Ernest 'Ernie' Russell Small

Instrumental lessons with Petaluma saxophonist Ernie Small might have started with sheet music and practice scales, but they'd eventually lapse into sampling from his huge jazz collection and stories from his long career.

It was his gift and his pleasure to share his love of jazz traditions with budding musicians he so often inspired to professional music careers of their own.

He was a multi-instrumentalist who had perfect pitch, played more than a half-dozen brass and wood instruments and could sight-read anything, friends and family said.

"I just thought that he was a gifted teacher, and I think it was just because he had a passion about it," said Petaluma High School Band Director Cliff Eveland, many of whose students studied with Small. "I don't even think he necessarily knew he was doing it, but he really was passionate about passing on his knowledge of music."

When Small died Dec. 28 from an invasive infection at age 79, he left a legacy of music and classic jazz lovers.

Saxophone player Daryn Wheeler became a friend and caretaker as Small's health declined after coming to him for saxophone lessons as a college student eight years ago.

"I'm pretty grateful for having had the experience that I did with him," Wheeler said. "You miss him, but it's also special."

Born in Petaluma to Gene and Ralph Small, he was reared in the Mountain View Avenue home he still had at his death, Ernest Russell Small suffered polio as a youngster and lived with one short leg.

A doctor recommended he study piano to help with strength and dexterity in one of his hands, Wheeler said. Later, while walking past a music store with his mother, Small's attention was drawn to an alto sax in the window that he just had to have.

An avid tennis player while at Petaluma High School, Small continued to develop his musical skills, forming a band call the Dream Team that played for local dances, according to nephew Warren Moretti.

His mother also purchased a wax cylinder recorder that allowed him to begin recording at home.

He studied music at San Francisco State, landing a job early in his adult life as a staff musician at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas.

From 1954 to 1964 he toured and recorded with big band leader Harry James, playing mainly baritone sax, as well as trumpet, trombone and woodwinds.

From 1964 to 1968 and again from 1971 to 1984 - periods bracketing a three-year stint as touring bandleader for the Beach Boys - Small played in the stage band at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, backing everyone from Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme and George Shearing to Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and Tito Puente.

During the 1970s, he performed in the Tonight Show Band with Doc Severensen, commuting back to Las Vegas for shows at the Riviera.

He also recorded with Carmen McRae, Thelonious Monk, Bob Florence, Nancy Wilson, Oliver Nelson and Charlie Barnet.

Small retired in 1984 and returned to Petaluma where his mother still lived. He continued working as a freelance musician and teacher, eventually moving into her house after her 1989 death.

He formed the 17-piece Ernie Small Big Band in 1988, practicing every Monday night in the band room at Petaluma High School and performing shows and benefits around the Bay Area.

Small had "a cool factor" because of his background, Eveland said. "He had stories on every artist, funny little anecdotes about them, stuff like that."

"Here's a guy that after high school did what very few people are able to do: He went and followed his dreams," Moretti said. "He played with the biggest band there is."

Small, who never married, is survived by his brother, Scott Moretti.

Friends and fellow musicians will reprise Small's big band days with a musical celebration of his life from 1 to 5 p.m. on Jan. 31. The event will be held in the band and choir rooms at Petaluma High School, 201 Fair St.

A memorial fund has been established to benefit band students at the high school. Contributions may be made to PHS Music Boosters, P.O. Box 156, Petaluma, Calif. 94953. The words "Ernie Small Scholarship" should appear on the memo line of donation checks.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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