Big Band of the Week – Dunbar Alumni Jazz Band

Charles Funn, director of the Dunbar Alumni Jazz Band (DAJB), does not remember
when the band started, but he remembers how it started. Several alumni of Baltimore City’s Dunbar High School had gone off to colleges where the jazz big bands’ music was less satisfying than what they had played under Funn’s direction at Dunbar. They asked Funn to start a big band that would challenge them and he complied. Many of these alumni have since left the band due to job and family obligations. Five alumni remain. Funn has rounded out the roster mostly with other music educators and band leaders. Aside from Funn, 66, who plays trombone as well as directing, band members’ ages range from the early 20s to the early 40s, making it one of the youngest personnel rosters of Baltimore-area big bands.

DAJB recently played to their largest audience yet, nearly one thousand people, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Funn proudly states, “They play for the love of the music. There may be two people in the audience and they’ll play like it’s Carnegie Hall.” This was borne out on May 14 when the band played its monthly show at An die Musik to an audience of eighteen, demonstrating tremendous enthusiasm over the span of a single two-hour set.

The band plays many of the classics of the big band repertoire, but Funn stresses that DAJB is distinguished by performing music that you don’t hear from many other bands, such as more obscure tunes from the Ellington and Basie orchestras or complex arrangements by Thad Jones. On May 14th the set list included Jones’s arrangement of “All of Me,” Ellington’s “Second Line,” Frank Foster’s arrangement of “Here’s That Rainy Day,” Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder,” Joe Henderson’s “Isotope,” Duke Pearson’s “Amanda,” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September.” With a total of a dozen tunes over the course of two hours, the players had many opportunities to solo.

Funn would like this band to be able to play for a wide range of audiences, from senior citizen centers where folks expect to hear the standards, to jazz aficionados with more sophisticated tastes. They have played at Wesley United Methodist Church in D.C. and have become a fixture at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall during Artscape. DAJB has also carved out a niche as the only Baltimore-area big band performing Ellington and Strayhorn’s treatment of The Nutcracker Suite each year at An die Musik just before Christmas.

Unfortunately, DAJB faces financial challenges similar to those described by many big band directors in our area. Funn says that the band really needs a manager and a publicist, but asks, “What am I going to pay them with?” As things stand, he sometimes goes into his own pocket to pay the musicians. Funn would like DAJB to play the Caton Castle in Baltimore and Westminster Church in D.C. Also on Funn’s wish list is “hooking up with Peabody jazz faculty as guest artists out front.”

There are several audio or audio/visual recordings of the Dunbar Alumni Jazz Band on youtube.com. They play the second Monday of each month at An die Musik and their annual holiday concert of The Nutcracker Suite will take place at An die Musik on December 11th, 2018.

This article continues our series on area big bands — if you missed any of them, you can catch them here at Big Band of the Week.