When the band Chicago was inducted in April into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, trumpeter Lee Loughnane gave a shout-out to Rich Rajewski, who, after a lifetime of helping other musicians, died last week at the home in Marquette Park where he grew up.
Loughnane said he wanted to pay tribute to Mr. Rajewski, whose playing he’d admired since they met nearly 60 years ago as 11-year-old horn players in an all-star Catholic grade school band. Little Rich was first chair, and Loughnane was second chair.
“He was always a really good trumpet player,” Loughnane said. “He had a great ear. He would come to all of our shows when we played in Chicago. He knew every horn I’ve ever had, and he could tell which keys you were playing in. He’d say, ‘I loved that C-sharp you played tonight.’ ”
As Loughnane experienced stardom with the group Chicago, Mr. Rajewski’s trumpet talent ripened into a rich, buttery sound reminiscent of the jazz greats he worked hard to emulate — Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Bunny Berrigan.
He played jazz festivals and at Andy’s Jazz Club and other Chicago venues. For years, he lived in Los Angeles and toured the country with show bands playing lounges and casinos.
Mr. Rajewski also did some arranging with Motown in the 1970s for a soul-funk group called “Puzzle” and for bluesman Luther Allison on the album “Luther’s Blues.”
Though Mr. Rajewski had been in declining health in recent years, he still traveled some, usually thanks to musician friends who flew him out for visits or to join them at music festivals.
When Mr. Rajewski, 70, was found dead of a suspected heart attack at his childhood home May 26, he still had a rotary phone and no computer.
He’d been holding down two part-time jobs fixing instruments, with clients including Loughnane and Chicago trombonist James Pankow, the composer of “Colour My World,” “Make Me Smile” and other hits.
“He was a success as far as I was concerned,” Loughnane said.
“An absolute musical great, unheralded,” Rich Daniels, musical director of Chicago’s City Lights Orchestra, called Mr. Rajewski. “He was soft-spoken but influential to so many of us. He understood every form of music, from symphonic works to R&B.”
“He may not have been the guy that attracts the audience’s attention,” said Jordan Sandke, a trumpeter who played with Mr. Rajewski in the late 1960s in a group called Johnny Ross and the Funk Explosion. “But he had the absolute admiration and respect of all the other musicians.”
Players knew they could always count on Mr. Rajewski for expert equipment repair, or a ride to or from the airport or a couch if they needed a place to crash.
“He knew empathy like nobody I’ve ever known,” said his son Ryan. “The last four, five months, he couldn’t even walk. He would worry more about his friends and family than himself.” On his birthday, it wasn’t unusual for Mr. Rajewski to receive 50 phone calls from lifelong friends, his son said.
He repaired instruments at Jake’s Music Service in Alsip and Quinlan & Fabish Music Company in Burr Ridge.
“Rich would fix my horns, and they would come back brand new, shiny and polished up,” Loughnane said.
Mr. Rajewski grew up near 70th and Washtenaw and attended St. Adrian’s grade school. His father worked at National Can and other jobs, sometimes acting as a music promoter for young Rich, according to his brother, Bob Rajewski.
“I remember going with my dad and Rich to the Blue Note” jazz club, Bob Rajewski said.
By high school — he attended St. Rita’s and Bogan — the teenage Rich was playing professional gigs at the Old Town Gate and at the Martinique in Evergreen Park, said Dave Rybski, a grade-school friend and fellow musician. He went on to study music at the Chicago Conservatory College.
At Andy’s, he performed with Doctor Bop and the Headliners. He played for almost 20 years with Daniels. Around 1980, he joined the Big Band Machine, a group Daniels helped found that featured the music of greats like Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. A decade later, as it evolved into City Lights Orchestra, Mr. Rajewski played dates with Ray Charles, The Four Tops, Burt Bacharach, Dionne Warwick and David Foster.
His nickname “Taste” came from him saying, “I’m going to run over to the bar to get a taste,” according to Daniels.
But after a pancreatitis attack two decades ago, he quit drinking. “He improved his life, improved his health,” Daniels said.
Rybski said Rich Rajewski’s friends and relatives wish he’d given up “the damned cigarettes,” too.
Mr. Rajewski is also survived by a grandson. A memorial gathering is planned Sunday in Schererville, Indiana.