Dr. Joseph Lamendola doesn't know quite where to begin.

How about his time as a U.S. Army courier in Austria? Or when he was in optometry school in Memphis, Tennessee?

Probably the best place to start is Lutcher, where Lamendola spent his childhood, because that's where as a 10-year-old he began playing trumpet — the thread that runs through his life story.

"I always had my horn," said the 88-year-old optometrist. "Even when I went into the Army, I took my horn with me. I was always playing music."

Lamendola now has three trumpets, but he gave up playing regular gigs 18 years ago because of health problems.

"And I was tired of it," he said.

That's not saying he regrets his life in music.

His office in the Eye Medical Center is filled with memorabilia, from the time he and his Dixieland Jazz band, the Rampart Street Six, performed at the dedication of the Louis Armstrong statue in New Orleans' Armstrong Park to newspaper clippings from a goodwill ambassador's trip to Venezuela.

Age hasn't slowed Lamendola down much. He still sees an average of a dozen patients a day, and he and wife, Agnes, make yearly trips to Europe, specifically Salzburg, Austria.

That's where in 1956 he played his horn at posh hotels while serving as a courier in the U.S. Army. The gigs came between his weekly transport of top secret documents through Russia to Vienna.

He lived in Salzburg's Bristol Hotel and returns there, he said, to "eat, go to concerts, hang out and remember."

Born in Lutcher, where his dad taught high school agriculture, Lamendola's family eventually moved to Gonzales, where he joined the high school band but never learned to read music.

"I went to LSU and joined the Tiger Band in 1948, but I quit after two weeks because I couldn't read the music," he said. "But I continued to play. There was a group of older guys in Lutcher in their 30s that mentored me."

Lamendola began to develop an ear for jazz when his dad moved the family to the Manresa House of Retreats grounds in Convent. On a Victrola, the high school-age Lamendola listened to the Dukes of Dixieland's records, learning the arrangements by ear.

He has played those arrangements throughout his musical career, starting with his first jazz group while he was in college.

"I formed it with a bunch of guys in Lutcher, and we played up and down the river," he said. "I graduated LSU with a degree in premed, but I didn't go to medical school because my grades weren't good. I went in the Army and played in the officer's club for a couple of weeks while I was waiting to go to my class on how to be an artillery officer."

Lamendola carried his trumpet on the ship that took the troops to Europe, forming the jazz group, the Seasick 8, along the way. Upon his return, he went to work at Shell Oil, playing late nights at the Famous Door on Bourbon Street.

Then a work friend suggested he enroll in optometry school.

"I said, 'What is that?'" Lamendola said, laughing. "He said his brother-in-law was an optometrist. I went to see him, and he said, 'Look, I make more than you.'"

Lamendola left for the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, where he'd go to school in the morning, study in the afternoons then head out to play at the Kimbrough Club.

"I stayed in Memphis just playing music and having fun for six months after I graduated, then I thought I'd better start my profession," he said. "I wanted to come back to Baton Rouge, and I didn't think I would be playing music, but it wasn't two weeks after I arrived that I met someone who said they were looking for a trumpet player at the Baton Rouge Country Club."

That gig turned into a 12-year directorship of the country club's jazz band. He also was playing with his own band, the Rampart Street Six, which was in demand throughout the region and also caught the ear of documentary maker Ken Burns.

"We played for his first documentary on 'Huey Long,'" Lamendola said, showing a program from the 1986 premiere at Louisiana Public Broadcasting. "There we are on the program. I keep all of this stuff."

His memorabilia recalls his friendships with legendary New Orleans jazzman Danny Barker and the clarinet-playing Jesuit priest Frank Coco. He also remembers when he brought his horn on the QE2 cruise ship and ended up sitting in with the band.

And then there's the story about Alvin Alcorn, whose jazz trio once was a mainstay at Commander's Palace in New Orleans. 

Lamendola, who had his horn with him, is in the upscale restaurant where, he recalled, "Alvin strolls from one room to another playing 'Sleepy Time Down South' on the clarinet, and he saw me sitting there. He said, 'Doc, play the next chorus,' and I do. Then people started running up and asking, 'How'd you know how to do that?' I said, 'I'm just an average customer, and we all know how to do that.'"

Email Robin Miller at romiller@theadvocate.com