Big Band of the Week – Blues in the Night Orchestra

— by Brandon Block —

Like many jazz bands, the Blues in the Night Orchestra is dedicated to the memory of a beloved bandleader. That leader was Richard Rice, the saxophonist who started the band in 2010 and passed away from cancer in 2013.

In November of 2014, trumpeter Tom Walsh and conductor Tom Crawford re-started the band in Rice’s honor, rehearsing in a garage in Bel Air. Walsh, who books the shows and organizes rehearsals, and Rice met as players in the Towson State University jazz band in 1973. That was where and when they met one of their biggest inspirations, band director Hank Levy, and recorded on his Jazz 76 album. Levy was a “specialist in odd time signatures,” Walsh says. “Hank could make 7/4 [for the uninitiated: an odd time signature] sound like 5/4. He could make the tunes swing,” Walsh said. Crawford agreed: “He writes the most impossible charts. [Levy] put that university on the map.”

Walsh, 64, grew up in Dundalk and lives there still, where he works at a wastewater treatment plant. After college, Walsh spent years touring with various rock acts, including an Elvis impersonator, some disco groups (unnamed), and “an ex-ballplayer who thought he could sing.” The Elvis nostalgia tour, capitalizing on his death in 1977, was actually something of a coup, lasting eight months and taking Walsh to hotels and lounges across the country. Walsh speaks pragmatically about disco and funk, which are often lumped by jazz purists into the dreaded “dance music” category. “Disco was good because it had a lot of horns in it,” he says.

“[Blues in The Night is] my favorite ensemble that I conduct,” said Crawford, adding that the band has come “a million miles” since they started out over three years ago. “I’ve been an old retired bum for about twenty years now,” Crawford told me over the phone (he lives in West Virginia, a 90-minute drive from where the band rehearses) and has a home studio where he produces various bands. “I run an organized democracy,” Crawford says of his role as conductor. “You’re welcome to make suggestions. . . . I’m not gonna use any of them.”

Crawford grew up in Levittown, northeast of Philadelphia, where he took advantage of a thriving soul and rhythm & blues scene. After going to “the Juilliard of the Midwest,” Indiana University, where he studied conducting with David Baker and others, he played in what he calls the “R & B club circuit.” Crawford performed in many funk and R & B bands in Maryland, including Mary Lou & The Untouchables, an Ocean City favorite.

Crawford describes the Blues in the Night Orchestra as a “motley crew,” but says the differences are what give them such great chemistry. “That’s why I get in the car on a snowy evening or a lousy night,” he said. Some players are retired; others work as scientists and engineers, a few at Aberdeen Proving Ground. The average age of the band is 50-60, Walsh tells me, plus “a few young guys.” Now they practice at Pikesville High School, where trombonist Tedd Wilson teaches.

Walsh described Blues in the Night Orchestra as a “labor of love,” adding that they are “making hardly anything at all.” “The reason why we formed this band was because Richard was a loved and respected individual,” Walsh says.

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 – Blue Moon Big Band.