Mel Chance opens a portable CD player hooked up to a sound system in his two-room home studio.
He puts in a CD that reads “From the Top” and presses play.
“There we go,” he says, as the room fills with his big band playing “Blue Moon.”
“You’ll hear me sing,” he adds.
“Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own.”
This is Chance’s favorite to sing. It was one song he and the eight-piece Noteables performed during the Brown County Music Celebration on March 5 at the Brown County Playhouse.
Amanda Marie Webb, Lauren Robert and Kenan Rainwater joined then on stage for a couple songs each.
Chance also played wood- winds with his trio, the Mizfits, featuring Lou Stant and Curtis Moore.
But Chance, 85, wasn’t there just to perform. He also was the guest of honor, receiving the 2016 Lifetime Achievement award.
“The award just blew me away. I thought it was wonderful that Jeff (Foster) asked me to play,” Chance said.
“Everybody stood up and gave me a standing ovation. That made me feel good.”
Foster, a guitarist and the celebration’s emcee, had asked Chance about having the Noteables play at the event. It was through a news release published in the newspaper that Chance found out he was this year’s recipient.
“All of the people said, ‘Congratulations! I heard you’re getting an award.’ I said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Jeff, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you’re the man.’”
Chance began playing the piano when he was 5 years old, but he hated every minute of it.“My mom knew how to play piano and sat there on the end of the stool making me practice,” he said.It wasn’t until his parents — who met in a church orchestra — took Chance to see Benny Goodman at the Lyric Theater in downtown Indianapolis that he really became interested in music.
“I heard Benny Goodman play the clarinet and fell in love with it,” he said.
Not long after the concert, Chance’s school began offering a music program that allowed students to rent instruments.
“I came home with a contract, and my mother — I can hear her today: ‘Well, if you don’t practice any better on the clarinet than you do on the piano, I don’t think so.’ (I said) ‘Oh, please Mom, I’d like to try it.’ Well, I wore her down and she reluctantly said OK, and I have been playing clarinet ever since.”
The clarinet is still his favorite, but he can play all single-reed instruments.
The phrase “Without Music, Life Would B Flat” tops his studio “wall of fame.” It also includes photos of him performing with a variety of ensembles, including his great-nephew’s band, Denver and the Mile High Orchestra.
Chance was invited to perform with the band in Ireland and in Athens, Greece, during the 2004 summer Olympics.
There are also two animal skins hanging on the wall. Those are there “to make it a little more homey and Brown County-ish,” he said.
Chance’s inspirations include Duke Ellington, Count Basey, Woody Herman, Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers. He enjoys playing jazz, Dixieland and concert music, particularly from the 1930s and 1940s.
He points to one of the many black-and-white photos hanging on the studio walls.
“Do you see that skinny kid with the saxophone? That’s Jimmy Dorsey next to me,” Chance said, pride evident in his voice.
During his senior year in 1949, Chance won a contest at Arsenal Technical High School and the prize was a picture with Dorsey at the Indiana Roof Ballroom.
Chance’s grandfather sponsored his first saxophone. Chance played the sax and clarinet all four years of high school and also sang in a boys’ octet.
About two years after he graduated from high school, Chance joined the Navy and performed in the Navy Band during the Korean War. He will never forget performing for a party on the beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“I am going to tell you something, I never saw a moon as big as I saw. I never saw it that big before or after. But you’re far enough down, the moon, it looks like you could just come up and take a chunk out of it,” he said.
After returning from service, he began working for Indiana Bell Telephone Company, from which he retired after 27 years.
During his time with Indiana Bell, he also performed with Mel Chance and the Bel Tones. He also would teach 25 students on Friday evenings and all day Saturdays at Bob Carter’s music store. Carter was also known as Sammy Terry, late-night horror movie TV host.
After retiring, Chance repaired clarinets at Musicians’ Repair and Sales in downtown Indianapolis.
He and his wife made their way to Brown County 20 years ago this April, where they found the log cabin of their dreams.
“Indianapolis is go, go, go. If you’re at a stoplight and you don’t move fast enough, they honk you out of the way. It took me a while to get relaxed and enjoy the mountains,” he said.
Finding his place
Since Chance doesn’t play banjo or the harmonica, he was worried his music career was over when he moved to Brown County.Then, he met Chet Kylander and his “German oom-pah band.” Chance began helping at rehearsals and Kylander expressed his dream to start a community band.About 11 years ago, Chance encouraged Kylander to put an ad in the newspaper and “see what happens.”
Twenty-five people showed up at the first meeting with trumpets, flutes and other instruments. Chance became the first director until retired Warren Township band director Ray Laffin took over; the current director is Curtis Prichard.
Chance is still a band member today.
Along with performing with the Noteables and the Mizfits, Chance also played with the Columbus Symphony Orchestra and the Nashville Saxophone Company.
“I live, eat and breathe music,” he said.
He spends three days a week at the Brown County Junior High and Brown County High School working with band students. He also will perform in the band during the high school’s production of “Hello, Dolly!” this spring.
When he’s not volunteering in the schools, he’s giving private lessons to five students.
“If they want to get involved, they better be very committed to what they want to do,” Chance said.
When he first meets children and parents, he always asks the parents if their child wanted to learn how to play, or if they wanted their child to play. He knows from experience that there’s a difference.
He will also ask about the student’s grades, because a struggling student may lack the dedication to practice music. And practice is the magic word when it comes to playing instruments, he said.
“If they are not wanting to practice a half-hour a day, I could be the world’s best teacher and they are not going to learn anything,” he said.