What happens in Las Vegas, the saying goes, stays in Las Vegas.
But a musician known as “Gooch” decided that after 15 years there, it was time to leave Vegas — and make his music happen in his hometown, Omaha.
“I wanted to do my own thing,” said singer-trumpeter Mike Gurciullo, 54. “In Vegas, I was working for everybody else. I wanted to get my own show together and be the front man instead of a side man.”
When he returned five years ago, he began calling around town and assembling a Las Vegas-style band. “Gooch and His Las Vegas Big Band” now play every Monday at 7 p.m. at the Ozone Lounge in Anthony's Restaurant, 72nd and F Streets.
“It's a fabulous band, and Mike is a great leader,” said saxophonist Matt Wallace, who traveled to 70 countries in a dozen years with Maynard Ferguson and his band. “Gooch is a great singer and trumpet player, and he's charismatic, too.”
Gurciullo hasn't completely forsworn Las Vegas. He returns there this weekend to play in a “Sinatra Forever” show. But Omaha is his base of operations.
Last month he was in Vail, Colo., for a “Jazz Goes to School” program at 14 schools in four days. Next month he travels to Canada, where booking agents from casinos will sample various acts.
“Gooch” is a handy nickname for a guy named Gurciullo, pronounced Gur-chool-o. Not that everyone pronounces it that way.
“I've heard about everything,” Mike said with a smile. “Gar-see-ann-o, Gur-silli-o.”
He grew up in the Dundee neighborhood of Omaha and started playing trumpet at 9. He was a good wrestler and marched in the Central High band, but he eventually left the mat to concentrate on music. He majored in jazz studies at the University of North Texas and went on the road with the legacy Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Mike moved to Monterey, Calif., where he founded the Monterey Jazz Orchestra, which played weekly at actor, jazz lover and piano player Clint Eastwood's Mission Ranch.
The Omahan traveled widely and played in the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia. For several years, he played in Wayne Newton's Las Vegas band, and he says he learned a lot from the famed singer's showmanship.
Unhappy with the schools in Vegas, and with his marriage ending in divorce, Gooch and his two daughters moved back to Omaha in 2008. Last summer his big band played in front of thousands at an outdoor Jazz on the Green concert at Midtown Crossing.
Monday nights at the Ozone, Gooch conducts, blows trumpet and flugelhorn and croons songs from Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Michael Buble and others. As people fill the dance floor, he does a mean Dean Martin imitation, holding a drink and singing, “You're no-o-o-o-body 'til somebody lovvvves you. ...”
He wears a suit and tie and a bit of bling. No, Gooch says, he no longer wears the suit he once owned — a Gucci.
One night he recognized an old friend in the audience — Elaine Flaxbeard, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in the Millard school district. They hadn't seen each other in years, though Mike says, “I've had a crush on her since ninth grade.”
Two and a half years ago, they married. Yes, she got a smooch from Gooch.
When they bought a home, she saw a couple of areas quickly fill up. Quipped Elaine: “I knew when I married Mike that I'd have a basement full of music and a garage full of painting supplies.”
Like a lot of musicians, he has another job. In his case, it's staining wood and painting homes — usually while listening to jazz.
Besides playing with his big band, Mike books gigs with smaller groups of musicians or goes solo, singing over musical tracks. (His website is www.goochbigband.com.)
Most of the musicians in the big band have day jobs. Jon Burlingham, a trombonist, works in information technology with ConAgra.
“Gooch is top-notch,” he said. “He's not only a fantastic musician, but also a great leader. He can corral the 17 guys in the band, which can be like herding cats.”
In the vernacular of jazz, they are all cool cats. People are amazed that there is no cover charge to hear them play.
They each receive only $40 or $50 per night, so they play mainly for their love of music and the chance to collaborate with other good musicians.
Among the regulars at the Ozone is a group of women who call themselves “The Wine Ladies.” This week, Gooch announced after the first set that he was headed to a wake service for Gert Schroeder, a longtime fan and member of the group, who had died at 88.
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At the wake, he sang her favorite, “Fly Me to the Moon,” and, in honor of the group's name, “Days of Wine and Roses.” At her funeral the next day, he sang, “The Curtain Falls,” with personal references to Gert.
Omaha is blessed with all kinds of live music nightly. On his website, Gooch urges: “Return to a time when the big bands roamed the earth. Rediscover what original pop music sounds like. Lyrics that speak of the beauty of a love gained and the heartache of a love lost.”
Much of his career happened in Las Vegas, but Mike Gurciullo didn't stay in Las Vegas. He is glad to be home, and says that playing music in Omaha is the same as playing music anywhere.
“When I step on stage on Monday nights,” he said, “I could be in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. I don't care. I've loved this music my whole life.”
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