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Jacksonville: Big City, Big Band, Big Plans

Jack Bowers By

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Almost everyone who's even mildly interested knows that the big band scene in the US isn't what it used to be. On the other hand, the big bands aren't yet dead, as some alarmists have claimed, or even on life support. Thanks in part to college and armed services programs, there are perhaps as many or more admirable bands in cities large and small than there were during the peak of the so-called big band era. The problem is, fewer people are able to hear them, as economics have prevented the bands from traveling cross-country as they once did, thus giving rise to the premise that they are no longer viable. While that isn't really the case, there's no doubt that big bands as an entertainment choice are on the decline, and have been for some time now. But in places where big bands seem to have died, or at least disappeared, the news isn't uniformly grim; enterprising supporters have sometimes taken bold steps to help ensure their survival. One such place is Jacksonville, FL. In the midst of doom and gloom, it's a success story that should be heard.

In 1984, Jacksonville resident Ira Koger, having seen and assessed a need, formed the St. Johns River City Band to "help keep Jazz and American music alive through performance and education." One year later, the mayor and city council named the SJRCB Jacksonville's Official Band. That same year, the band entered into a long-standing partnership with the Duval County School Board. Its popularity grew throughout the 1980s, bolstered by an appearance at Carnegie Hall with guitarist Chet Atkins and performances with jazz legends Al Hirt, the last at the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

In May 1990, the state legislature designated the SJRCB Florida's Official Band, and it was chosen to take part in the 1990-92 State Touring Program. By this time, ancillary groups had been added (as of August 2009 the number is eight), and the Jazz in 3D Series showcased the brass and swing bands performing with pianist Dave Brubeck, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and singer Della Reese. Meanwhile, the SJRCB commissioned an anthological history, Jazz: A Great American Tradition, at four high schools. This provided the impetus for the St. Johns River City Youth Band, comprised of twenty-six students who performed at various events in the Jacksonville area. In March 1990, the SJRC Brass Band performed with trumpeter Doc Severinsen at the Florida Theatre.

With momentum now on its side, the St. Johns River City Band Guild was formed in 1992, while the band appeared with singer Rosemary Clooney, again at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. In 1994-95, Rhythm on the Road traveled to neighborhoods in Orange Park, Jacksonville Beach, Mandarin and Riverside, presenting free concerts, while the SJRCB was chosen again for the State Touring Program, a tradition that would continue for the next ten years. The band also performed in '95 at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, this time with Dr. John. Three new programs were begun in 1996-97. Lollipop Pops, in partnership with Theatreworks and AT&T, entertained about 3,500 children and their families. The SJRCB partnered with WJCT public radio for Oktoberfest, which drew more than 1,400 attendees. And through the mayor's office, the band performed for the Mayor's Intensive Care Neighborhoods program in Royal Terrace and College Gardens. As a bonus, the Maynard Ferguson band performed in concert and conducted afternoon clinics for local high school and college students.

The narrative since then epitomizes one achievement after another.

1998-99: The Youth Band presented a concert for 1,200 elementary school children from the Mayor's Intensive Care Neighborhoods on jazz instrumentation and sounds, and also performed for schoolchildren at Metropolitan Park. Jazzin' It Up concerts were presented for more than 3,000 elementary and middle school children. At the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, the band performed with the New York Voices and The Manhattan Transfer. As plans were being discussed on starting the SJRCB School of Music, the band established a concert series at a local college and performed in Hemming Plaza for Gov. Jeb Bush, at the Historical Society's Preservation Celebration, and at the inauguration ceremonies for Mayor John Delaney and Sheriff Nat Glover. Also in 1999, the SJRCB released its first CD, Swingin' Up the River. That summer, the band opened negotiations to purchase and renovate the historic Snyder Memorial Church to be used as a performance venue as well as an administrative office and home for the School of Music. Weekly concerts were held along with a summer music camp. In the fall, the organization was awarded two state grants for the renovation of the Snyder Church.

2000-2007: Besides taking part in the state's Touring Program, the SJRCB presented a Tribute to Benny Goodman at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, while more concerts were held in San Marco, Jacksonville Beach and other parts of Jacksonville. The Youth Band expanded to include a high school Jazz ensemble and middle school and high school concert bands. In December 2003, the St Johns River City Band was chosen to present the closing concert at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. In 2006, the SJRCB hosted the World's Largest Concert, an annual program of the National Association for Music Education. The concert is a world-wide music sing-along held in one day and coordinated by music educators. The band also performed with singer Diane Schuur at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

2008-2009: The SJRCB was again chosen to take part in the State Touring Program and opened the concert series at North Florida Community College, performing also at the Glenridge and Parker Ranch in Sarasota, at Advent Christian Village and at Santa Fe College's annual Boots 'n BBQ, and was featured with guitarist / singer John Pizzarelli at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. The band continues to support the mayor's office and the city's Office of Special Events, performing for more than 40,000 children and adults each year. Through a partnership with the Jacksonville Public Library, an annual holiday concert is presented for schoolchildren and the general public. The band recorded a DVD, Busy Betsy and the Big Big Band, a children's story written by Frances Key, and donated copies to preschools and elementary schools in Duval County. To celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, the SJRCB released its second CD, Silver Threads (see review in Big Band Caravan at AAJ), and was invited by the Daytona Beach International Festival to perform at its opening night dinner and gala for the London Symphony Orchestra.



Besides the River City Big Band, the SJRC ensembles now include River City Satin Swing: The Little Big Band (a nine-piece version of the larger band); River City Back Beat (a smaller ensemble providing light jazz and jazz education for schools); River City Brass Pack (a quartet or quintet that performs a variety of music from classical to pops for parties, weddings, schools and other events); River City 126 (one to six musicians who play at various events); St. Johns River City Brass Band (performing marches, patriotic themes and American folk songs); River City Fusion (three or four horns and rhythm blending jazz and rock); and River City Dixie Jazz (performing music reminiscent of New Orleans and Bourbon Street). All that in only twenty-five years! The SJRCB biography is a textbook example of what can (and should) be done to help resuscitate big-band Jazz. If you'd like more information about the band and / or its programs, e-mail diantha@RiverCityBand.com or go to the web site, www.RiverCityBand.com

Out and About

I must confess that during its first three years, for various reasons I won't summarize here, Betty and I have had almost no connection with the annual New Mexico Jazz Festival, held for two weeks each summer. That changed on Sunday, July 19, when I drove to Santa Fe (Betty was indisposed) to see and hear tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath leading the Generations Band in concert at the Lensic Theatre. I was prompted not only by the rare chance to see Jimmy but to check out one of my favorite young(er) tenors, Eric Alexander, who shared the front line with Heath, trumpeter Terell Stafford and alto saxophonist Andrew Speight. The concert was preceded by an afternoon "meet the musician" session in which Heath was interviewed by J.B. Spellman, former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who flew in from Washington, DC, to conduct the session. As it turned out, his was a relatively easy task, as Heath is an accomplished raconteur with a sharp memory and a wealth of interesting anecdotes. He is also, at age 82, a marvelous saxophonist, as he proved that evening. Alexander was also on his game, as was the former Aussie, Speight, and especially Stafford, a dynamo on every number. Once onstage, Jimmy Heath explained the group's name, the Generations Band: "The three guys standing next to me," he said, "are all in their forties; Eric's the youngest at exactly forty. Our pianist (David Hazeltine) is fifty, our bassist (Ray Drummond) is sixty, our drummer (Jimmy's brother, Tootie Heath) is seventy-four, and I'm not gonna say which one of us is in his eighties!"

The septet played one ninety-minute set without pause, opening with Billy Strayhorn's venerable "Take the 'A' Train" (well, they'd not had much time to rehearse). After Jimmy Heath's "The Quota," the front-liners played a "ballad medley," each one choosing one song. Stafford began with "Old Folks," Speight was up next with "Autumn in New York," followed by Heath ("Lover Man") and Alexander (Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time"). Blue Mitchell's lively samba, "Funjii Mama," preceded Jimmy Heath's solo feature, "'Round Midnight," and his funky "Gingerbread Boy," which would have ended the concert save for the audience's demand for an encore. For that, the band chose a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, "On Green Dolphin Street." A splendid concert all-round.

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