Mark Pender gets around. Most recently,the vocalist, bandleader, producer, songwriter — and trumpet player with the “Late Night with Conan O’ Brien” Band on WNBC-TV — toured with Bruce Springsteen for in his “Seeger Sessions” U.S. tour for nearly three months, starting last April.
Pender will bring a Garden State-centric band to the Raritan River Festival on Saturday, September 30, including Westfield resident Glenn Alexander on guitar, Bloomfield-based bassist Paul Frazier, and drummer Mo Roberts. Other performers include the Mark Pender Band, Mark Helias and Open Loose, Matt O’ Ree and the Blues Hounds, Chris Batton and the Woods, Water, Ben Davis, the Russ Branca Quartet, Noisy Neighbors with Joey Stann, and Spook Handy.
Pender has been part of the “Late Night with Conan O’ Brien Band” since September, 1993. “I didn’t miss a single show taping until this past June when I did the ‘Seeger’ tour with Bruce, and I finally missed my first five shows ever with Conan. I’d had a perfect attendance until then,” he says.
Other members of the Conan O’ Brien band include New Jersey and New York studio veterans like Jimmy and Jerry Vivino, bassist Michael Merritt, formerly with Johnny “Clyde” Copeland, trombonist Richie “Labamba” Rosenberg, keyboardist Scott Healy and drummer Max Weinberg, who joined Springsteen’s band after drummer Vini Lopez left after the band’s second album was released in 1973.
“What we did with the ‘Seeger Sessions’ band in concert was so much of what I grew up with,” says Pender. “It was like, ‘Alright, blow!’ We had some rehearsals, but much of it was improvised on stage. Had we gone on with the rest of the tour, it would have taken me and [trombonist] Richie [Rosenberg] away from Conan for another two months, and frankly, I can’t mess with the Conan O’ Brien Show too much. Bruce went out on a limb and this is an important piece of work for him. I enjoyed the playing so much.”
Pender’s eponymous self-produced and self-released debut release, “The Mark Pender Band,” is a recording from one of his favorite places to play, the Cutting Room, a nightclub on 23rd Street in Manhattan. His originals, like “I’m Excessive” and “She Stripped Me,” ooze and sizzle with the kind of blues-drenched soul and funk one can only pick up in a place like Pender’s native Kansas City.
Pender, the son of a welding parts salesman and housewife, who were both amateur opera singers, credits the music program in public schools in Kansas City for putting a horn in his hands in the first place. Then he credits Hammond B-3 organist Charles “the Mighty Burner” Earland with giving him his “college level education.”
He says most of his parents’ singing “manifested itself at church, and at one time they tried to get more involved in opera singing and singing in general, but from the time I was in single digits, I remember being at choir practice,” he says in a phone interview from his apartment on the upper East side of Manhattan, which he shares with his French wife of 14 years, Francoise.
The public school music program in Kansas City, he says, “is one of the best music programs in the world, given our meager funding in the U.S. system, but what you find is you put a horn in kids’ hands, and they begin playing. I took private lessons after that. Then, somebody told me there were these jam sessions at a musicians’ foundation, 1823 Hyland. When they gave me the address, I discovered it was the old black musicians union building,” he says, recalling the Kansas City club scene that provided a nurturing environment to such great singers and musicians as Big Joe Turner, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, and even Count Basie, a.k.a., “the kid from Red Bank.”
“I went down there, and aside from having these old press photos of Charlie Parker and Lester Young on the wall, there were guys in there just playing their butts off,” he says. “[Pianist] Jay McShann and [singer] Big Joe Turner were at one of the first jams I went to. Turner was behind the bar selling drinks, and then he burst into song. I lost my mind and realized this is the genuine stuff! So every Friday and Saturday night until I left Kansas City, I was there.”
In his high school years, Pender remembers jamming with violinist Claude “Fiddler” Williams, who died a few years ago at age 98. “It was incredible, the vitality this cat had,” he says. “He already had to be in his mid to late 70s by that point.”
After he had been going to the Musicians Foundation Building for a year, he was asked to join the Inner City Orchestra, directed by Willie Rice, who was another local legend. “Willie asked me to join the 18-piece big band, and I was the youngest guy. And the only white guy,” he says. They rehearsed or played gigs five days a week, and that meant Pender’s first regular paycheck. He stayed with the band about two and a half years in the late 1970s.
In 1980, he moved to Manhattan with Steve Harvey, his partner from the Inner City Orchestra, to join the Charles Earland Band together. Earland had just been signed to Columbia Records but it was a one record deal, Pender says. “He put out the record but we ended up not playing on the record; he ended up using Wynton Marsalis and a bunch of other guys.”
Earland, a big burly man with a great sense of humor, passed away from a heart attack just before Christmas in 1999, in Kansas City, in a hotel room. It was right after another one of his usual fiery performances, where he would typically give 110 percent, playing the Hammond B-3 with unflagging verve and passion.
Pender’s first chance to get out on the road was with Earland and his band. He says, “With the Inner City Orchestra, we’d only go as far as Topeka.”
Earland’s albums, for fans of Hammond B-3 organ blues-based jazz, include “More Today Than Yesterday,” “Black Talk,” and “Whip Appeal,” among dozens of others, mostly for small jazz record labels, many of them recorded in New Jersey at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s Englewood Cliffs recording studios.
Pender’s band, which he has been leading at club gigs mostly in New York City over the last five years, plays a wide repertoire that includes classic rhythm and blues and blues as well as pioneer rock tunes. But mostly, their sets are made up of Pender’s startlingly spry, good, original tunes, derivative of Kansas City jump blues, pioneer rock ‘n’ roll, and classic R&B.
At the Raritan River Festival performance, he says, “You’re going to hear my originals. That’s pretty much what our show has become. We focus on these originals, and I have a couple of jump blues i n there.” He plans to invite all the area student and professional horn players up to play on a song; the sheet music and arrangements can be found on his website, markpenderband.com.
Raritan River Environmental Festival, Saturday, September 30, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Johnson Park, River Road, Piscataway. Rain or shine. Free. Visit www.raritanriverfest.com or call 732-249-6242, extension 107.