Saturday Diary: A musical big band of brothers

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In early 2007 I had a hankering to play big-band jazz, something I hadn't done since 1994.

So when Linda, the wife of Frank, lead trumpet player from an R&B band we played in a decade ago, called me that March to fill the baritone saxophone chair in a then 16-, now 17-piece band he was forming, my reaction was immediate: I gotta do this.

At first it was just about the music, one of my very favorite styles, but since has become so much more. I'm growing not just as a musician but also as a man.

Big bands, in large part because of the sheer number of "cats" required, don't get many gigs these days -- we've done no more than two a year, most recently in August at the Pittsburgh Dance Center in Bloomfield. However, they have always served as labs to try out new ideas as well as provide networking opportunities for musicians.

That's where the community that every man needs comes in.

I played sports as a kid, joined a fraternity 30 years ago while attending Pitt and today belong to a men's group at church, so I have some understanding of male bonding. But I've never experienced it quite like this.

Compared to everyone else in this band, I'm an amateur.

At 51, I'm the youngest member of the sax section. About half the members hold music degrees while, except for studying piano as a child and clarinet as an adult, I have virtually no formal training. I didn't decide to become a musician until my late 20s or even start hunting for gigs until 1999.

But I was accepted from the start. Our Monday rehearsals extend my weekend; I feel a void when we don't get together.

My contributions, wrong notes and all, are welcomed. One night during a break I honestly told Larry, a trumpeter and arranger, "I don't have the technical facility of the rest of the sax section, but I can play pretty; I can play with soul ... "

Frank, passing by, overheard that and added, "That's why you're in this band."

After a tiff with Sonny, one of our trombonists, the librarian, who kept the music books and stands and owned our original name, quit in a huff. Considering that he irritated many band members, his departure actually turned things around.

Quietly, we decided that we wanted this and that it would no longer be just Frank's thing. We brought our own music stands and arrangements, some of us writing them.

Sometimes Frank gets to rehearsal late. No matter -- down beat at 7:30 p.m. and either Joe or Ray, two fellow saxmen, directing in his absence.

Over time I noticed that belonging to this band was reigniting a long-dormant passion: writing music, which I've done off and on since I was 7. Frank has always encouraged us to bring in our own charts, with Joe, Larry and Ray serving as our primary in-house arrangers -- important, because arrangers give any band its overall sound. I bought a music notation computer program so that I could join their ranks.

Arranging for this band is giving me confidence in my musical abilities, especially since the other guys have demonstrated appreciation for what I do. So far our book contains five of my charts, three based on my own compositions.

After we went through the Crusaders-influenced "Special Events," a piece I originally wrote a quarter-century ago and decided to rework primarily to learn the program, our then pianist Jerry said, "I really like that chart."

It's one thing for non-musician friends to call something good. It's another thing entirely to have someone like Jerry, who has written himself and led his own band, to give his thumbs-up.

Last year I contributed "Blue Funk," which combines a 12-bar blues progression with an old-school vibe and a groove I lifted from flutist Dave Valentin's "Miss V." Joe, our elder statesman who admits that "I don't have much taste for funk," responded, "You know what you're doing."

Joe even had me e-mail the score to him in a .pdf file so that he could rewrite it for the octet that he leads because "I've always wanted to do a funky blues tune." As he understands that I'm averse to standards that already have been played to death, he's given me a "homework" assignment to chart a more-obscure tune, which I eventually will do.

The day before Memorial Day our bass trombonist, also named Rick, tied the knot (literally, since he comes from the Russian Orthodox tradition). He requested that we play for the wedding reception, and most of us immediately agreed even though we knew we wouldn't be paid. The guys who couldn't make it had either paying gigs or other work commitments that they couldn't break.

As part of that evening's repertoire he had given us a chart of Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" -- aside from being a big Genesis fan, he had also despaired of ever being married (with which I, still single but looking, commiserated).

But he wanted us there not just to provide free entertainment but also to share in his joy, as he has credited us with keeping him sane during some tough times he was experiencing about three years ago. In essence he was saying, Z'are m'boiz.

As we were breaking down, Frank commented that we've become like brothers. He was right, for as Rick said recently, "We can" -- and occasionally do -- "rip on each other during rehearsal."

After all, you can do that only to someone to whom you are close.


Rick Nowlin is a Post-Gazette news assistant (412-263-3871 or


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