Trumpet Soul Man
When Conan O'Brien rolled into Kansas City in mid-May to perform at The Midland Theatre, Mark Pender was more than a bit nervous.
It wasn't stage fright or worrying about his performance as O'Brien's trumpet player that had Pender anxious. It was the hometown crowd's behavior that concerned the professional musician. After all, he had sold Kansas City's legendary audience enthusiasm to his boss as something electric and memorable.
Kansas City didn't disappoint Mark Pender. In fact, according to Pender, on a scale of one to 10, audience reaction to O'Brien and his entourage was off the charts. The only thing competing with the standing ovations and genuine love the packed theater showered on the performers?
The barbecue consumed on the tour buses later that night.
"I arranged President Plates from Gates for everyone," says Pender. "The thanks I received from the crew were phenomenal."
Pender is a smooth-headed, spectacle-wearing hipster whose connection with audiences on a cerebral level transcends his enormous talent. Born and raised in Grandview, his musical journey started in the church choir at the tender age of 5 and was cemented in the 1960s public school band program.
"A fifth grade teacher asked what we wanted to play; I chose the trumpet," says Pender. "An aptitude proved it was a good choice."
Pender remembers one of the period's popular trumpet players, Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass fame. His parents, one-time aspiring opera singers, played Alpert's music and Pender was intrigued.
"I got sound from the trumpet right away," recalls Pender, who admits interest in playing the instrument in subsequent years ebbed and flowed according to whatever was en vogue.
"I practiced hard and my ability came without a great deal of effort," says Pender. "But I left the horn at school one entire summer."
Pender always hovered at the top of the band's hierarchy, trading off the first, second and fourth chairs. At the end of high school and during a stint at Longview Community College everything started to click. Pender picked up the guitar and realized he wanted a music career--he just wasn't sure how it would manifest.
"I was playing in a band and writing original songs," says Pender. "We practiced in the garage more than we performed, but it was exciting."
One night Pender was wandering the streets of what is now Kansas City's River Market and encountered a band--composed entirely of horns--playing outside a bar.
"I was fascinated with them," says Pender. "My love affair with the trumpet started after that."
Pender, a self-described rabid Charlie Parker fan, was also gaining awareness of Kansas City's rich and storied jazz history and realized living examples of that genre were playing live music all over town. He joined an über-popular local R&B-jazz-blues fusion band, Mass Transit, and discovered the joy of making money as an 18-year-old musician.
"The band's saxophonist, Steve Harvey, and I instantly connected," says Pender. "The band played in KC and regional clubs. Audiences dug our funk-meets-jazz-meets-dance hybrid."
During the summer of 1977 Pender was tapped by KC big band arranger Willie Rice to join the fabled Inner City Orchestra where he and 18 other musicians practiced at the historic Mutual Musicians Foundation building five days a week from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in 18th and Vine's jazz-drenched neighborhood. The band was part of President Jimmy Carter's CETA government jobs training program.
"I just had to prove I wasn't employed," says Pender. "It was an amazing opportunity to train and play side-by-side with great musicians."
Jamming, rehearsal halls and musicians such as Rice, Jay McShann and Joe Turner were giving Pender an education not available in a college classroom.
"I was a young sponge, soaking it in," says Pender.
Along the way, Pender left college, met solo jazz organist Charles Earland and had a taste of road life in 1979.
"Charles asked Steve [Harvey] and me on his tour," says Pender. "He offered a decent salary. We climbed on a bus and played the East Coast, the South and places such as Detroit and Chicago."
During a Newark, N.J. gig, Pender and Harvey were told the tour was ending. Harvey opted to return to Kansas City where he was tragically murdered in 1980; Pender decided to stay in New Jersey and continued playing with Earland, traveling on an old converted school bus in the dual role of roadie and performer.
"I paid my dues," laughs Pender. "We slept on the bus and set up and broke down our own equipment. It wasn't glamorous but I had great moments of playing beautiful music for audiences."
In other words, it was an experience that crystallized Pender's craft as a musician.
"There were definitely low points during my first year in New York," says Pender. "I wasn't making enough money to live on, took a few factory jobs and thought, 'This is what it's gonna be, huh?'"
Pender hooked up with the sassy band known as the Miami Horns, whose founder, Steve Van Zandt, and a new acquaintance, trombonist Richie "La Bamba" Rosenberg, would play pivotal roles in the trumpet player's burgeoning career. The band was invited to play U.S. and European arenas with Diana Ross between 1980 and 1981, a first in the music field.
"Big artists such as Ross usually found back-up musicians in the major cities in which they performed," says Pender. "The Miami Horns was the first band that toured with a performer."
Following that illustrious tour, Pender was asked to join Van Zandt's Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul. Pender became a regular with Van Zandt's myriad acclaimed ventures, including Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes and ended up on the road with Bruce Springsteen in 1988. Pender was featured on the Boss's "Devils and Dust" release and was part of NFL's Super Bowl XLIII halftime spectacle during which Springsteen and his band wowed millions.
Pender has toured and/or recorded with notables such as Joe Cocker, Robert Cray and Bon Jovi; as an individual musician he's sessioned with Brit rock-god David Bowie and Buster Poindexter, among others.
"I definitely felt I had made it," says Pender. "I thought, 'This is it.' I'll never do that again."
Though Pender was firmly planted in the scene-making New York/New Jersey rock-and-roll community, he still experienced the profound rollercoaster that often defines a musician's life.
Pender found a great job in 1993. For 16 years he was a fixture on the "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" show as a member of the Max Weinberg 7 and the comedian's crossover into a more mainstream time slot with "The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien" as part of The Tonight Show Band.
O'Brien frequently incorporated the fun-loving Pender into bit sketches during which the musician would climb a wall offstage and join the audience.
Pender likes television's live element, saying it keeps him sharp and focused.
"You rehearse, do the pre-show warm-up and the show," says Pender. "It's sublimely energizing."
Pender says his musical life is still unfolding; after the very public demise of Conan O'Brien's NBC hosting duties he considers himself unemployed.
"My future looks good with Conan," hints Pender, who couldn't reveal details at press time.
Pender, who relocated his wife and two children to Santa Monica from NYC for O'Brien's show last spring, jets between coasts, playing with the Miami Horns; fronting the eponymous Mark Pender Band, a cool blend of jazz and funk that reflects his Kansas City roots; and performing with pal and confidante LaBamba in LaBamba and the Hubcaps.
"I'm in a good place," says Pender. "There's always that question mark, because music is one of those careers. I don't take things for granted."
Pender returns to KC during the summer to visit family and friends and loves the city's spirit and its vibrant musical landscape.
"We stay with my mom, who still sings in church choir and I go to jam sessions," says Pender.
Pender is featured in Johnson County filmmaker Sue Vicory's Sundance-submitted homage to KC jazz, "Kansas City Jazz & Blues: Past, Present and Future." Vicory says Pender is a musician who lets people in and is a receivership, a vibe that audiences appreciate.
"Mark gets elevated because of his innate ability to communicate on a soul level," says Vicory. "People connect to him. He's honorable about relationships and that translates to his music."
Vicory says there is no doubt Pender's Midwestern roots and values contribute to his success.
"He's very genuinely Kansas City," says Vicory. "That goes far in the world."
What about being embraced by that trademark hometown hug when he played the Midland?
"It was an incredible experience," says Pender. "KC knocked it out of the ballpark."
Ah, yes. There's no place like home for this world-class musician.
words: Kimberly Winter Stern