When Jules Bashkin was in his mid-80s, he saw a sign at the Wallingford Senior Center looking for people interested in playing music.
The former mattress salesman dug his son's old saxophone out of the closet, dusted it off, and joined the group. He'd played as a teen, but 60 years later, he had a bit to catch up on.
The musicians came together from all over the state -- most having played in other jazz groups -- to become the regular Wallingford Senior Center "house band."
Bashkin said they taught him a lot. After several years, the Survivors Swing Band had a name, and a solid repertoire, so they decided to go on the road.
The seven-member band includes two sax players, piano, drums, guitar, upright bass, and vocals. They play big band classics from the '40s, as well as jazz and swing music.
Now 93, Bashkin has become the face of the Survivors. Since 2011, he's been booking shows and cold-calling reporters to get gigs and to draw attention to the musicians, most beyond retirement age.
"We get lots of work," Bashkin said. In the past three years, they've surpassed 300 shows, starting with gigs at retirement homes, and now branching out to libraries, town halls, and private functions.
The Survivors name refers more to the type of music they play, said Bashkin, than the ages of the band members. When the original piano player, who was in his 90s, passed away, the group hired Sandra Wittman, by far the youngest member of the group. "She ruins our average," Bashkin said -- without revealing her age.
"We get along beautifully, because we feel free to tell each other off," Bashkin said. "But we do it with a light heart, and everybody laughs about it. We feel we don't have to be serious with our audience."
During a recent show at the Cromwell Town Hall gymnasium, the band attracted an older crowd.
A few couples danced, but most sat in lawn chairs tapping their toes. The Survivors would like to attract a younger audience, too.
"They probably think of us as just a couple of old people playing old music," said Bashkin. "But I think when they hear us, we surprise them in our level of play, and how interested they become in how we sound, and discovering that their parents or grandparents had a pretty good time with our music."
Bashkin remembers his younger days as more of a romantic time. "People danced together; they held one another," he said.
While traveling around the state for more than 50 years as a mattress salesman, Jules Bashkin listened to a lot of music. "When I was on the road, it kept me company. As a result, I got to know that era," he said. "Today, I still turn on that kinda music, and sing to it when I'm traveling along. It keeps me company."
Bashkin reflects on his life with much gratitude. He had a wonderful family, he said. He served in the army, had a good job, good health, and traveled a lot. "I consider myself lucky all my life," he said. "I feel very fortunate that at my age I'm able to drive to these places to play, to attend whatever functions are necessary. I do it without too much problems. I'm very lucky. I don't know what else I should have that would make me happier."
These days, playing with the Survivors keeps Bashkin thriving. "I feel, for me, as if I'm accomplishing something. I never thought at my age -- if I was lucky, I'd be in a rocking chair," he said. "When I retired, there was one thing I told my kids: Don't buy me a rocking chair."
Bashkin encourages other older folks to pick up instruments, too. "People who reach 70s, 80s always feel old," he said. "And they feel old because they're told they are supposed to be old at that age. Well, you can be old if you want to be, or sit out there and play music."
Hear more about the Survivors Swing Band from a 2012 WNPR story:
Upcoming performances of the Survivors Swing Band are in New Canaan at the public library on June 20, in Hartford at the Mark Twain House on June 27, in Prospect at the town hall green on July 8, and in Litchfield at the community center on July 9. Check the website for details.