. And I know it could have been me over there. I see his little kids walking out on the church steps, and that could be my kids walking out of that church. It is a great, great honor to do it for them.”
Unlike most buglers, Julius Pontecorvo has chosen to play “Taps” completely out of sight of the family and most of the other firefighters. “Years ago, at my first funerals, my Dad would play right in front of the fire truck; just in front of the casket, with the families within 20 feet. Right from the start I felt very uncomfortable playing it from this position; in front of them. We did it as a duet and it was pretty loud, we were not holding back at all. I remember thinking, gosh, I’m not sure this is a very good idea. But, you know, my Dad had twenty-something years on the job, and I’m a rookie here. So, what, I’m going to try and persuade him to change this?
So the next one we played together, I said, ‘Dad, why don’t we just kinda move back a little?’ So we moved back – a little, not too much. Now we were back maybe 30 or 40 feet. He said, ‘We gotta get close, we gotta see what’s going on, we have to see the second hand salute so we know when to play.’ I said, ‘Dad, we only have to listen to the second hand salute.’ My Dad always liked playing close. But when Dad retired and I took over by myself, I decided to go beside the church, a couple of hundred feet away; out of the picture. No one could see me, they’d just hear it. I just feel that emotionally it works much better.”
It was also easier on Julius, for whom the playing of “Taps” has always been an intensely emotional experience. Once, when he was playing on top of the church steps just next to the large exit doors, a mourner began crying so uncontrollably when she heard the first notes of “Taps” that she fell on top of him; pushing the trumpet right off his mouth. The accident could easily have cost him some teeth.
“And then there were the times; several times over 23 years, I almost broke down crying because I could hear the kids crying,” he said. “It was so difficult for me to concentrate that I actually made a mistake. So I had to move further away. At first, the guys would say, ‘where are you going?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll hear me.’ I thought, I can’t look at this child wearing his father’s hat. I know I’ve done a lot of these, but still, every one to me, it’s a new one. It’s never just another one. It’s still as new as the first one twenty-three years ago.”
But, the most important reason he plays from a distance is because it so meaningful and dramatically effective. “It comes from the distance. You know, like, he’s saying goodbye to them, from a great distance from heaven. I’ve gotten so many compliments. They say it sounds so much nicer. It just has that kind of heavenly sound – coming from – where? Where is it?”
One year after the death of a firefighter there is an important ceremony at which a plaque of the fallen firefighter is unveiled in the firehouse where he served. Julius came up with the idea of playing “Taps” from the bunkroom upstairs, with the ceremony taking place in the garage downstairs. “I had my father do it this way for me once. I said, ‘Dad, play upstairs. I want to hear what it sounds like. I’ve never heard it done this way.’ And I thought, ‘What a feeling!’ I felt it in my stomach! And I said to myself, ‘Yes, this is the way.’ And now everybody – even the police officers do it – everybody has copied me and my father.”
Hardly anyone knows there is an Official Bugler in the FDNY. That’s the main reason he wears the Official Bugler patch on the right shoulder of his uniform. In fact, there had never been an official fire department bugler in New York City before he was given the title. It was always informal, although everyone understood who the “go to guy” was when there was an important ceremony. Julius designed his own patch and the department had it made up after security issues made it essential for him to be clearly identified. “It’s to let everyone know, when I walk into a ceremony and they see my trumpet bag, they don’t think its something else, especially with all the security these days – you know the Mayor or the Governor might be there.”
But, although he is the Official Bugler, he plays only trumpet these days. “After I play, some people might say, ‘Hey, that’s not a bugle,’ – they’re looking for something without valves. One of the Firefighters I used several times over the last few months, when there was more than one service going on at the same time, plays the bugle. Actually, he is a tuba player who ‘doubles’ bugle; Bob Sashi. The bugle can produce a mellow, almost soothing sound. But I definitely prefer the brightness of the trumpet.”
Although it could be argued that there is no right or wrong way to play it, when Julius Pontecorvo plays “Taps,” people really listen. It draws you in; emotional, yet precise; lyrical, yet clearly articulated. And it is well thought out. What some might describe as a very simple bugle call – a slow fanfare, of sorts – is played by Pontecorvo like a hymn. Over the years, while working out the style he now calls his own, he has tried many approaches to the well-known tune. “I’ve tried it all legato – slurring the whole thing – to tonguing everything. I’ve tried it without vibrato. Now, everybody loves the vibrato. Just on the sustained notes. I just started putting that in during the last 6 or 7 years ’cause I had good reports on it from the Chiefs. So I kept that in.”
“I like to use a light tongue stroke on each note; a slight legato. I do the melody in longer phrases instead of cutting the phrases the way I have heard it done in the military. If I feel relaxed and warmed up, I can do it in two breaths, with maybe a quick third breath before the last three notes. I like to keep it flowing, with the only break being the breath. But it would be quick, so quick that they don’t even hear my breath.”
He prefers a moderate, though steady tempo, without “rubato,” the musical term which describes the expressive device of varying – speeding up and slowing down – the basic musical pulse or tempo of a piece or phrase. Julius prefers to play it like a simple folk song, without too much affectation. The weather may affect the tempo as well as articulation and feeling from one day to the next. “If it is really cold, I might tongue it more heavily. Because my chops might be really stiff. Sometimes the G (the highest note of the tune) might not even come out. So I hit it a little more with the air. On a good summer day or a spring day, if I’m warmed up well, it’s usually pretty easy. The coldest days in January, February, March, that’s when it’s the toughest to play. Like last week, it was cold. I felt it wasn’t right. And, if I don’t feel right that day I’m gonna try hard to make this work. It might not be as pretty as some of them are, but I need to make it work. On days like this I keep the mouthpiece in my hand to keep it warm, and put it into the trumpet just before I play. And I’ll blow warm air into the trumpet to keep the metal warm. If it’s too cold, the vibration is just not right. It’s amazing how the cold affects it. It just doesn’t feel right when you play. It’s almost like something is stuck inside the trumpet. So I have to deal with it at the spur of the moment. I’m thinking, ‘Ok, now, I’m stuck with this cold weather, my mouthpiece is real cold, my lips are stiff, my trumpet’s cold, I have to get through this.’ It’s not going to be as pretty. They don’t know that. But I know. I want it to be the best every time.”
One of the unknown factors he faces every time he plays, are the acoustics. “When it’s very ‘echoey’, it’s very easy to play. When it’s dry and dead, it’s hard. In situations like that you tend to try to make it happen with your trumpet tone. So sometimes you push a little, and then you have to watch out that you don’t make a mistake. You might be playing into a mass of people, on a small little block, thousands and thousands of firefighters, and then it sounds dead. And there’s no way to make the sound ‘echoey.'” When that happens Julius tends to play it a little faster. When he plays in a firehouse, Julius usually finds it acoustically very dry because he is generally playing from the bunkroom and most of the sound gets “soaked up.” But he knows that even although it sounds dry and doesn’t feel very good to him, downstairs in the garage – where the engines and all the equipment is stored – the sound is resonant and full. “Sometimes, if the bunkroom is too far away and you can’t hear the hand salute command, I play right in the kitchen, right behind the plaque area. I close the door, and keep it open maybe an inch.”
“One of the best places to play is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It sounds great there. The echo creates such a beautiful sound. It kind of bounces off all of the buildings on 5th Avenue. You feel like the center is there, the resonance is there, your lips always feel pretty good over there.”
But wherever Julius plays he has to warm up. “I have to warm up an hour just to play forty seconds. If I play without warming up I get charley horsed. It can take me all day to get it back, especially if I have to play professionally at night. If I don’t, my chops feel terrible. Sometimes I have to warm up in the car. I’ve had to play when I didn’t have time to warm up, and it was scary. People don’t understand. ‘Why do you have to play beforehand, you’ve been playing for thirty years, you don’t have to warm up any more!’ I say, ‘you’ve got to warm up. Does a runner go out and run a mile, does a weight lifter just go out and lift 500 pounds without warming up? It’s the same principle. We have muscles here.’ Then they understand.”
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