Jim Turek: Music Man

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Jim Turek’s grandparents were Polish immigrants. His paternal grandparents owned a farm on East Street. At 16, his grandmother arrived here and worked as a housemaid for the Spencers. She only had a fourth-grade education but learned to read English. Conversely, Jim learned Polish at his grandmother’s daycare and enjoyed listening to the adult conversations of his unsuspecting parents. Jim’s grandfather arrived in 1906 and worked for the Kent Legare estate. With no formal education, he marked an X on the deed for his 46-acre farm which consisted of a house, barn and animals. His grandparents met at Polish dances held at the Town Hall.

Jim’s father learned to play an accordion and a saxophone; one for Polish music, the other for American music. He played for years with the Melody Kings which broadcast from Springfield’s Hotel Charles and fronted for Benny Goodman, Harry James and other big bands at Riverside Park and elsewhere.

Jim wanted to play trumpet. His parents rented a trumpet when Jim was in the fifth grade. He took lessons from the school vocal music teacher. Suffield did not have a school band program. That year, Ray Tanguay, a graduate of the Hartt School of Music and a National Guard band conductor, urged the importance of a school band to the Suffield Board of Education. When the Board said Suffield parents weren’t interested, Tanguay offered a deal. He would work for no pay if the Board allowed him to recruit interested students, charging them 50 cents a week for music lessons. At the end of the school year in 1954, 46 band students performed to a packed auditorium in the brand-new Spaulding School. The audience was filled with school administrators, teachers and parents. The concert was a hit, especially the surprise finale. Vocalist Walter Szczepanik sang while star trumpeter Jim Turek played Oh, My Papa, the number one song in 1954. Tanguay’s gamble worked, he became the salaried Suffield school band director.

Jim blossomed under Tanguay’s guidance. He played in a Civil War era band formed by Tanguay and entered a talent show, winning first place. In the audience was a senior high school student from Enfield who asked Jim to play in his band. Jim was 12. His parents said he could join in two years. On February 11, 1956, Jim played his first gig with the band. Then, in 1958, Jim joined the Eddie Walenta Orchestra, a professional polka band based in Enfield. He played with the band until the late 1970s.

Civil War era band, Ray Tanguay 3rd from left; Jim Turek 3rd from right.

Following in Tanguay’s footsteps, Jim entered the Hartt School of Music with a scholarship. He earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the school. Even before graduation, Jim obtained a music teacher position in the South Windsor schools where he taught for 36 years, retiring in 2000.

In 1966, while he was teaching, Jim joined the 76th Division Army Reserve Band. Nine years later, he was asked to lead the same band, a position which required him to become a Warrant Officer. To achieve this position required further training, a musical exam, an audition on the trumpet and two hours conducting a band rehearsal. The training was waived, Jim passed the musical exam and his trumpet audition, but he froze a few seconds into his conducting audition. What Jim didn’t know was that the band was the U.S. Army band. He passed and was approved as a Warrant Officer.

Jim Turek being promoted to Warrant Officer, his wife Patricia by his side.

In 1984, Jim’s reserve band played at the Big E, impressing a staff band officer who recommended the band to a 4-star general who sent the band to a New York City recording studio, all expenses paid. The next summer, the band reported to Fort Monroe for their two-week reserve training. Much to their surprise, instead of training for two weeks, they performed. Jim’s last ten years in the Army Reserve consisted of performances throughout New England instead of the usual two weeks of training. His service of 29 years, 20 as an officer, ended with a 42-piece band instead of the original 28-piece band. His final ranking was Chief Warrant Officer 4.

This year marks Jim’s 68th year as a professional musician. His career included 47 recordings with various bands and orchestras, a performance at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, and many radio and television performances. One of Jim’s recordings is The History of Polish Folk Music in Suffield featuring a live performance narrated by Jim who researched the history and arranged the music. The recording is dedicated to Suffield on its 350th anniversary.

Somehow, between all of his performances, Jim married Patricia in 1967 and raised three children. He served on the Suffield Boards of Education and Finance where, he likes to say, he became Ray Tanguay’s boss.

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