Golden Oldie – Eighty-Four-Year-Old Band Leader Tom Silliman

By Josephine Dix
Special to PositivePress News

CLERMONT – When Tom Silliman began taking piano lessons, crooners Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby dominated the radio waves, a bottle of Coca Cola was five cents and the Allies were planning the D-Day invasion of France. 

The year was 1943 and eight-year-old Silliman wasn’t too fond of learning to play- even with his mother Edith’s encouragement.  

“I struggled many years with the piano: I never really practiced and I didn’t really enjoy playing,” said Silliman, who’ll turn 85-years-old July 1st.  

“But it was a good foundation and I loved music,” he said. 

It wasn’t until the Allentown, Pennsylvania native joined the band in eighth grade and switched to clarinet and saxophone that his musical talents flourished. 

“I really wanted to be in band and I caught on quickly: it didn’t take me long to catch up with my friends,” said Silliman, who went on to join his high school’s elite jazz band. He also played with the locally famous Bud Rader Orchestra. 

Swing music was king in the early 1950s and the orchestra packed ‘em in, he said. 

“We had a thousand people in the ballroom every Saturday night,” said Silliman, who volunteers at the Minneola Schoolhouse Library in his spare time. “We played Glenn Miller Orchestra style music.”

Each band member made $7 per night, except on New Year’s Eve when their pay was doubled, he said.

Silliman was hooked on music. 

“I had a high school teacher that really encouraged me to go to college and study music,” said Silliman, who went on to earn a Doctorate degree in Music Education from the University of Maryland and taught in the Frederick County School District for over 35 years. 

In the 1980’s he and his wife Connie relocated to Central Florida where he continued teaching and performing in numerous jazz bands.  

Now, nearly eight decades after those piano lessons began, Silliman is still sharing his love of music as band director of the Osceola Arts Big Band, a roughly 20-member ensemble of musicians from the Central Florida area. 

One of Silliman’s high school buddies, Don Lohr, plays trombone, while Connie Silliman, provides vocals for many of the band’s ballads. 

Silliman has expanded his repertoire over the years, embracing rock ’n roll, pop, Blues, Latin and jazz. Meanwhile, the Osceola Arts Big Band performs songs from Creedence Clearwater Revival, Ike and Tina Turner and Steely Dan.

“We rehearse all year long,” said Silliman, who has four adult children and a step-son, along with eight grandchildren. “I don’t think I’ll ever quit.” 

*Editor’s note: The Osceola Arts Big Band often performs at the Osceola Arts Center at 2411 E Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, Kissimmee. The Band is also available to play for dances, weddings, and special events. 

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