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The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra: 1980-1990

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

"The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra were a group of six American saxophonists who played as a saxolphone ensemble in recordings and live performance. They were based in Santa Cruz, CA. The group was notable for its contrabass saxophone. The instrument, played by the group's leader and founder Don Stevens, was formerly owned by Robert Seaton of Louisville, Kentucky, a noted civil engineer and amateur musician who played the sax on WHAS big band programs in the 1920s and 30s. Mr. Seaton found the contrabass saxophone in a shop in Newark, New Jersey in the 1960s. Inscriptions on the instrument indicate that it was produced for the US Army Band in 1902. Mr. Seaton sold the instrument to the Nuclear Whales sometime before his death in 1990."


1986 - Nuclear Whales 1989 - Whalin' 1991 - Thar They Blow 1992 - Gone Fission 1997 - Isotopia 1999 - Fathom This: A Retrospective

Source: In the Fall of 1978 I began studying the alto saxophone with Bill Trimble, who had just moved to Trevethan Street off Soquel Ave in Santa Cruz, just up the hill from Harbor High, where I was an incoming freshman. Bill had just moved to the area, and my band director tracked down his phone number for me. Bill was then the saxophone professor at San Jose State University, and I remember my first lesson with him very well. He had me read for him, and we played some scales. After that lesson he said it was nice to find a student that did "more things right than wrong," and he assigned a regimen of Joe Viola Technique of the Scales Volume 1, Fairling Studies for Saxophone, and The Eccles Sonata transcribed by Sigurd Rascher. Bill was a “dyed in the wool” classical saxophonist, and he had a reputation as the best in the Bay Area at that time. I would later learn that he did solo recitals and played with all the orchestras in the Bay Area. In fact, he was the grandpa of the classical saxophone movement in the Bay Area.

Freshman year I auditioned for the Central Coast Section Honor Band; my work with Bill was going well and he helped make the cassette tape for the audition. Many people told me that I didn't have a chance at getting into the band, but that just made me more determined. I played second chair alto saxophone with the CCSHB that year.

Through my studies with Bill I met other saxophonists. In the summer of 1980 I was sixteen years old. Bill suggested we form a saxophone quartet to do some informal playing, that it would be good for all of our playing. It was in the summer or fall of 1980 that myself, Don Stevens, John Neher and Bill Landing began getting together at John's house off Mission Street to rehearse saxophone quartet music we had photocopied from the San Jose State music library. I want to stress here that the Wikipedia entry that implies Don was the "Founder" of this group is untrue. The group was originally a cooperative ensemble with no one person "founding" the original configuration. I played soprano, John was on alto, Don on tenor, and Bill on baritone. I remember playing the Ragtime Suite by Arthur Frackenphol, and Russell Howland's Saxophone Quartets, among others. We kept at it weekly for months, and we got better, but truth be known, we were pretty green and lacked any real musical foundation at this point.

Our first gig was a radio broadcast from the back of the old Cooper House for KUSP, a local non commercial radio station. I think it was their pledge drive. I remember it was hot, and we played for an hour. I believe that was Fall 1980. We had named ourselves after a farcical t-shirt that Don had, which had a Whale and the Nuclear symbol on it, plus the slogan, "We may not live to see the dawn, nuke the Whales before they're gone." We all wore that t-shirt to the first gig. The slogan didn’t have any significance, it was just for shock value and to draw attention to us. Frankly, it was a little odd but people sure noticed the name, and from that perspective, it worked.

Don Stevens, while undeniably the weakest musician in the group at the time, was the de facto leader. He found us gigs and we began causing a small stir locally. We added our own arrangements to the repertoire, and continued to rehearse. John did an arrangement of Funeral March of the Marionettes; we always got a good audience response with that. Around this time I began to get interested in other types of saxophone music, New Orleans rhythm and blues, the World Saxophone Quartet, Weather Report. I remember thinking it would be good to do more creative music, and tried to figure out how to incorporate that into what we did.

Don was always looking for ways to move us forward, and I give him credit for that. He managed to keep us busy as a quartet, and somehow steel guitar wizard Bob Brozman got wind of us and spoke to us about backing him up, and doing a couple of tracks to back him up on a recording he was working on. Bob was a local sensation at this point, not nearly the world famous guitar hero he went on to become all over the world. His claim to fame at this time was that he was arrested for playing on Pacific Ave in front of the Cooper House, stopping traffic and causing a disturbance. If you saw Bob at this time slapping the strings and playing bottleneck, you'd stop, listen and toss money at the guy too. Brozman was a terrific musician and an even better showman, and we were excited about the prospect of working with him. I began meeting with Bob and we sketched out arrangements for the recording, which were done at Fane Studios in Harvey West Park near what is now Costco. Additionally, Bob and Don began talking about doing a self produced show at Moraga Concert Hall where we would do a set as a quartet to open, Bob would do a solo set, and then we would join him for a few tunes to close the show. A Whales trio recorded a couple of tracks on Brozman’s second recording, Snapping’ the Strings, which came out on the Kicking Mule label. Brozman and I struck up a friendship and a working relationship that led to some tracks on a later recording of Bob’s entitled Devils Slide, which came out on Rounder Records. Eventually we did the show at Moraga Concert Hall, and I remember it being sold out, mostly because Bob had such a big name locally.

Soon John Neher left us and we needed to find a replacement. Bill Trimble stepped in, and Dale Wolford played with us a few times. Dale Mills also did a gig now and then. We did a gig opening for the David Grisman Group in Palo Alto at a big theater on University Avenue which drew a nice crowd, and we also played at the Varsity Theater outdoors in the evenings one summer, probably 1983 or 1984. These gigs served to provide valuable experience and gave us a reason to rehearse, and put a little money in our pockets.

Next Don and I took a trip to Los Angeles as Don wanted to research the Hollywood Saxophone Quartet. We were listening to their recordings and trying to learn more about them. The trip took us south and we met up with Glenn Johnston, Artie Drellinger and Russ Cheever. We also took our first lesson from Los Angeles woodwind instructor Victor Morosco. My relationship with Vic is a subject for quite another chapter in my musical life; Vic's teaching and influence would spread around the Bay Area as a result of his connection with the Whales, and we did get quite a jolt from his teachings, forcing us to revaluate our ability and goals.

From left: Mark Sowlakis, Don Stevens, Bill Trimble, Bill Landing. Not the bass sax at far right. Photo taken in Santa Cruz with sculpture of Whale near Seabright Beach, Santa Cruz CA,1984.

At some point we recruited a zany, queer baritone sax player from San Francisco, Rach Cztar. Rach was a fine musician who had worked with the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet, and he was quite a showman. He would chase people around the street when we were playing street fairs, bonking out the hilarious two note theme to "Jaws."

Eventually the idea was hatched by Don to expand the group to six pieces and rebrand the group The Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra. It was an ambitious idea, and it would prove to be a major turning point in the bands trajectory.

My role in the expanded Whales Saxophone Orchestra was playing the tiny Eb sopranino saxophone. Don had picked up a first rate Selmer sopranino and since I had experience on soprano the duty fell to me. I worked with Vic on it and became proficient on the little devil. We made our debut recording in 1986. I played sopranino and alto on that. Don funded that recording and we had Fred Catero as engineer while recording at the Music Annex in Menlo Park on April 1st and 4th, 1986.

At this time I was deep into my undergraduate studies at San Francisco State University, majoring in orchestral clarinet. My involvement gradually diminished over time although I did still do street fairs and the occasional gig with them. We did a gig at the Great American Music Hall opening for Ritchie Cole. I remember Dale, Vic and Bill were on all on the gig, probably Art Springs too. In the later 80’s Don recruited John Davis, a former member of the San Francisco Saxophone Quartet, to play with the group. John was a fellow student at SFSU majoring in flute performance at that time.

In 1990 I moved to New York City to attend the Mannes College of Music for my graduate work and that was the end of my decade with The Whales. They recorded several more discs after I left and there were a number of additional people that joined the group at various points.

That the Nuclear Whales are part of my personal musical history and contributed a great deal to my growth and commitment to music is a testament to how much fun we had in those early days. I believe they continued to play on well into the 1990’s.

“We may not live to see the dawn, nuke the Whales before they’re gone.” That was the slogan on our first t-shirts. I guess this was meant to be a statement about nuclear energy and some sort of pun. Someone certainly had a strange sense of humor.

Note: This is a revised blog post from a pervious post on my website.

Thanks for stopping by....Markos

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