Big Band of the Week – Columbia Jazz Band

— by Mitch Mirkin —

Visit the bustling website of the Columbia Jazz Band (thejazzband.com) and you’ll get a feel for the fast-paced, globetrotting lifestyle of this swinging 22-piece ensemble. There are video clips from the band’s international tours and audio tracks from its two CDs, with the music ranging from Swing Era classics such as “Tuxedo Junction” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” to Latin-infused bebop standards like “A Night in Tunisia,” bluesy 1960s tunes like “Watermelon Man,” and cool bossa novas such as “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars.” There are also summaries and photos of recent performances in the Baltimore-Washington area, and notices about upcoming local gigs, including an April 27 concert titled “April in Paris: The Music of Count Basie.”

The April concert has special significance for the band, explains CJB manager Bob Frantz, who also plays bass trombone with the group: “This is the first time the CJB has organized [its own] ticketed performance,” he notes. “We’ve been doing ticketed concerts every year, but they have been hosted as part of third-party concert series.”

The band has also performed themed concerts in the past, such as one highlighting “women of jazz,” with guest vocalist Delores Williams, and another featuring the music of Frank Sinatra, with Grammy-winning musician Gordon Goodwin. But the April 2018 gig will be their first tribute to Count Basie. Band director Fred Hughes, who joined the CJB only last September, says: “When I took over, they said one of the things they’d like to do is their own ticketed event, so I said, let’s get going. That what we’re going to be doing more of in the future.”

Hughes, a pianist, composer, arranger, and music educator, is the fourth director in the band’s 29-year history, and as a former member of the Jazz Ambassadors—the U.S. Army’s premier big band—he is keeping alive a tradition of sorts for the CJB. His two predecessors also boasted military music backgrounds: Pete BarenBregge, who led the band from 2000 to 2016, was a director and lead tenor saxophonist with the Airmen of Note, the Air Force’s big band; Jim McFalls, who led the band for a short time before Hughes took over, was lead trombonist with the Jazz Ambassadors. (Robert Miller, the group’s first director, from 1989 to 2000, was a local middle school teacher with no military affiliation.)

“The service bands are a national treasure,” says Frantz, “and having the four premier service jazz bands all based in the Baltimore-Washington area is a tremendous resource. It has been our experience that former service jazz band members have a combination of skills and knowledge that works well for directing our group. They are exceptional musicians; they have big band experience—often playing, conducting, and arranging; they are skilled educators; and they are knowledgeable about the local music scene.”

Frantz says the group has come a long way from its “humble beginning” playing at “high school dances and spaghetti dinners.” They are looking forward to their next trip abroad, probably to Canada in 2019 to play at a few jazz festivals there. Their past international tours, mainly in Europe, have generated thrills and excitement that will be hard to match, says Frantz. For example, there was a concert in Croatia, he says, “where we were treated as rock stars—or jazz stars?—with a crowd of over 5,000 people pressed up against the stage. During the set breaks, we were not able to get down the stairs because of all the requests to sign our CDs.”

He adds, though, that not every European gig was as big a smash: “One of our 2010 Amsterdam concerts ended up on the same night as the World Cup Final matching the Netherlands against Spain. Let’s just say our audience was a little sparse that night.”

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 – Columbia Big Band.