Big Band of the Week – Ken Ebo Jazz Orchestra

It’s a wonder Frosty the Snowman can survive the smoking-hot playing of the Ken Ebo Jazz Orchestra.

“Frosty the Snowman,” the venerable Christmas tune first recorded by Gene Autry in 1950, is one of several holiday favorites performed by Ebo’s swinging 28-piece ensemble at its annual concerts in support of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots drive. “Some of the carols are great vehicles for the jazz idiom,” notes Ebo. “They really work well in the hands of good arrangers.”

Gunnery Sergeant Ebo is an active-duty Marine who teaches full time at the Naval School of Music in Virginia Beach. A seasoned jazz trombonist and vocalist, he performs with and directs other ensembles throughout the year, including the Marine Corps Jazz Orchestra. But come Christmas time, he convenes his namesake orchestra for two holiday concerts: one in Baltimore, the other in Virginia Beach. It’s a tradition he started in 2002.

For the past several years the Baltimore concert has been held at Towson University’s Kaplan Concert Hall. Before that, it had staged at the Gilman School, where Ebo and his wife used to teach, and at Loch Raven High School. This year’s concert will be on Sunday, Dec. 9th. Admission is free, but attendees are asked to bring a toy for the Marines’ toy drive.

Ebo assembles two different groups of musicians for the Baltimore and Virginia Beach gigs. Each group rehearses twice during the week before the performance. In Virginia Beach, the members are mostly active-duty service men and women, reservists, or military retirees. In Baltimore, bass trombonist Bernie Robier, a longtime musical associate of Ebo, rounds up local talent—most with no military connection—to take part.

“Bernie is my ‘personnel director’ in Baltimore,” says Ebo. “He contacts all the musicians and gets the band together. Then I just go up there and coordinate the rehearsals.” In Virginia Beach, Ebo himself pulls together the musicians each year.

Ebo stresses that all the musicians in his holiday orchestra are volunteers. “No one makes any money from this,” he says. “It’s a very busy time for musicians, as you can imagine, but they give up their time for rehearsals and the gig. That’s a sacrifice for them. It shows care from the musician community. They do this to help collect toys for kids in their community.”

The Ebo ensemble is unusual because it contains six to eight French horns. The rest of the brass and woodwinds is made up of five saxes, five trombones, five trumpets, and a tuba. A rhythm section, featuring a pianist, bassist, guitar, drummer, and additional percussionist, rounds out the group.

Why is the group so heavy on French horns? If you’re familiar with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, one of the premier big bands from 1940s through the ‘70s, you may have an inkling: it has to do with a cousin of the French horn, the mellophonium, which was a mainstay in the Kenton band in the early 1960s. An iteration of the band with a four-mellophonium section can be heard on Kenton’s Grammy-winning West Side Story and Adventures in Jazz albums. The renowned bandleader would tell jazz writers he liked the instrument because it served as a tonal transition between the trumpet and trombone sections.

Ebo says that when he first started doing holiday concerts, as the leader of the Marine Corps Pacific Jazz Band, based in Hawaii, “some of the greatest charts” that he selected for the band “were from the Stan Kenton Christmas album. He used mellophoniums on that recording, so all those arrangements had those French horn parts in there.”

Nowadays, when Ebo’s band works with arrangements that lack French horn parts, he adds them. “We still use some of those Stan Kenton charts that already have those horn parts. But I didn’t want those horns to be up there and play on only some of the songs. I arrange some of the music myself, and I have someone who works with me on that, and we always add French horn parts. So they play on virtually every tune.” The French horns players don’t take improvised solos, says Ebo, “but we have had several charts where there are horn features arranged specifically for them.”

Ebo says his book, or collection of musical charts, for the holiday concerts continues to grow from year to year. “Now, one of the hardest things for me every year is to decide which tunes we’re not going to do.”

He plans to move with his family to Fort Worth later this year for a three-year stint before he retires from the Marines, but he says he will come back to Baltimore and Virginia Beach in December to continue his Toys for Tots concert tradition. And, he says, he may just start a Texas branch of the holiday project as well.

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.