Drumming his way from Navy ships to jazz bands

Juneau color

Posted: Friday, January 14, 2000

Lee Hacker went to war and played the drums.

The Juneau musician spent eight years in the Navy as a percussionist. In 1963 he played for President Kennedy in Washington, D.C., and went on to tour the Far East, Japan, Korea and the Philippines.

``I saw Vietnam from the deck of the USS Kittyhawk. The Navy band was playing on board the ship as Navy pilots were flying bombing missions,'' Hacker said.

Hacker, 56, has been drumming since he was 9. He started tuning pianos in 1965, and he's been a professional percussionist and piano technician most of his life. He plays almost every percussion instrument imaginable, and he's torn apart grand pianos and rebuilt Steinways from the ground up.

Since he moved to Juneau five years ago he's played with rock groups and the Juneau Symphony, recorded Dixieland jazz and worked as a drummer-for-hire for big band, country western and jazz groups.

``He's the consummate professional. He's the best all-around percussionist in town,'' said drummer Clay Good. ``(He plays) symphonic percussion - tympanis, xylophone, all the melodic classical percussion instruments, ... then he sits down at a kit and swings like a master.''

Hacker had a heart attack and bypass surgery three years ago. The experience convinced him it was time to do something he'd put off for years - learn to play a difficult new instrument.

``As soon as I got out of the hospital I said `I'm going to do what I always wanted to do - add vibes to my repertoire as a drummer,''' Hacker said.

Vibes are a percussion instrument something like a super xylophone, with adjustable resonators, electric vibrato and foot pedals that control a range of effects.

They cost thousands of dollars. But just a few days after Hacker's post-operative resolution, a friend called him with a deal on a set.

Hacker grew up in the Chicago area. When he was 9, he decided it would be cool to play drums in the elementary school band.

``I've always been in love with them,'' he said.

He joined the Navy in his early 20s, went through boot camp, auditioned for the Navy School of Music and was accepted.

``It's a wonderful school. You're trained to perform professionally. From there you go out into the fleet,'' Hacker said.

Hacker said he was taught to play all styles of music and to play under pressure and in severe conditions. He played marches and parades, classical concerts and officers' functions, ship arrivals and change-of-command ceremonies. The band also broke down into small jazz, rock and dance combos.

``People thought, `You're a musician, you've got it made.' But we'd pull into Japan and do concerts in schools and factories, while everyone else was on liberty,'' Hacker said.

When he got out of the Navy in the late 1960s, he continued working as a drummer. He played with various bands and worked in Texas, Illinois and California.

``Then I went to college and earned a degree in music theory and composition at Southern Illinois State University,'' he said.

He worked in Los Angeles for a decade, and then began what he called his northward migration, jumping to San Francisco and then Bremerton, Wash. He rebuilt Steinways in Washington, and it was pianos that brought him to Juneau five years ago.

Hacker started Southeast Alaska Piano Service, tuning, repairing and rebuilding the instruments.

He tunes about 25 pianos a week at the peak of the season, and five to 10 a week this time of year. For Hacker, the piano-tuning season is summer, when scores of pianos float into Juneau on cruise ships.

``The ships have a lot of pianos. All those pianos aren't in Juneau,'' he said. ``I'm serious about the Southeast part of the name - I travel throughout Southeast.''

Hacker said 2000 is a banner year for the piano.

``This year the piano is officially 300 years old,'' he said. ``The invention is attributed to an Italian fellow named Bartholemeo Christofori. There are a couple of his pianos that are still surviving in playable condition.''

Next week he starts rehearsal with the symphony, and resumes drumming with the Community Jazz Band. He also has a brand new set of vibes, and he's playing them with the jazz group FleetStreet.

``They're radical. They have the wonderful, round tone I've been looking for,'' he said.

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