Big Band of the Week – Bel Air Community Jazz Ensemble
— by Mitch Mirkin
If you’re looking for a group that honors the classic tradition of the Big Band Era, the Bel Air Community Jazz Ensemble fits the bill. Go to a performance and you’re likely to hear evergreens such as “In the Mood” from Glenn Miller and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” from Duke Ellington. The 18-piece ensemble, however, also draws heavily on charts from later big bands such as those of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, and Doc Severinsen. Band director C. Scott Sharnetzka says the group is always adding newer material as well. “We stay current. We have a ton of new publications in our folder, as well as standards. We’ve really put together quite a library.”
The ensemble started in 1998 as an offshoot of the Bel Air Community Band. Most of the musicians in the ensemble also play in the larger group. “We were getting requests for venues that the concert band was too big for,” says Sharnetzka, who directs both groups. “We had been toying anyway with the idea of starting a jazz ensemble.”
The members represent “a pretty good range of ages,” says Sharnetzka. The youngest is in his early 30s. A few are retired, but most still work full-time. A few are former students of Sharnetzka’s, from his days teaching music and leading school bands at the high school and college level. He is still an adjunct professor of music at Harford Community College.
Sharnetzka himself graduated from Lebanon Valley College with a bachelor’s in music education in 1968. After serving as a solo cornetist and jazz band leader in the Army, he went on to earn a master’s in trumpet performance from Peabody Conservatory. He studied there under Don Tison, who was lead trumpeter for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for more than 30 years, till 2000. Sharnetzka names him as a major influence.
The Bel Air jazz group plays only about six gigs per year. They perform as a community service, charging only a fee to cover expenses. One steady venue is the Bel Air Armory, where they do two dances a year. “Those are very well-attended,” says Sharnetzka. “You’d better get there early or you might not get in.” They are also regulars at Oak Crest retirement community. Sharnetzka admits that the audience for the jazz group tends to skew older than that of the Bel Air Community Band at large.
The ensemble features a vocalist, Nadine Wellington, who Sharnetzka says “was raised in the jazz tradition” and has a wonderful feel for the music. Her husband, Chuck, plays guitar with the band. The band rehearses only once a month, with occasional extra practices before performances. “We have people involved in some pretty demanding jobs, and this is a marvelous release for them,” says Sharnetzka. “I am so blessed with the caliber of the musicians. We can really chew on some of these newer arrangements that are more demanding, that I don’t think most [community] bands would approach.”
Beyond their skill level, Sharnetzka says the group’s members are extremely loyal.
“Their dedication to our group is phenomenal. We’re 20 years old now, and I think we have about 80 percent of our original members.”
Sharnetzka says he would welcome more gigs for the band, especially fund raisers, which he says the group did more of in earlier years. “I would like to see more of that for us, but we are still vital and having a great time.”
This article continues our series on area big bands — if you missed the last one, you can catch it here at Big Band of the Week – Baltimore County Senior Swing Band.