Ron McCroby always wanted to be a jazz musician, but somehow life made him an advertising executive. He had, he says, “enough three-piece suits to open a clothing store.” Then, two years ago, his wife, Barbara, urged him onto the stage of a Cincinnati club, Bentley’s, and McCroby did what comes naturally: He whistled jazz. “Pucculo” playing is what he calls it, a cross between “pucker” and “piccolo.” The audience loved it. “After all these years,” says Barbara, “Ron discovered the puccolo has been right under his nose all the time.”
Others are discovering it, too. McCroby’s whistling landed him on PM Magazine, Merv Griffin and Carson (where he’ll appear again this Thursday), as well as the Newport and Monterey jazz festivals. This week he’ll also play the respected Concord Jazz Festival, near San Francisco, for the second time. McCroby, 49, obviously does not whistle as most of us do.
His notes are rich and piccolo-pure, and his improvisations, often on such classics as If You Could See Me Now and Boplicity, are musically impressive. Critics have called him “brilliant.” Says jazz guitarist Cal Collins, with whom McCroby has jammed onstage, “He’s a serious musician. He sounds like a very hip flute or piccolo player.”
McCroby is delighted. He semi-retired from his job as the creative director of a Cincinnati ad firm and now works as a consultant and also operates his own jingle company, RAM Productions. “It’s still hard to believe,” he says. “I mean, I’m onstage at Monterey with Carmen McRae or Brubeck, and I’m standing there whistling.” Which is not to say that McCroby, who is proficient on the clarinet and saxophone, doesn’t take his puccolo seriously. “I read music just as any other musician,” says the puccoloist, who is usually backed by a house band. “I have played classical—Telemann’s Sonata for Flute in F at a Cincinnati recital, in fact. I also do different articulations, as if my whistling were an instrument, and I have some breathing techniques that allow me to do very long lines.” Although he is a compulsive whistler, he rarely practices per se. “But every morning when I get up, I whistle,” says McCroby. “Just to make sure it’s still here.”
McCroby grew up in Morgantown, W. Va., the son of a barber. “Even as a kid, I could whistle amazing things,” he says. At 12, he took up the clarinet, studying with a former member of John Philip Sousa’s band, and later played in the school band and majored in music at West Virginia University. Once, when a fellow band member fell ill before a football game, McCroby was called on to sub. “I put my clarinet down and whistled the piccolo part of Stars and Stripes Forever,” he recalls. “Nobody knew.” Before graduation he married Barbara Morrison, his childhood sweetheart. Cracks McCroby, “I whistled at one girl 30 years ago and I quit.”
With a family on the way (the couple now have six children, aged 8 to 28), McCroby took a job with an advertising firm and channeled his musical talents into composing, arranging and producing radio and TV commercials for everything from Play-Doh to Wendy’s. But as he rose in the company, his chances to work with music declined. He had just about given up on music when Barbara talked him into his whistling debut.
Barbara, 50, is now his manager, and the two travel to more than 36 gigs a year from their suburban Montgomery home. Even with his new business McCroby has time for his other hobbies, calligraphy and magic. One of the nicer puccolo perks so far was a paid trip in 1981 to a music festival in Pori, Finland, the couple’s first visit to Europe. “We had dreamed about going, but when you have children, you put it off until the time you can afford it and that may never come,” says McCroby. “So here we were on the plane going to Finland, and we just looked at each other, laughing. I said to Barbara, ‘Do you realize that because of this stupid idea of yours, we’re on our way to Europe?’ ”