The Story of Firefighter Julius Pontecorvo
Originally published in The New York Brass Conference, 2002 Journal
During the weeks and months which have followed the terrible tragedy of September 11th, 2001, Julius Pontecorvo, Official Bugler of the New York City Fire Department, has had the somber duty and privilege to perform “Taps” for many FDNY funerals and memorial services. At churches, cathedrals, and synagogues throughout the New York City Metropolitan area, this lone bugler’s clear, focused, and resonant tone has given voice to an unspeakable grief.
For all but 16 of the 343 FDNY funerals and memorial services, there has been a bugler present to play “Taps.” As the Official Bugler of the FDNY, it was Firefighter Pontecorvo’s responsibility to play or arrange for someone else to play for each of them. At last count, the number for which he has personally performed stands at about 125. “I was suddenly thrust into this situation where all of this had to be done and taken care of,” he said. “Each family deserves a proper closure.” During the first week alone after the 11th, he got called for 28 services. Understandably overwhelmed, he began to call upon other members of the FDNY, New York City Police Department, one or two volunteer professional musicians, to help out. “I wanted to do every single one, I would have done six a day, if possible, but, I just couldn’t.”
For many years Julius has been active as a professional trumpeter in addition to his duties with the fire department. As the leader of a club-date band, “Nightmoves,” he books and works an average of 100 dates a year. So he knew he would do a good job when it really counted the most. But nothing in his prior experience could fully prepare him for the intense emotional toll which this crisis would inflict on him. Through it all, however, he has pressed on and provided an important service for the families of these fallen heroes, as well as for the thousands of other firefighters who have come to the many ceremonies from all over the United States and even the world, to show their respect. Julius Pontecorvo, age 48, has been a New York City Firefighter since April 7, 1979. He began studying trumpet with his father, Daniel Pontecorvo, then a NYC Firefighter and Bugler (now retired), who was himself a very accomplished big-band style trumpeter for many years – even leading his own group under his stage name of Sunny Daniels. After graduating from New Utrecht High School (Brooklyn), and then getting his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Education from Long Island University (Brooklyn), Julius went on to play lead trumpet with many latin bands throughout New York City, including lengthy gigs with Tito Puente’s band, as well as a stint with Lionel Hampton. Then, as can so easily happen to trumpet players who are constantly called on to play loud and high, night after night, he suffered a major embouchure breakdown.
The severe fiscal crisis in the city during the 1970’s resulted in what has been described as a near total dismantling of instrumental music programs in the New York City Public Schools. Even with his Music Education degree and State Teacher Certification, there simply were no teaching jobs to be had. So, for the next two years Julius went into the practice room to get his chops back; first an hour or so, then gradually up to 8 to 10 hours of practice a day. With the extraordinary gift of total family support, he was able to completely devote himself to rebuilding and strengthening his playing, while learning how to use his air more efficiently in conjunction with a more relaxed and balanced embouchure setup.
One day, in early 1979, he got a call to do a road gig with a disco band which would be traveling all over the United States. He jumped at the opportunity. Playing six nights a week his chops got better and better. Several months later the band arrived in Las Vegas for an extended engagement. Several weeks later, April 1st, he got a call from his Dad back in New York. This call was to change his life; in a way that would profoundly affect and influence the lives of thousands of others some 23 years later.
Julius had taken the Firefighter test some months earlier; mainly as a backup. He did very well, scoring high on both the physical and written portions of the exam, and his name had been placed on a waiting list. Being out on the road, and playing every night, had pretty much put all thoughts of becoming a firefighter out of his mind. But now, here was his father’s urgent phone call, saying that the fire department papers had come through. If he was going to become a firefighter he had get home to New York by the following Saturday to be sworn in as a Probationary Firefighter with the FDNY. His father explained that this opportunity would not likely come again any time soon. He could always quit the department if he didn’t like it, his father explained. But he had to get home right away if he wanted a shot.
Julius agonized for several days. As a boy, he had idolized his father, wanting to become a fireman just as he had. But, over the years the trumpet had become his great passion, his reason for getting up in the morning. And after all, here he was in Las Vegas, playing every night, having the time of his life, and getting paid for it. How could he give this up now? Yet he realized that when this gig ended and he was back in New York again, he would be struggling for years before there would be the possibility of making regular income as a trumpet player. And he knew he wanted to start a family and buy a house.
It was the great Hall of Fame baseball player and philosopher, Yogi Berra, who once said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” Finally realizing that it might be possible to continue playing professionally even while serving as a New York City Firefighter, Julius made the decision to return to NYC the next day. On Saturday, April 7, 1979, Julius Pontecorvo was sworn in and became one of “New York’s Bravest;” a member of The New York City Fire Department.