Baltimore-Area Big Bands Abounding
Trumpeter Scott Stansfield heard Stan Kenton’s big band at Towson State College in 1983, when he was in sixth grade. In his subsequent school report Stansfield vowed to have a band like that someday. Two years ago he fulfilled his dream by starting the Melting Pot Big Band. Saxophonist Jim Quinlan has rehearsed with the Sentimental Journey Orchestra every Monday night for forty years (with a few exceptions for vacations). At age ninety, trombonist Norma Allman leads the Never Too Late Band at Carroll Lutheran Village retirement community. At age eighty-five Whit Williams is in his thirty-third year of leading Now’s The Time Big Band. All four band leaders also play in others’ big bands. Asked about the challenges they face, these and other big band leaders cite the scarcity of performance opportunities and low pay. Yet the Baltimore metropolitan area boasts thirty-three big bands.
What is it about big bands that fuels the passion of players and leaders alike? Stansfield echoed an answer given by many: “There’s nothing else like that sound.” Larzine Talley, who sings with both Dr. Phill’s Big Band and Blues in the Night Orchestra, says “A big band has so many colors. It’s like a fruit cocktail.” Saxophonist Rich Burns, who plays in four big bands (those led by Don Arnold, Jerry Peterson, Dave Tucker, and Ken Ebo), says that he loves “the sheer sound, more possibilities orchestration-wise, a little more chance to voice in a way you can’t in a combo.” Greg Mack, who plays drums in four big bands (Sentimental Journey, Annapolis Junction, Don Arnold, Jerry Peterson) says “There’s nothing like it, the energy, man. When a group is really happening, the sheer power of driving seventeen pieces is just unbelievable. It’s exhilarating.” He adds, “The ballads are so sweet they can bring a tear to a glass eye.”
Almost to a person, both members and leaders say that playing in a big band is fun. The challenging nature of some of the music is part of what many enjoy. “I like bringing in something we can’t play and they like that,” says Jim Quinlan. Chris Hutton, lead trumpet, who drives all the way from York, Pennsylvania for Melting Pot Big Band’s bi-weekly rehearsals, says, “It’s a lot of fun and we play really tough music.” John Pritchett, saxophonist in the Blue Moon Big Band, says that being in a band with better musicians helps him develop skills like playing with precision and dynamics. Others cite the camaraderie involved in big-band playing, including interacting with an eclectic mix of musicians. “We have people from all walks of life,” says the leader of Ain’t Misbehavin’, saxophonist George Stelmach. “Our bass player, Bob Johnson, taught music for forty years in Howard County, but otherwise we’re non-professionals. We have a pharmacist, a body shop owner. I was a shipping manager at Eastern Stainless Steel.”
Some of the bands have a mission. Baltimore County Senior Swing Band, with members aged sixty to ninety, plays twelve concerts per year for their peers. Band leader Matt Elky says, “We love sharing our talents and music. Music is a great healer, whether you are playing it or listening to it. These songs mean a lot to seniors.” On the opposite end of the age spectrum, New World Outreach Jazz Orchestra sees itself “trying to instill in youth the world of big band jazz, ensemble playing and improvisation,” according to co-founder Ron Rolling. NWOJO sponsors an intensive summer workshop for student musicians from several Maryland counties. The Big Band Theory of Baltimore, a non-profit organization, holds weekly rehearsals at a rehabilitation center/nursing home that are attended by fifteen to twenty residents. Though they play for a wide array of other audiences, director Melissa Zimmerman says that the band intentionally performs at senior living facilities whose residents would not hear such music otherwise.
The repertoires of the Baltimore area’s big bands vary widely. Most of the bands include classic Swing Era tunes, but usually play some other material. Ain’t Misbehavin’, for instance, includes patriotic songs like “God Bless the USA.” The Big Band Theory plays music from Stevie Wonder, Simon and Garfunkel and Bruno Mars. About one-third of Dr. Phill’s Big Band’s book is Motown tunes. Other bands play music from well after the Swing Era, such as charts from Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra or Gordon Goodwin’s currently popular Big Phat Band. Two of the bands specialize in music by only one composer, the Hank Levy Legacy Band, and the Screaming Art Large Ensemble, which plays music by its leader, trumpeter Dylan Schuman.
I have been astonished at the large number of big bands in our area (see sidebar on front page). When I excitedly related this to big-band leader Scott Stansfield, he replied, “And nobody knows about them.” We hope this article will help change that. In January, 2018 we will begin a series that will profile each of the thirty-three Baltimore-area big bands. You will find them on our website, www.baltimorejazz.com.
Bob Jacobson has written for DownBeat, allaboutjazz.com and jazzreview.com. He also wrote chapters on Ellis Larkins and Hank Levy in the 2010 book Music at the Crossroads: Lives and Legacies of Baltimore Jazz.
What Is A Big Band?
The jazz big band typically consists of 15-20 pieces: a rhythm section of drums, bass, piano and/or guitar and sometimes percussion; five saxes; three or four trombones and three to six trumpets. Many, but not all, big bands have one or more vocalists. This configuration was set at the beginning of the Swing Era, roughly 1935-45, sometimes known as the Big Band Era because big bands were the main type of ensemble delivering the popular music of the day—live, on records and on radio. For many reasons big bands declined after World War II. Some stayed active, notably those led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Benny Goodman, Cab Calloway, Woody Herman, and Stan Kenton. A small revival occurred in the ‘60s with bands led by Buddy Rich, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis and Gerald Wilson. Big bands also continued at the high school level. Since the ‘70s many colleges’ jazz ensembles have been, and still are, big bands.
Big band music is written with separate parts for each instrument, including drums. Thousands of arrangements are available and some artists’ reputations (e.g., that of Baltimore’s own Hank Levy) are built mainly on their work as composers and/or arrangers of big band jazz.
Baltimore-Area Big Bands
- Ain’t Misbehavin’ Big Band
- Annapolis Junction Big Band
- Baltimore County Senior Swing Band
- Bayside Big Band
- Bel Air Community Jazz Ensemble
- The Big Band Theory of Baltimore
- Blue Moon Big Band
- Blues in the Night Orchestra
- Columbia Big Band
- Columbia Jazz Band
- Crabtowne Big Band
- Dale Corn & His Orchestra
- Dave Tucker & The Roaring Big Band
- Dr. Phill’s Big Band
- Don Arnold Big Band
- Dunbar Alumni Jazz Band
- Hank Levy Legacy Band
- Jerry Peterson (a.k.a. Riverside) Big Band
- Ken Ebo Jazz Orchestra
- The Melting Pot Big Band
- Mood Swings
- Never Too Late Band
- New World Outreach Jazz Orchestra
- Now’s the Time Big Band
- Powerhouse Big Band
- Reisterstown Jazz Ensemble
- Screaming Art Large Ensemble
- Sentimental Journey Orchestra
- Shades of Blue Orchestra
- Sunday Night Big Band
- Thom Roland Dance Band
- Touch of Class
This article appeared in our Winter 2018 Newsletter, and to accompany it, we are publishing a short article about each of the above big bands! You can catch them here at Big Band of the Week.