VACAVILLE — Music is in the blood of Otto Vasak, who at the ripe young age of 97 finally decided to put down his clarinet.
Unless his doctor overrules him.
The almost-centenarian is the son of Otto Vasak and Zdenka Cerny – his mother was the once famous Bohemian violincellist whose tour of Europe was cut short by World War I. Her sister Milada Cerny was a child prodigy and the girls’ father played the cello and started the Chicago Bohemian Conservatory.
“We have the lithograph done by Alphonse Mucha of my mother for her concert tour,” Vasak said. “The day she was to start, war was declared. So they gathered the posters up.”
The large square poster now hangs on his wall at his home in Paradise Valley Estates, where he lives with his wife Elly in the Laurel Creek Health Center.
“She never pushed me into music,” he said of his mother.
He came to it during his sophomore year of high school when his uncle gave him his first clarinet. After doing the math, he realized with surprise that his instrument is nearly 80 years old.
“My teacher thought I should be a musician, but I said, ‘No, I want a career that is more secure than that life,’ ” he said.
The Chicago native played in the high school band that went to state championships. Then he went to college and played in the band and studied to be a chemical engineer.
Some music he loves to play is Slovak, because of his family background – his mother was Czechoslovakian – but by far his favorite thing to play is Shahrazad, a Russian symphonic poem.
Vasak enlisted in the military and it was on the day of his graduation from Aviation Cadet School that he married Elly. They will celebrate 73 years of marriage this December. They have four children and many grandchildren.
During World War II, Vasak was stationed in England with actor Clark Gable.
“We showered together. I’m sure a few ladies would have liked to have changed places with me,” he said.
He worked on bombers and an experimental program for the government during the war. After the war ended, he took up the clarinet again with various bands, choruses and orchestras.
He worked at Chevron Chemical Co. for 33 years as a manager and engineer. During that time, the family moved to Paris, where they lived for a year, then moved to an area near the Mediterranean.
He retired in 1984.
He joined the Contra Costa Symphony after finding they needed someone who played the clarinet. His favorite band to play with was the Piedmont Woodwinds.
“It was small with two clarinets, two French horns and two bassoons, but it was a lot of fun. We had some really good times,” he said.
The Vasaks moved to the Fairfield area in 1997. It was Elly who found the Solano Winds community band that was playing in Paradise Valley Estates and showed him the newspaper article.
“So I went to them and I asked if they could use an 80-year-old clarinet player,” he said. “And they said, ‘Yes.’ ”
He has been a member of the Solano Winds Community Band since, compiling their newsletter and small biographical sketches on each of the members, along with playing his clarinet.
“They are a very talented, tightly knit group of players of various ages,” he said.
The Solano Winds Community Concert Band celebrated 20 years this year – 17 of them with Vasak.
But his time playing with them is drawing to a close. He had a heart attack in May and he says a concert that month was his last. Despite claiming concert playing is over for him, his doctor is urging him to continue playing with the band because it is good for his lungs.
“I just don’t want to have a heart attack while I’m playing with them,” Vasak said. “But I am going to still be on the board of Solano Winds and I’ll be doing the newsletter.”
Vasak has come a long way from playing with his grandfather in Chicago, but he isn’t finished. He recently completed an autobiography, with small vignettes he intends to publish.
“After I get that published, I have some more stories that I want to write,” Vasak said.
It is a respectable project that will keep him busy until he is at least 100.
Reach Susan Hiland at 427-6981 or [email protected]