Former Life Member. Saxophone
7/13/1926 – 9/5/2019
Matt Utal passed away at the age of 93 on September 5, 2019. He was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 13, 1926 to Eunice Bloom and Louis Wattel. Eunice later moved to California and married Michael Utal, who adopted Matt in 1931. He began to study piano as a little boy.
By the age of 10, Matt began to prepare himself for a career in music. In junior high in Sacramento, he started to play the clarinet and loved the music of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. At CK McClatchy High School, he learned alto sax and met a girl named Lee, whom he would marry later in life. As a teen, he visited the world famous Hollywood Palladium, listened to Les Brown and his Band of Renown, forming a dream to one day play with them and Benny Goodman, become a studio musician, and travel the world. He was playing professionally by his junior year.
After he graduated from high school, the family moved to Southern California and Matt started to attend UCLA, but in 1944, he enlisted in the Maritime Service to assist the country at the end of the war. Placed in a band at a base on Catalina Island, he was surprised to learn the band was made up of studio musicians with a wealth of knowledge and experience. Several became his mentors and advised, “Practice, study, and always try to play with the very best musicians.” The band was frequently sent from Catalina to do recording sessions in Hollywood, preparing Matt for a very rewarding career.
In 1946, Matt enrolled in Westlake College of Music to focus on commercial music, learning flute and arranging. He graduated in two years and began playing with a variety of bands, including Earl Spencer, Henry Busse, Ted Fio Rito, Leighton Noble, Jerry Gray, Xavier Cugat, Stan Kenton, Cy Touff/Richie Kamuca Octet, Red Ingle, Bill Clifford, Dick Pierce, Skinnay Ennis, Alvino Ray, Benny Goodman, Billy May, and Gordon Jenkins.
In 1952, Matt married Lolita Hill and soon after auditioned for Les Brown’s Band, securing a job that lasted 33 years. Matt also played for seven years with the NBC Staff Orchestra. During these years, he traveled the world with the Bob Hope USO shows, performing at different armed force bases in Europe and Asia to entertain troops during the Vietnam conflict, as well as playing concerts, and command performances for royalty. He played for the Dean Martin Show, Jerry Lewis Show, Laugh In, Andy Williams Show, Name That Tune, Peggy Lee TV shows, Frank Sinatra, Mel Torme, Bing Crosby, Tony Bennet, Sammy Davis, Jr., Doris Day, Perry Como, Barbra Streisand, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore, and others. Les Brown’s Band also played dance music at Disneyland during the summers, and played on cruises to Mexico, the Bahamas, and Alaska.
Matt and Lita divorced in 1980. Matt then married his high school sweetheart, Lee. They lived in Glendale until they retired to live in Oregon in 1989. Matt and Lee were introduced to the vibrant music and arts communities on the Southern Oregon coast, living first in Bandon, then moving to Coos Bay, where Matt played with local groups and for theatre productions. He also instructed students on the saxophone, clarinet, and flute.
Matt always had a twinkle in his eye, a kind and inquisitive question for others, and a hearty, contagious laugh. Open-minded, open-hearted and gracious, he delighted at getting to know others, no matter their age or background. In his later years, he lived in several local assisted living homes, still finding rich enjoyment in everyday life.
Matt is survived by his daughter Melinda Utal and stepdaughters Nancy Antle and Linda Gerner, and their families; his grandsons Shoghi Castel de Oro and Pablo Castel de Oro and their families; niece Kimberley Wolf and family; and a world of friends, musician colleagues, and music students. Matt was predeceased by his wife Wilma Lee Utal, his first wife Lolita Hill Bissell, his mother Eunice Utal, his adoptive father Michael Utal, and his birth father Louis Wattel.
There are no funeral services, but a casual public get-together to celebrate Matt will be held in Coos Bay on Saturday Sept 28, 2019 at 5 p.m. Please visit the Facebook group “For the Love of Matt Utal” for info, to post memories, and share stories. In lieu of flowers, friends might consider a contribution to Southern Poverty Law Center, which Matt supported for many decades hoping to make the world a kinder and more just place.