Big Band of the Week – Reisterstown Jazz Ensemble

The Reisterstown Jazz Ensemble bills itself as a “band for all occasions”: weddings, stage concerts, dances, jazz festivals, rock concerts — even funerals. You name it.

Band director, trumpeter, and vocalist Scott Cater, who founded the band in 1992 along with lead trumpeter Scott Bowers, his former bandmate at Franklin High School, says he never wanted the band to get pigeonholed into one style of music.

“I think a lot of big bands get stuck doing one thing—dance band, stage band, or whatever,” says Cater. “We’re probably closer to what a university band would do, in that we play all kinds of music. We play dance band music when the opportunity is there, but we have also experimented over the years. We decided we would do any kind of music we wanted to do. I wanted it to be more about the musicians than about going out and getting gigs.”
Cater himself comes from a musical family, albeit one generation removed: his grandfather on one side was a jazz guitarist, and his other grandfather played brass in an army band. As for his strongest musical influences, Cater cites an eclectic mix of artists, among them Dizzy Gillespie, Doc Severinsen, Chicago, and K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

Jazz-rock, funk, and perhaps a little pop rock and R&B—all find expression in arrangements that Cater has written for the band. “I’ve written a lot of [arrangements] from Chicago, from the 1970s, as well as some Blood, Sweat and Tears, and a little Steely Dan,” says Cater. The band also plays tunes like “Pick Up the Pieces,” a 1974 jazz-funk classic by the Average White Band, and “Ride Like the Wind,” a 1979 hit for pop-rock singer Christopher Cross.

If you were a music fan in the 1970s and are feeling nostalgic right about now for the groovy and funkadelic sounds of that era, you’re not alone. Cater says he gets plenty of requests for that genre. In fact, at a recent gig the RJE played at a nursing home in Taneytown, it was not swing or Sinatra the residents requested, but rock.
“There’s a new clientele in these nursing homes,” Cater points out. “You’re not getting people who were around in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Now we’re starting to see people in their 50s, 60s, and 70s who grew up during Elvis, the Beatles, during those periods.” Cater was happy to oblige. “I have a fascination with rock music,” he says. “I write the charts to the recording. It will have a lot of elements of the recording in it. People seem to enjoy hearing that.”

The 20-piece band plays about six to seven gigs a year, on average. Most are done as a community service, although the nonprofit group does welcome donations at these events. Cater, whose full-time gig is in the produce department at a Giant supermarket, says the funds go toward buying charts, which can run around $60 or $70, to complement the ones he writes, and repairing or occasionally purchasing instruments.

Most of the weddings the band has played have been those of members’ siblings or children. As for the funerals, these were of members themselves, who unfortunately had terminal illnesses and requested that the band perform.
Cater remembers one such occasion when the end came more quickly than expected for the ailing band member. Cater had to put together a few special arrangements in three days’ time. One request from the dying band member was “Amazing Grace.” “He wanted it upbeat. I said OK, I’ll give it a shot,” recalls Cater. “I think we pulled it off.” The band also played “Blue Skies,” and an arrangement of the former member’s college anthem.
“It was very touching,” notes Cater. “We dragged a portable generator out there and played around the grave. We all stood, except for the drummer.”

That Cater has managed to keep together a solid core of committed members for 26 years is a testament to his philosophy: “I deeply respect all the members. We’re family.”

In fact, on the bio page of the band’s website (www.reisterstownjazzensemble.com), the members’ personal statements are oozing with love and appreciation for each other. Many of them talk about how their bandmates have helped them learn and grow as musicians.

Cater says that over the years the band has garnered many compliments after playing at regional festivals, bolstering his view that the group is “on par with a lot of professional big bands out there. We take the music very seriously, and we strive for excellence.”

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.