Robert Calonico hasn’t been leading a secret life, but his nocturnal activities might shock the thousands of students who’ve played under his baton. During his four-decade career as a band director, including a 28-year reign as Cal’s director of bands, which is rapidly coming to an end, Calonico has quietly maintained a thriving practice as a top-shelf saxophonist and clarinetist.
By day his avuncular presence has guided the beloved 225-piece “Pride of California” Marching Band and the University Wind Ensemble, which plays its final concert under his direction on Sunday. Come nightfall Calonico could often be found decked out in a dark suit, accompanying a disparate array of stars, from Lou Rawls, Wayne Newton, and Joan Baez to Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Godfather of Soul himself.
“I remember sitting in the saxophone section next to Maceo Parker and I was beside myself,” Calonico recalls about a particularly memorable week in a big band backing James Brown. “When I first heard him play he was like a freight train. I thought, I better man up and start mashing it down. You’re star struck, but you have to play. I remember one time playing behind Natalie Cole she turned around and winked at me. These are out-of-body experiences. So many wonderful memories.”
The encounters with legendary musicians might have helped prepare Calonico for a succession of jobs in which he took over from revered predecessors. After graduating from Cal in 1976 he landed his first band directing gig at San Rafael’s Terra Linda High School in 1978, taking over for Gordon Lowe, who had held the position for decades. When he was hired as director of the UC Jazz Ensembles, he replaced pianist Susan Muscarella, a major force in jazz education who went on to launch the California Jazz Conservatory. And when he stepped in to fill the big shoes of Robert O. Briggs, he was replacing an institution who had directed the Cal Marching Band as assistant director and then director from 1967-1995, a run that overlapped with Calonico’s student years in the ensemble.
“It was so intimidating taking over for Briggs,” Calonico says. “You feel like everyone’s watching. He couldn’t have been kinder. He handed me the keys and said I hope you stay a long time and have as much fun as I did. I can see now that handing the keys to a former student is not so bad. He would come around quite a bit and was very helpful those first years.”
If Calonico was demure about his work as a first-call sideman around his students, he was equally circumspect with his musical peers. Veteran jazz bassist Jeff Neighbor started working gigs with Calonico in the late 1970s and they became close friends “but I didn’t know he was a band conductor for years,” he says. “He loves the music so much and knows a good deal of the American Songbook. We’d play a three-hour gig and he wouldn’t have any music with him. You often think of a band director being very note oriented, concentrating on the page. But he carries the music in his head and his spirit.”
Calonico and Neighbor, who graduated from Cal in 1967, bonded off the bandstand too. They used to run half-marathons together and after long stints in the trenches together playing in pit bands for San Francisco musicals, the bassist came to know Calonico as far more than a musician.
“He has a very natural sense of humor, one that’s never at anyone’s cost,” Neighbor says. “He sees the ironies in life and has the ability to deeply laugh at himself and the human condition. When we get together we like to tell stories about the musicians who came before us.”
When Calonico tells stories about his years as band director at Cal, what’s most evident is the pleasure he found in providing students with extraordinary experiences, like the time the marching band made a surprise halftime appearance at Super Bowl 50 alongside Coldplay and Beyoncé (you can watch it here). When he got the call about the gig, he thought it was a friend pulling his leg, but once he realized it was a serious offer, “we sent out a Google doc to my band to find out how many would be available,” he says. “Within 10 minutes everybody but one said yes. We never get that kind of response. That whole experience was amazing. Beyoncé gave one of drummers a high five at the first rehearsal and he was beside himself for two weeks.”
But he considers his revival of the UC Wind Ensemble as one of his major legacies. The group hadn’t been active for two decades when he became Director of UC Bands and quickly relaunched the ensemble. On Sunday afternoon, the group presents several longtime favorites and three premieres at Hertz Hall, including David Subke’s “Klamath River Suite,” “Overture Italiana” by Stanford’s Giancarlo Aquilanti’s and “Blast” by Cal music department chair Edmund Campion.
He’s only 63, so while he’s retiring from his position at Cal, Calonico isn’t hanging up his reeds. He’s planning on doing some traveling with his wife, including a trip to the town in Italy where his father was born (his parents met at Cal, where his father was a graduate student studying romance languages and his mother was an undergraduate biochem major). Oh yeah, he’s also taking over as the new director of the Golden Gate Park Band, which was founded 1882, a full nine years before Cal’s Marching Band’s first promenade in 1891.