Big Band of the Week – Blue Moon Big Band
— by Brandon Block —
Blue Moon Big Band Celebrates 20 Swinging Years
In the spring of 1998, Robert and Teresa Leonard took out a second mortgage on their home in Taneytown, MD. They needed the money because they were starting a big band, like the nineteen-piece swing bands they loved growing up, with names like Glenn Miller and Count Basie.
“The only risk was not doing it,” Teresa, who sings in the band, told me, a feeling the couple shared. They never looked at it as a risk, she says, because it had been both of their dreams since childhood to play in a big band.
So the two purchased some arrangements and “a lot of equipment” (music stands, cables, microphones, and a trailer), called some friends, and began shopping around for gigs.
“I had a gig booked for the end of June,” remembers Rob, who plays trumpet and leads the band, the only problem being that he didn’t have a band yet. “At the time I had like nine players. I was still trying to get guys,” he said. “The next month I bought 75 new charts; we just read them down like crazy at rehearsal.” The members hit up some friends to fill out the band, and Rob was able to pull some musicians from Mood Swings, the big band in which both he and Teresa had previously played.
For Teresa, a big challenge was learning to sing in a lower range than soprano. “If you think about big band music, a lot of the charts were written for male vocalists. Well, during World War II there weren’t a lot of male vocalists around,” she told me. “If you listen to, like, Rosemary Clooney, Lena Horne, you’ll hear that they have a lower vocal range. They have a great lower tone voice, and it’s because a lot of them had to; some women had to learn to sing in the lower ranges, and I was one of them.”
They both credit Mood Swings with giving them their start in big bands (it also provided the chance for them to meet), but both knew they wanted to do some things differently with the new band. Rob was tired of playing “YMCA.” “We were playing songs that made no sense to me for a swing orchestra,” he said. With the new band, he wanted to “pay more concerted homage to the original big bands.”
It started with the written music. To Rob, the charts you could buy online or from catalogues just didn’t match the originals. “When I hear Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood,’ that’s what I hear in my head,” he says. “And I didn’t want just some canned, cheesily written knock off; I wanted to play Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood,’ you know, [and] Benny Goodman’s ‘Let’s Dance.’” So he found an arranger in London who would create bespoke arrangements. “I could send him an .mp3 of the original recording from a 1930s big band, and he could score it out for the group part by part,” Rob told me. “They were exact transcriptions of the originals.”
Another one of their goals for the new band was to pay the musicians more equitably than in bands they’d played in previously. “Our very first job, it didn’t pay too poorly,” Rob said. “I paid out 100% of it. I just told the guys, okay, here’s what were getting paid, so divide it by twenty and that’s what you’re making.” Before too long, the band was booking shows at wineries, weddings, and dancehalls across Maryland, Pennsylvania, DC, Northern Virginia, and Delaware.
One of their favorite venues is the Valencia Ballroom in York, PA, a 107-year-old stately holdover from the days when the town was a major stop for touring jazz acts such as Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra. Besides, it has a special significance: it’s also where the two got married.
“When I was little I told my dad, I want a big band to play at my wedding,” Teresa told me. “And his response was: ‘You know they’re long gone, they’re not around anymore, so I don’t know if that’ll ever happen.’” Of course, she did have a big band play at her wedding—her own!
“People have this nice, calm ceremonial music for a processional, ‘Ode to Joy’ or something,” Rob said. “Ours was [Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s] ‘A Wonderful Day Like Today.’ It was a big band cranking it up. That was us. It’s supposed to be a party, you know?”
Though this was an early moment for the nearly twenty-year old band, it perfectly encapsulates the way the Leonards’ lives and the band are completely entwined. It has never stopped being fun for either of them. Along the way, Blue Moon Big Band has been played on over 70 radio stations nationwide, including a feature on the National Public Radio program Swinging Down the Lane and an acting appearance as, if you can imagine, a big band, in the 2009 film My One and Only, with Kevin Bacon.
The band’s web site is www.bluemoonbigband.com.
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 – The Big Band Theory of Baltimore.