George Bruno, a former teacher and popular big-band leader who was devoted to performing and preserving the music of America’s “greatest generation,” died April 20 of an aneurysm, his family said. He was 89.
Music was Mr. Bruno’s passion for more than 70 years, since he took up the clarinet as a boy after hearing Benny Goodman on the radio. He stood out from the beginning as a youngster performing with a Salvation Army band on Chicago street corners during the Great Depression.
“If you know anything about Salvation Army bands, they’re all horns – and here was this kid playing the clarinet,” his wife, Lupe, said. “He must have been 12 or 13. His family was big in the Salvation Army, and he wanted to play. So they let him play.”
Despite his early start in music, Mr. Bruno was a late bloomer as a bandleader. He spent 30 years as a teacher and counselor at junior high schools in the Acampo, Lake Tahoe and Sacramento areas while moonlighting as a union musician at nightclubs and other gigs.
After retiring in the 1980s, he formed a 15-piece band and led the George Bruno Orchestra at nightclubs, Elks lodges, hotels and casinos throughout Northern California. The group was a favorite among a shrinking but enthusiastic generation of Americans who came of age with big-band music during the Depression and World War II.
He performed standards by Goodman, Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and other musical icons in the “Music of Your Life” dance series sponsored by Sacramento radio station KXOA. For many years, he led orchestras that backed singers Frankie Laine, Kay Starr and other big names at the annual Sacramento Jazz Jubiliee.
“One of the things that impressed me through all the years was the good rapport that George had with the headliners,” veteran Sacramento broadcaster Lou Coppola said. “I asked Frankie (Laine) how he liked working with him, and he said George was one of the sharpest guys he’d ever performed with.”
Mr. Bruno supported efforts to keep the big-band sound alive for aging fans as a founding member of the Nor Cal Big Bands Preservation Society. He donated his music library to inspire younger generations of performers at El Camino High School in Sacramento.
Born June 11, 1924, in Chicago, he moved with his family to California in 1939 and settled in Manteca. He played clarinet and saxophone in nightclubs as a student at Manteca High School and served in the Army in World War II.
He graduated from College of the Pacific and earned a master’s degree in teaching at Sacramento State. He retired from teaching at Carnegie Middle School in Orangevale.
“He was one of those guys who had to practice every single day, an hour a day on the sax,” his wife said. “He liked the fact that people who came to dances enjoyed his music. I know that he enjoyed it himself very much.”
In addition to his wife of 70 years, Mr. Bruno is survived by a daughter, Linda Sanchez; a son, Ron; a sister, Carole Doke; and a grandson.
A private family service is planned. Donations may be made to the Wounded Warrior Project, P.O. Box 758517, Topeka, KS 66675.
Call The Bee’s Robert D. Dávila, (916) 321-1077. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Davila.