The San Antonio conductor worked hard on and off the dance floor


My father, Jean Sarli, once ran a dance band in San Antonio and also ran the Rodeo Band. Do you have any information about his dance orchestra?

– Gary G. Sarli

Known in San Antonio as Jean Joseph Sarli, where he was billed as “America’s most versatile conductor” within a year of his arrival, he was born Joseph Jean Sarli in 1889 to Joséphine Hain and of Italian descent Dominic “Don” Sarli, listed in US Census Records as a stage musician.

In the 1910 census, Still-Joseph and his one-year-old wife, the former Evelyn Wetschky, lived with her parents on Lucky Street in St. Louis. Joseph, 20, was also a stage musician, and Evelyn had been listed in the city of St. Louis repertoire as a clerk, living with her mother, a weaver.

No one in their immediate family appears to have had any connection to San Antonio, and veteran union musician Dominic died in 1922. The first recorded mention of young Sarli in Alamo City – with his given names and middle names reversed – comes in 1926 from the advertisements for the Jean Sarli School of Popular and Classical Music, 211½ Broadway. Sarli continued to operate the school for more than a decade, offering “an education of all instruments”, with the piano as a strong point.

From that point on he proved his versatility, assembling a series of overlapping positions in the local music scene that earned him a living – spanning days, nights and weekends, four seasons. per year, with more leadership positions than you could shake a stick. To.

Sarli’s first major concert was as the conductor of the orchestra that performed in the Aztec theater, accompanying the last of the silent films as well as the show numbers and providing musical interludes between them. As Aztec Symphoneers, they have performed elsewhere as well, promoting theater at other events.

Sarli was hired by the new “Greater Majestic” (covered here January 19, 2019) when it opened in 1929 and kept the show band like its bread and butter until 1930 when he left for concentrate on his music school and his next moves.

During this time, he was working with the Alamo Heights School District to create the first high school band in 1929. While still musical director of Alamo Heights and producing concerts and PTA shows, he developed an orchestra. (a group with stringed instruments) for Lanier High School and, after leaving Alamo Heights in 1935, did the same for San Antonio Vocational and Technical High School (later Fox Tech). His last teaching position was at Edison High School, where he was a conductor for the last 15 years of his life.

Sarli, who became president of the San Antonio Music Teachers Association, took all of his school groups to state and regional competitions and often came home with first-place awards.

At the same time, he was developing a solid reputation as a conductor capable of providing whatever was needed. Some of these units were temporary, such as Sarli’s saxophones for a Fiesta San Antonio parade in the early 1930s and Sarli’s Harmony Band, whose members sang. There were also casual jobs, conducting the WOAI (radio) Orchestra or the pit and dance orchestras for Franklin D. Roosevelt’s annual birthday gala to benefit the March of Dimes.

He and his first wife – the mother of his son Don, who followed him into the music business – experienced an acrimonious divorce in 1937, suing each other and citing “cruel and harsh treatment.”

But Sarli didn’t miss a beat, playing private parties, creating a municipal American Legion and YMCA boy group and serving as an organist at the Elks Club among other projects from the mid-1930s.

For dances in houses or nightclubs, Sarli presented groups of 10 musicians with names that changed with the places that reserved them – Jean Sarli and His Gang, Boys, Dixieland Band, Melodiers, Swing Band or Society Orchestra. During the 1930s and 1940s he performed to dance in posh places such as the Menger Hotel, large “popularly priced” rooftop gardens such as the Palace on West Travis Street and the Tourist Club on St. Mary’s. or the occasional raffish joint like the Rockin ‘M Ranch on Soledad. Whatever the name of the outfit, Sarli usually got the coveted Saturday night spot, playing “the best favorite hits for you to enjoy” on dance floors across town.

Two of her most prestigious recurring jobs did not involve dancing.

Sarli was the first musical director of the San Antonio Civic Opera Company, conducting a 45-piece orchestra through classical repertoire in the dramatic setting of the Sunken Garden Theater. The other was his longtime stint as frontman of the San Antonio Rodeo group from the late 1940s until his death in 1957.

His eldest son followed him to Edison and rodeo jobs.

It is not known what type of formal education Sarli had or why he moved to San Antonio. He wasn’t a big man, but he exuded authority on the podium and took his responsibilities seriously.

An alumnus of the group Edison wrote in a letter to the editor of the San Antonio Express and News on April 18, 1970 that three to four concerts a year (with) pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and the finale of his Fourth Symphony, ”said Howard T. Harris Jr ..

“When we were in this music room, (Sarli) was God, mother and country were one.”

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