Nat Hentoff, the nation’s best jazz columnist, says that a 26-year-old piano player by the name of Joe Elefante might be the man to bring back big jazz bands. I hope he’s right because like many people my age I don’t like most of the popular music you hear these days — rock, rap, hip-hop, gangsta or heavy metal played by guys and gals yelling and whacking guitars.
I haven’t heard Joe Elefante’s band yet — its first CD is about to be released — but he must have a great band for Hentoff to write about it in his column in the Wall Street Journal last week. For about a year, Elefante’s Big Band has been playing at a small club in West Orange, N. J., and when Hentoff heard it he said its brass section would have delighted Duke Ellington and the reed section sounded like the big bands of Benny Carter and Thad Jones.
Most of the players are about Elefante’s age, but there are several older musicians who have played with Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson and Count Basie. The young men are willing to play for $7 or $8 a night just to be performing with these old guys. Oddly enough, says Hentoff, the veterans are happy the youngsters are there. “It’s rejuvenating to be surrounded by youth,” said Rick Stepton, who used to play with Buddy Rich.
When Elefante’s band gets known —and others like it — Hentoff says that it could start the rebirth of big bands. He explains that there are thousands of kids playing in their schools’ big bands, and when they graduate and get a day job, many of them will want to join or start a big band so they can play real music at night.
Big bands began to disappear at the end of World War II. Professional musicians going on strikes when night clubs were closed didn’t help, and neither did the two years when no records were made in this country because of a disagreement over musicians’ royalties.
Now there are only a few big bands in big cities, and a half dozen of what are called “ghost bands” travel the country. With a bunch of other jazz lovers my age, I went up to Alma a couple of months ago and heard the ghost band of Tommy Dorsey. The 15-piece band played great favorites like “Opus No. 1,” “Star Dust,” “Night Train,” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” The music was so good that we clapped, stood up and yelled like kids.
Are you wondering why the Tommy Dorsey orchestra would be in Alma, population 4,160? For one reason, 750 of its people really like big bands because that’s how many showed up. Another reason is the town’s beautiful new auditorium, the Alma Performance Arts Center, built by the city’s school district. Radio station KFPW of Fort Smith (17 miles from Alma) brought the band to Alma and broadcast the performance, and it plans to bring Alma the ghost band of Glenn Miller next year.
I went backstage to talk to Buddy Morrow, who runs the Dorsey band, taking it all over the country and on cruise ships for something like 150 performances a year. Morrow, a well-known trombone player, and one other player, Tom McGinley, tenor saxophone, were playing with Dorsey when he died in 1956. But more of a third of the band’s members weren’t even born when Dorsey died, which sort of supports Nat Hentoff’s argument that big bands may be coming back.
Morrow is 86 years old, and I asked him why he still goes on the road. “I enjoy it,” he said, surprised at my question. “I do it better than anyone else. Besides, it’s fun and better than sitting and looking at TV.” Morrow said that during his career — he’s played with Artie Shaw, Eddy Hutchin, Harry James, etc. — he had played several times in Arkansas. He also talked about an Arkansas friend of his and mine — Bitsy Mullins of Pine Bluff, a fine trumpet player well known in Las Vegas who died last year.
Speaking of jazz, we heard some on a Sunday in October played by Pharoah Sanders and his trio at the State House Convention Center. Sanders, a native of North Little Rock, where his mother gave music lessons, lives in California but came home for a weekend to be taken into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame.
Sanders, 64, a saxophonist, plays what’s called “free jazz,” which emphasizes sound, feeling and texture rather than melodies. It’s in the style of the great John Coltrane, the man who made new noise with his saxophone. Sanders played with Coltrane for several years, and when Coltrane died at 41, Sanders formed his own band.
Sanders’ opening tune that Sunday was “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” which he wrote and recorded in 1969. Garrick Feldman called it “Sanders’ masterpiece” in his newspaper, The Jacksonville Leader. Sanders walked to the microphone without saying a word and played it for 30 minutes. Frankly, that was too much for me, but things got better. His “My Favorite Things” was terrific as was his version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.”
The 100 persons who showed up to hear the trio were gratified. We liked everything they played better than “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “People Get Ready” and “Be My Baby,” three of the 500 “Greatest Songs of All Times” named in the Dec. 9 edition of Rolling Stone.
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