[Dixielandjazz] Big Band

PATRICK LADD pj.ladd at btinternet.com
Fri Dec 3 10:43:24 PST 2004

Hi all,
Not OKOM perhaps but I know some of us get into the Big Band stuff sometimes. Anyway if Big Band is making a comeback....who knows.



The Re-Emergence of Big Band Jazz?

Duke Ellington would be delighted.


In the 1950s, going downstairs into New York's Birdland (billed as "The Jazz Corner of the World"), the sheer exhilarating force of the Count Basie band below almost knocked me against the wall. I grew up listening to the big jazz bands on the radio, imagining them rolling through the night like lit-up trains bringing excitement and romance to big cities and small towns across the land.
When I was 15, in a Boston ballroom, getting as close to the Duke Ellington band as I could get, having just heard a song new to me, l'd whisper to amiable Harry Carney, the anchor of the reed section, "What was that?" "I don't know," he'd say. "He just wrote it." It was jazz history in the making.

With the advent of rock and subsequent popular-music enthusiasms, the big bands were greatly reduced in number. Some "ghost bands"--bearing the names of dead leaders from the glory years--still hit the road, along with some still-venturesome other working bands, but it has been generally felt among jazz listeners that the big-band era was lost in nostalgia.

I'm no longer sure of that, having, on a Monday night in October, heard the Joe Elefante Big Band at Cecil's, a small club in West Orange, N.J. The spirited 26-year-old leader, pianist and chief arranger heads a 17-piece, joyous band composed mostly of players around his own age. Also among them are musicians who used to be in such big-band-era bands as Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and Count Basie. It's been together almost three years.

During the evening, I could barely stay in my seat at times and often shouted in sheer pleasure. A week later, seeing and hearing on PBS the opening night of the first truly grand, $128 million, multidimensional home built solely for jazz at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall, I was impressed. I had been there earlier for the inauguration of the Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame, and was also struck by the respectful, tasteful ambiance. But during the two hours on PBS, while I was glad that this palace would give more musicians work, I was never moved to shout as I had at Cecil's, where the decor reminded me of the low-lit clubs of my early youth where I lied about my age to get in.
The crisp, charging brass section of the Elefante band would have delighted Duke Ellington, and the surgingly cohesive reed section recalled the sound of the Benny Carter and Thad Jones big bands. One of the swing-era veterans in this band, Rick Stepton, who had worked with Woody Herman and Buddy Rich, told Dave Marash of ABC's "Nightline," where the band is expected to appear on Friday, Dec. 3: "I'm lucky to be my age and welcomed in this band. It's a privilege, not the other way around. It's rejuvenating to be surrounded by youth."

The music, Mr. Stepton says, has its swinging pulse in the big-band tradition, but Joe Elefante has "a refreshing, modern concept of harmonies. But even though he's listened to Gil Evans and Thad Jones, it's different, it's young, it's vibrant, it's new. That's why I'm here."

The soloists--the veterans and the young players--speak in their own voices but interweave seamlessly with the sections, so that the band as a whole also speaks in its own voice. Freddie Hendrix, trumpet and flügelhorn, tells what it's like to be in the midst of this continual celebration: "It's basically like church sessions. This is our church and our sanctuary is on the band stand. The feeling is just like jump for joy."

Trombonist Dennis Argul says of his fellow members of the congregation, "you never know what these guys are going to say on their horn. When the charts (the arrangements) open up, and the soloists go, anything's possible."

Says leader Joe Elefante: "The soloists surprise me almost every time. I love that. I don't like safe playing. I'm not into being safe. As a band, we sound like us. We don't sound like anybody else."

There are explosive flagwavers like "Turn Your Head," but the band also gentles into ballads--"For Sarah" being especially moving, reminding me of the close dancing in a ballroom when Duke Ellington would call for one of his intimately lyrical numbers featuring the sensuous alto saxophone of Johnny Hodges.

"Often," Duke told me, "during Johnny's solo a sigh would come from one of the dancers, and that would become part of our music." If the Joe Elefante Big Band gets booked into rooms for dancing as well as listening, there might be a revival, across the age spectrum, of transcendent romance on the dance floor.

The Joe Elefante Big Band has been at Cecil's on Monday nights for over a year. A forthcoming CD, and the national exposure on "Nightline" celebrating this new big-band jazz phenomenon, could well expand the audience and bookings for the band. In any case, along with the veterans, the younger players also keep looking forward to these Monday nights. Alto saxophonist Greg Marenko: "There's so many less big bands right now, and for Rick Stepton to be sitting behind me when he's playing lead trombone and I'm playing lead alto, I learn so much every week by being here."
Can the big bands come back? Mr. Marenko tells "Nightline": "I think there's just too many musicians who really care and enjoy being part of this. They put their egos aside to make the band sound great, and that dedication is why big-band music is here to stay as much as it may be less heard. It's still a great art form and people are going to continue to push it forward."

Alto saxophonist Bruce Williams, a rising star outside the Elefante band, with his own gigs as a leader, speaks of being a sideman with this band: "Playing big-band music, there's nothing like that feeling when you know that you're influencing the swing of the music. When I'm playing lead alto, I couldn't? care less about taking a solo. [In the section] I feel like I'm soloing every time I'm swinging a note. I'm dedicated to doing that. And the power, to feel that power behind me, and know that the first trumpet is in line with that, and the drummer is listening. That's really important." Money is less important. The players average seven to eight dollars each Monday night.

Says veteran Rick Stepton: "I'll never forget the first night I joined Buddy Rich's band in 1968. I had never heard from the inside the sheer energy of all the harmonies, all the voices, all the sections just propelling themselves forward in a musical way." Being in the middle of that, "the way it sounds, it's like, indescribable."

So is the way it feels to a listener being enveloped by the Joe Elefante Big Band. That sheer collective exaltation is not only a nostalgic memory. It's alive Monday nights at Cecil's. The band can also be heard on www.joeelefante.com.
Mr. Hentoff writes for the Journal about jazz.

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