The Olney Big Band plays swing music from the 1930’s-1940’s era. Yet the fact it is able to play in different styles and perform diverse material makes its unique repertoire accessible to all age groups. Indeed, the band is able to capture the audience’s attention and interest by playing a variety of jazz styles, such as jazz, swing, and bossa nova. Even atmospheric Christmas and New Year’s music can be heard in the course of a performance, played using different sections (brass and reeds), and finally combining different sections and percussion instruments into a melody.
The band performs at the annual Olney Theatre Centre’s Historic Stage in Olney each November and also occasionally at the Art Deco Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo Park. I recently had a chance to hear this jazz orchestra at the holiday “Festival of Lights” at the Latter-day Saints Temple Visitors’ Center in Kensington, Maryland.
The Olney Big Band understands that part of a swing band’s appeal is not only musicianship but showmanship.
The music was “‘Swonderful,” to quote the Gershwin song title which was one of their first pieces, along with another Gershwin piece, “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Swing legend Benny Goodman’s “Swingtime in the Rockies” was played, and drummer Ralph Cornwell started off “Sing, Sing, Sing,” another Goodman number, with a traditional beat for the song. The clarinet solo, however, was not identical to the classic recording by Benny Goodman but certainly carried the spirit of it.
Glenn Miller’s “American Patrol” used blaring trumpets and smooth saxophones to help imitate the Miller sound, and the band dedicated the piece to all those in the military who are serving the country. The MC, and lead trombonist David Cannon explained that there is a memorable “riff” motif in Glenn Miller’s “Tuxedo Junction,” and that “plumber’s helpers” are used on trombones to give them a fluctuating, muted quality. The trombone players demonstrated this sound before playing the song in full.
Another educational moment was when a phrase from bandleader Guy Lombardo’s classic version of “Auld Lang Syne” was played to illustrate the vibrato in the saxophone section. Though it was interesting to learn about the Lombardo-style vibrato, it would have been nice to hear all of “Auld Lang Syne” in the Guy Lombardo Royal Canadian style, as the concert was held not that long after the turn of the new year.
In a throwback to the 1960’s, the Olney Big Band played Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” in bossa nova style with a warm vocal by Brad Bawek. One of the best pieces to show the unity of the orchestra’s brass and reed section was “Canadian Sunset,” with resounding trumpets and a melodious saxophone section.
Pulling out his own retro microphone and wearing a Frank Sinatra-style fedora, vocalist Matt Williams accurately imitated Sinatra’s “Where or When“ and particularly “New York, New York,” with the legendary singer’s characteristic intonation of the lyrics. Dressed in a cooking apron, Mr. Williams then reappeared and sang “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House” with enormous personality, this time in the Cab Calloway style. He encouraged the audience members in the two front rows to participate as he sang each humorous name from the song, and pointed—with his cooking spatula—at audience members to stand, and they did so one by one. At the end of his number, Mr. Williams gave a couple of presents out to audience members, which reflected the home-like hospitality nature of this song – and indeed the Olney Big Band performance. The Olney Big Band understands that part of a swing band’s appeal is not only musicianship but showmanship.
Although I became interested in swing music through my grandfather (who was from the World War II generation), Olney Big Band stalwart and saxophonist Dave Schumer explained a different exposure to this form of music popular in the middle of the twentieth century: “Some of the people in the band, as myself, played this kind of music in their high school big band. Many high schools still have big bands today that also play music from the 30’s, 40’s, and beyond.”
The music of the Olney Big Band as well as its showmanship and explanations of big band sounds and effects may lead more young people to get involved in preserving this unique American style of music, whether in their high school or college years.
The next performance of the Olney Big Band is coming soon to St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church at 6701 Muncaster Mill Road in Derwood, Maryland. It is a Haiti Benefit Concert to be performed on Saturday, January 18, 2020, from 7:30 – 9:30 p.m.