Mike Turnbull is pretty common among trombonists. He loves to play, but he’s more suited to performing in the background than taking the spotlight.
Good luck with that.
Turnbull is the focus of a massive fundraising effort set for 1 p.m. Saturday at New Song Anthem church in Henderson (1291 Cornet Drive). The effort is to help offset medical bills accrued by the veteran musician during a serious health scare over the past few months. The requested donation is $30; call 492-1771 or go to the New Song Anthem website for information and to purchase tickets.
An impressive array of talent is lined up for that 30 bucks. Those scheduled to appear and perform include master impressionist Rich Little of LVH; members of the cast of “Jersey Boys” at Paris Las Vegas: Frank Sinatra’s longtime music director (and father of event organizer Danny Falcone) Vince Falcone; Santa Fe & The Fat City horns band leader Jerry Lopez and members of that terrific band; and a host of string and horn players. A silent auction and catered reception also are folded into the program.
The 45-year-old Turnbull is a popular player among Vegas musicians dating to his days performing in Tom Jones’ show at MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theater. Turnbull currently plays the instrument his fellow players have affectionately dubbed “the dirty bone” in Donny & Marie’s show at Flamingo Las Vegas. But he’s not played recently for a serious throat ailment.
Stage 4 thyroid cancer is that ailment. It’s a serious, life-threatening condition for anybody. For someone who plays a horn for a living, it is, at the very least, a potential career killer.
But not in Turnbull’s case. He has received great care since noticing a lump in his throat in December, when Donny and Marie were performing a series of holiday shows in Los Angeles. He expected, incorrectly, it was not a signal of anything seriously wrong with his throat.
“I really thought it was the result of overuse or repetitive motion from playing so long in lounges and in various shows,” said Turnbull, who often sits in with Santa Fe & The Fat City Horns at the Lounge at the Palms. “I had played with Tom Jones for nine years, and it had never bothered me.”
During those shows with Donny and Marie, a few of Turnbull’s band mates had suffered from bronchial problems. He had begun coughing up blood and hit a quick-care facility in Burbank to have his throat checked. He was prescribed antibiotics and some time off in January, which for a time seemed to arrest the symptoms. But he again began coughing blood — more aggressively and frequently — in February.
Turnbull was evaluated further. A series of examinations and a bronchoscopy (a test to view a patient’s airways and diagnose possible lung disease) revealed that Turnbull was suffering from Stage 4 thyroid cancer on his tracheal wall. He needed surgery, quickly, and turned to Las Vegas head-and-neck specialist Dr. Robert Wang.
The description of the procedure seems to defy even the definition of “procedure.” On March 30 at Mountain View Hospital, Turnbull underwent a 10-hour radical neck dissection and reconstruction to remove a 4.5-centimeter tumor on his trachea. Another half-centimeter and the tumor would likely have been considered too large to remove safely.
“It was a pretty scary when they talked about the possible consequences,” Turnbull said. “I could have lost all of the muscles in my face, the ability to speak, permanent nerve damage that could have restricted the use of my arms. This was not only to preserve my career, but my life.”
The surgery was a success, and Turnbull has been recovering, quietly and away from the scene, ever since. But weeks ago, his longtime friend and fellow horn player Danny Falcone, a trumpet player in “Jersey Boys,” Celine Dion’s show and also Santa Fe, began assembling musicians to help raise money to offset Turnbull’s medical bills. The two met in 2000, when Turnbull was joining the Tom Jones act and Falcone was a member.
“He wanted to do something, but he kept it from me until a few weeks ago,” Turnbull said. “I wasn’t aware of it. I was just keeping a low profile, but the performing arts community in Las Vegas is pretty tight.”
Turnbull and his wife, Karen, have two sons: His son Evan turns 6 on Friday. His youngest son, William, is 18 months old. Turnbull is expected back onstage with Donny & Marie at the end of the month but has yet to be hit with the first wave of medical bills. He is undergoing radioactive iodine treatments before returning to live performance.
Turnbull plans to be at the event Saturday.
“I have been on the other side of this type of effort, but I’ve never been a recipient,” he said. “It just shows how people in our community help each other. It’s incredible.”
But it’s to be expected. As Vegas musicians say, it’s what we do.