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Jazz musician Bill Caldwell dies at 49

News of Bill Caldwell’s death at age 49 hit some local jazz musicians like a stark tritone.

Caldwell, who played the alto, tenor and soprano saxophones and the flute and clarinet, was found dead of an apparent heart attack early Monday in his Wichita home.

Caldwell was a sideman in several jazz orchestras. Among the many musical groups were the Woody Herman Big Band, the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Buddy Morrow, the Kansas City Boulevard Big Band and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

Last year, Caldwell was a featured soloist with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra.

He worked 14 years in Branson, performing with shows on the strip and backing up stars. Kansas Citians he played with included Ida McBeth, Kevin Mahogany, Bobby Watson, Megan Birdsall and Tommy Ruskin.

But what many remembered about Caldwell — even beyond his musical gifts — was his humorous quips.

“Like Robin Williams on steroids,” said Kerry Strayer, director of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. “He could imitate anyone or anything and would crack everyone up on the bandstand so much they couldn’t play.”

Once on a big-band gig in Lincoln, Neb., Caldwell was asked to walk into the gig single file with the rest of the band. He was told to just do what the drummer was doing. Caldwell did.

“The drummer had a limp, so Bill added one to his walk, too,” Strayer said.

The entire 10-piece band followed suit.

Caldwell had left Branson and was happily married, living in Wichita and teaching at Wichita State University.

His current project was a recording he was making in Kansas City.

Funeral arrangements were pending.

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