At 102, Karl Fehrle Retiring From Brewster Band - But Will Continue Playing In Other Groups

by Rich Eldred

BREWSTER – Some folks retire early, some at 65, some at 70 to maximize their social security. And then there’s Karl Fehrle, who figures at age 102 it’s about time to take a break.

But not completely. He will retire from playing saxophone in the Brewster Town Band in December, but he’ll still ply his tunefull trade in with four other bands: the Harwich Town Band, the Chatham Band, and two swing outfits, Sentimental Journey and the Sound Dunes. There are many more notes that need to be played.

“I started 90 years ago and it just took off,” Fehrle recalled at his home in Chatham. “Then after the Army I quit for 45 years. I was coming home from the Army and planned to get married and figured my new wife wouldn’t want to spend too many nights alone.”

Working musicians keep late hours.

That saxophone start was during the heyday of the big swing bands: Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey and many more. That’s still Fehrle’s favorite music. But he’ll play some Broadway medleys, John Phillip Sousa, even rock arrangements.

He grew up around Fort Lee, N.J.

“At the beginning I just wanted to play sax; I didn’t know why. I liked it. It sounded interesting to me. I just liked to play in a group, preferably with people in a horn section,” he reflected.

When Fehrle decided to relearn the saxophone ,he first joined the Harwich Town Band. When Brewster organized their band in 1994 he was one of the original members.

“Karl has been our elder statesman,” band president Steve Stranger said via email. “It has been a great run for me to be playing next to him for the past 25 seasons. I had only been playing the saxophone for a few short years and he was very kind and welcoming to me. He did that with all new members of all ages. He had a warm greeting for everyone. The young students that joined us were made to feel very comfortable and not be intimidated.”

Stranger noted Fehrle rarely missed a rehearsal or show during his 30 years in the band,

“I am estimating that he attended nearly 850 rehearsals and approximately 375 concerts over these years,” Stranger said. “He would give helpful advice to John (New) on tempo, etc., especially on big band pieces, since that was his era. It is hard to believe that at age 102, he is still performing in multiple groups each week. When I first met him, he was still using the plastic reed that he used when he was in the United States Army Band during WW2. After a few years, John gave him some new reeds as the plastic one had to be retired.”

Fehrle is a sight reader, playing from written music. No wild John Coltrane-like cascades of sound or Charlie Parker hard bopping for him.

“I’m not an ad libber, like the guys who play off the top of their head,” he remarked. “I have to have music. I’m a paper man.”

He doesn’t practice the tunes at home; he just reads the sheet music.

“My sax stays out in the garage,” he noted.

In the Army, Fehrle played mostly clarinet. He still has a clarinet stored in his living room but doesn’t pick it up much.

“I got out of practice on that clarinet,” Fehrle reflected. “I’ve gotten on in years, things are not coming as easy as they used to with the fingering. The clarinet is hopeless now, It’s getting to be too much to move all my (saxophone) stuff and get it into the venue.”

That’s why he’s stepping off the bandstand, at least in one band,

His saxophone skills were mothballed for decades while he toiled as an accountant.

“When I was first up here I saw an ad in the paper. A woman had a sax for sale and I thought maybe that would be fun to fool around with so I bought it and got started again,” Fehrle said. “First I played in Truro but that was too much of a commute, then I got into Harwich. The Brewster band started up and I’ve been with them ever since. The last seven or eight years I’ve also played in the Chatham Band.”

While the bands play a little bit of swing, they tend to lean towards marching music, a little classical, medleys of popular and broadway tunes, salutes to composers.

“I like to play with a group rather than alone,” he said.

The two swing outfits satisfy his big band needs. They play primarily in assisted living facilities or community centers.

The Sound Dunes Swing Ensemble next appears at the Harwich Community Center Dec. 6, and on Dec. 13, at the Chatham Council on Aging. On Dec. 15, and they’ll be at Thirwood Place in Yarmouth.

“I prefer ‘30s and ‘40s,” Fehrle admitted. “Nowadays all you need is an electric guitar and you’ve got a band.”

His bandmates will usually pick him up and bring him to the gig.

“I like to play in a complete section, harmonies, not solos,” he said. “But I play some solos with the Brewster Town Band.”

But there he’s part of a five sax section: two altos, two tenors and a baritone sax. He plays first alto.

Fehrle started vacationing on Cape in 1968.

“We spent a couple of weeks every year until 1987 when we finally moved up. We were here 36 years,” Fehrle said.

His wife Dorothy passed away in 2017, but he still lives in his Chatham home. His two daughters drop by to visit regularly.

“I retired in ’86,” Fehrle concluded. “Right at my 65th birthday.”

That was from accounting, not music. He didn’t actually quit accounting either, serving as the Brewster Band treasurer until last year. He still does his own taxes.

Actually, Fehrle hasn’t really retired from anything. At 102 there’s still too much to do.

His last concert for the Brewster Town Band will be Dec. 1, at 7 p.m. at the Baptist Church on Route 6A. It’s their annual Christmas concert for Brewster For the Holidays. Then they’ll need a new sax man.