It’s been awhile since Mike Ash played his clarinet or saxophone in the comfort of his own home.
A resident of Sarabande condominium, in downtown Sarasota, the 80-year-old musician rarely plays his instruments at home. His condo isn’t soundproof, and he says doesn’t want to annoy his neighbors.
“I asked the lady downstairs once if I disturbed her and she said, ‘Oh, I love to hear you play,’” Ash says. “And that was all I needed to hear. I thought, ‘If she can hear me, that’s it. I’m done practicing here.’”
Ash and his wife, Jewel, moved into Sarabande in 1998, which is a long time to feel uneasy about practicing in your living room. It’s enough to make some people give up playing altogether.
But not Ash. He still plays with a half-dozen bands, including the Sahib Shriners Dance Band, a 16-piece big-band ensemble that for 26 years has performed dance concerts in Sarasota under the name The Noblemen.
“I won’t play the gin mills,” says Ash, whose popular dance combo, The Notables, still plays private events, fundraisers and birthday parties from Tampa to Fort Myers. “I don’t need people throwing martinis at me.”
A natural frontman, Ash is droll. Mischievous. Candid. An Illinois native and from a Jewish family, he grew up in a poor Polish neighborhood in Chicago.
To understand him, you need only know this fact: He rewrote his high school fight song because he thought the original “was too sissy.” What’s more impressive, the school still uses the tune to this day, and, despite his hoarse voice, Ash can still rasp every lyric.
“He’s one of those guys who’s just very dedicated and talented,” says Barbara Celnar, the activities manager at the Senior Friendship Center, where Ash plays with a band every Friday. “He always seems to get as much joy as he gives.”
Ash played the clarinet long before he played the sax. His uncle, a Shrine Circus performer, also played the clarinet. Ash idolized him.
At 14, Ash formed a polka band that played gigs on Chicago’s South Side. The group was called The Jolly 5. They even signed a contract with Decca Records, joining a host of popular artists on the Decca label, including Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby.
“I knew only one person who bought our 78,” Ash says of his high school album. “My mother.”
At 16, Ash’s musicianship earned him a scholarship to the University of Illinois, where he played the bass clarinet in the university’s concert band until he entered law school.
One of the youngest students in Illinois to pass the bar, Ash joined the Navy after college, where he served as a trial lawyer for the Sixth Naval District. Though he no longer played his clarinet, he brought it with him.
One morning, he woke up to discover that his roommates had filled it with shaving cream.
“Maybe I would have been better off bringing a guitar,” he chuckles. “My bunkmate was a country singer.”
After seven years with the Navy, Ash pursued a career in the Illinois trucking business, where he worked as director of the Illinois Motor Truck Operators Association and director of American Trucking Association.
He saved his old clarinet, but after the shaving cream incident it never played the same. So, he purchased a used one at a pawnshop and auditioned for Chicago’s Medinah Shrine Band, where he remained on the roster for 18 years.
It wasn’t until he moved in 1980 to Sarasota and joined the Sahib Shriners that he picked up a tenor sax, an instrument he still enjoys playing even though it’s heavy and requires a lot of hot air.
“The older I am, the harder it gets,” Ash says. “My lips get so sore sometimes I’ll be in tears.”
But he won’t give it up, not even his seat with the Windjammers Unlimited, a music society that plays traditional circus music in cities across the country.
Between his big-band dance concerts at the Sahib Shrine Center and his Friday performances at the Senior Friendship Center, Ash has developed a kind of cult following among Sarasota’s elders.
“They’re like my groupies,” he jokes. “Some of the people have canes and walkers and they’ll hear the music and just toss it all aside and start dancing.”
The Glenn Miller Orchestra: “The intonation of his band was different than anyone else’s. The lead sound came from a clarinet, which was very innovative for the time.”
Boots Randolph: “I was lucky enough to meet him in Nashville. I went to his club. He was very friendly, a really neat guy.”
Jimmy Dorsey: “I like the jazz influence in his swing music.”
Benny Goodman: “His roots were very poor, and I always think it’s great when someone can pull themselves up by the boot straps.”