May 15, 2013

98-year-old recalls big band days

By FELICIA KRIEG Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Chet Lavalley has spent his life doing what he loves.

The 98-year-old was born in Champlain in 1915.

Lavalley began playing the saxophone when he was about 15 years old.

“I’m still playing,” he said.


He was instantly attracted to music, and it eventually became central to his life.

“I fell in love with that,” Lavalley said. “That’s what I made up my mind to study.

“It wasn’t very long after I got my first job at Meridian Hotel during the bootlegging days.”

He was a member of a 16-piece band at the Meridian, which was north of Champlain across the border.

“The (bars) were all secret,” he said.

Lavalley said he loves the sound of big band music, his favorite genre.

Over the years, he played in various bands in countless nightclubs on the West Coast.


Even though tobacco and alcohol were plentiful in his work environment, he never smoked or drank, he said.

“I didn’t care for it,” Lavalley said.

But he doesn’t push his views on others.

“I don’t like to give advice,” he said, chuckling. “It wouldn’t be right. It’s their life.”


His healthy choices likely contributed to his longevity, though, he said.

“I’m pretty lucky. I’m supposed to go golfing tomorrow,” Lavalley said on Saturday.

For years, he has played golf at the North Country Golf Club in Rouses Point with his son, Bruce Lavalley of Cumberland Head.

These days, though, he sticks to nine holes.

“It’s not like it used to be,” he said.

Lavalley also enjoys bowling.

“I bowled just as good as any of them. As a matter of fact, I’m next to the highest in average (with those he plays with),” he said.

While he was growing up in Champlain, Lavalley attended St. Mary’s Academy.

He still attends church each week and has been a devout Catholic almost all of his life, he said.


In 1958, Lavalley played in the first big band ever booked at the Plattsburgh Elks Lodge, he said.

“Some good musicians right there,” Lavalley said, looking at a photo that showed him conducting the band in a white suit coat and bow tie.

“My life with the big band was real interesting,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

For 16 years, he played at the Grand View Hotel on Route 9 in Plattsburgh with Herald Lamere, Herb Rock and Lynn King.

After he had traveled around the western United States playing saxophone and conducting bands, Lavalley settled in Tucson, Ariz., and opened a music repair store.

He crafted and repaired instruments there for 25 years before moving back to the North Country about seven years ago.

And he was on the board of a musician’s union in the area and, later, in Burlington, Vt.

“I got to know a lot of these big (famous big band) guys and it was great, great talking with them. Some of these experiences that they had. They’d come down to Union Hall, and we’d sit there by the hour going over some of the things they did,” he said.

Now, Lavalley enjoys spending his time with his son and his granddaughter, Kelly Lavalley, who works at a hair salon in Plattsburgh.

“I don’t feel old,” Lavalley said.

He’s not sure exactly what has contributed to his continued health, other than not smoking or drinking.

“I guess the good Lord just watches me.”

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