Written by: Steve Kirby
You might think of past eras when you think of big bands, and it’s true that Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and others took their bands to the highest levels, providing us with many beloved standards. But big bands continue to be popular and relevant, performing not only music from the swing era, but music that is being composed and developed in a modern context.
Winnipeg audiences love big band. They have been supporting the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra for several decades, and the young musicians coming up through the high school system graduate with a lot of enthusiasm for both the structure and the repertoire of the big band. For those of you who heard the University of Manitoba Jazz Orchestra at this year’s Rent Party, you’ll know that our up-and-coming musicians are taking on the big band challenges at a very high level!
We have the audiences. We have musicians. Now we’re creating a way to connect those two elements with a third: people who compose and arrange.
That’s where the Big dig! Band comes into the picture.
Derrick Gardner and I have been kicking around the idea of a big band since Derrick got here almost four years ago now. Derrick is an alumnus of the Count Basie Orchestra and the Harry Connick Jr Big Band, and I played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band, and Slide Hampton and The Jazz Masters. Derrick Gardner is a protégé of the Frank Foster, one of Count Basie’s most trusted arrangers. I studied with Manny Albam (the dean of jazz composition in the US for many decades) as part of my masters degree program at the Manhattan School of Music. Both of us have composed and arranged many charts for big band—and we know how tricky it is to get a good reading of your scores once you step away from your composing suite.
Realizing that most jazz musicians are composers as well as players, and knowing that it is difficult to get people to read or play your music for free after you leave the education system, we arrived at a working model that lets us reach out to all interested jazz musicians. We hope to excite young musicians to reach new levels of proficiency, and share some great music along the way.
The Big dig! Band is community-based jazz orchestra with a mandate to get more of a flow from the high-level professionals to the up-and-coming youngsters, to the jazz warriors who are now coming back to jazz, to locals out there doing their own thing. Derrick is taking on the role of Principal Conductor. I’m the Artistic Director. We both share management duties.
The band’s structure is a lot like the Mingus Jazz Workshops from the late 50s and early 60s. Those gatherings gave people a chance to bring things they’d composed, and have them workshopped, with the option to refine them and bring them back, and perhaps even have them performed in a concert setting. This is a big part of our mandate. We’ll workshop compositions and arrangements by local musicians, and offer feedback on the spot, all in an open rehearsal context. We’ll also work through some of the rich existing repertoire, and discuss the whole range of issues relevant to big band and to jazz itself—things like arranging, innovation, tradition, musicianship, improvisation, and all the stuff on the fringes.
We’ve gathered top-notch players from around the city, and for the workshop sessions, we’re inviting up-and-comers to sit next to us and read the charts. If you’re trying to up your game, this invitation is for you: once a month, a lot of new material will be sitting on music stands, and you have a chance to sit next to somebody who can read it, and immerse yourself in the big band experience and culture. The open rehearsal structure will also appeal to audiences who love this music and who are curious about what happens behind the scenes when musicians learn new music and refine their performance techniques.
The other face of the Big dig! Band is that it is also a performing ensemble. After the workshop session, there’ll be an intermission, and then the band will present a concert showcasing a wide range of big band material, from the fabulous repertoire and arrangements that have made this format so successful, to lesser known innovative works that rarely get heard, to brand new compositions and arrangements by local musicians.
What we’re creating is a place where we hope to uphold cultural identities while erasing cultural boundaries. It’s a melting pot and a divining point at the same time. We want it all to happen in the public sphere, every bit of it: the rehearsing, the performing, the feedback and discussion. We think that connecting all the parts of the community, those who make the music at every level and those who listen, will generate a new level of excitement and satisfaction—plus we’ll have a chance to encounter a lot of great music together!
We’ll be playing at the Good Will, a new and trendy café-club-performance venue on Portage Avenue, near the University of Winnipeg. There’s tasty pizza and excellent coffee, and a club vibe that’s easy and warm. There’s also a big enough stage to accommodate 18 or more players for our concerts, plus interested sit-in company for our open rehearsals.
Come for the workshop if you’re keen to see the inner workings. Come later if you just want to hear the concert. Whether you’re an aspiring musician, a composer-arranger, or an avid lover of the big band format, we want you to join us. Be a part of the ride!