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Conan's trumpeter comes home to KC

August 24, 2003

It was 10 years ago this month that Mark Pender's life changed.

The journeyman trumpet player from Grandview had spent most of the 1980s on the road, touring with Bruce Springsteen, Robert Cray and other acts. One night backstage, drummer Max Weinberg asked Pender if he was interested in joining a band Weinberg was putting together to audition for a gig at NBC.

The gig turned out to be "Late Night With Conan O'Brien." NBC was pinning its hopes on an unknown host to carry on the franchise abandoned by David Letterman, who had just left for CBS.

The early reviews for "Late Night" were brutal, although critics seemed to like the band's swinging sound. Pender never lost faith.

"I figured that if NBC was taking this kind of chance with Conan, they knew what they were doing," he said this week while roasting in 100-degree heat on the deck of his boyhood home.

Today "Late Night" is going strong, and Pender is back in Kansas City for a show tonight at the Blue Room at 18th and Vine. It's the premiere party for a self-issued Mark Pender Band album, a CD/DVD combo that includes 10 original songs by Pender plus an hour's worth of live performance video shot at nightclubs in New York and a standing-room-only gig last summer at the Blue Room.

Pender, who turned 46 on Thursday, was just a kid when he left town in 1980.

After touring with jazz organist Charles Earland, he wound up on his own in New

Jersey. He scraped by for a while, then got hired by Springsteen guitarist Little Steven, better known these days as "Sopranos" co-star Steve Van Zandt. While touring in Paris he met his future wife, Francoise; they married 12 years ago.

Pender is one of three people who hasn't missed a single taping of "Late Night" in 10 years. He figures he has warmed up the studio audience with "Chicken Shack Boogie" more than 1,400 times. The highlight of that song is when he uses a technique called circular breathing to hold one note on his trumpet for a minute or so while the crowd goes wild.

Every year Pender comes back to visit his mother and three siblings. Last year he decided it was high time he put on a show.

"The roots of my career are here," Pender said. "Everything I play is based on that Kansas City sound."

That includes the Max Weinberg 7, whose bouncy, horns-on-fire sound is a direct descendant of the Kansas City "jump blues" popularized by Big Joe Turner and others.

Using local talent, Pender plans to feature a variety of jazz, blues and funk music. His Blue Room ensemble this year includes Sam Johnson on drums, Greg Richter on piano, Ricky Anderson, Bob Carson and Tom Pender, his brother, on guitar. First set is at 8:30 tonight; admission is $15.

"Late Night With Conan O'Brien" will mark its 10th anniversary with a 90-minute prime-time special Sept. 14 on NBC. The show airs weeknights at 12:37 a.m. ET on NBC and is rebroadcast at noon and 6 p.m. ET weekdays on Comedy Central.