Saturday Diary / Big fan of the big band

Back then, I was wherever the Balcony Big Band was performing . . .

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From 1989 to 2002 my whereabouts on Monday nights were no mystery — I was wherever the Balcony Big Band was performing.

Whether at the posh Shadyside supper club where it served as the house band or Foster’s at the Holiday Inn in Oakland, the James Street Restaurant, Dowe’s on 9th or the Chapel of Blues, places where it played after the Balcony closed at the end of 1997, I could almost always be found there. The only time I ever remember missing consistently was when I was taking a Monday night class at the University of Pittsburgh.

I had met Howard “H.B.” Bennett, the band’s founder, leader and drummer who booked entertainment for the club, in the video department of the Shakespeare Street Giant Eagle, where I worked at the time. We began talking about jazz, and he asked me to stop down on a Monday (the band played on Mondays to emulate the decades-long big-band tradition in New York).

Since I’d always enjoyed big-band jazz, I took him up on the invite and was hooked almost immediately. The personnel originally comprised many of the then-younger (20s and 30s) jazz musicians in Pittsburgh.

I appreciated especially that the band played a lot of fusion — popular then and even today my chief musical passion — when it started out, but even after it shifted to a more straight-ahead style of jazz, I kept coming. Being a regular, I became friendly with many of the musicians, and since I was a “cat” in my own right, although not playing much actively at the time, we were able to shoot the breeze. I even offered Mr. Bennett one of my arrangements, to which he responded, “You’re a hell of a copyist,” but he declined to take it because it was my only copy. (Charts had to be handwritten in those days.)

Over time the band would become an institution, even reaching beyond jazz. Three years later it received an nomination for “Band of the Year” in the now-defunct In Pittsburgh newsweekly, quite a feat for a group that didn’t play pop-rock, and it released an album, “Seasoned to Taste,” featuring arrangements by band members, primarily trumpet soloist Ralph Guzzi. My favorite tunes in its book: The funky “Heart of the Matter” by Bob Mintzer, the ballad “Last Season” by Maria Schneider and the Latin “Later That Same Day” by Mike Tomaro.

The band also knew how to put on a show. A consistent crowd pleaser was the rollicking set-closer “A Good Time Was Had By All,” originally by the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and during which the saxophone section, after trading off solos, sauntered into the audience and, upon its return to the bandstand, even shimmied a little during a four-bar break in the shout chorus.

Of the hundreds of times I’ve seen the band through the years, two performances stick out.

Just before Christmas of 1995, if I remember correctly, a college-age African-American with an “I’m-so-lucky-to-get-this-gig” vibe was playing fourth trumpet (literally, cornet). He got one solo at the end of the first set.

Blew. The. Room. A. Way.

The performance got a thunderous ovation. Mr. Bennett, in his dry matter-of-fact introduction style, simply pointed to him and said to the audience, “Sean Jones …” — probably the first time anyone had heard of him.

One 1998 night at Foster’s, the band was down a tenor saxophone player and Matt Ferrante, who also played tenor in the band and whom I had met at high school district band, gestured toward me and wiggled his fingers. You wanna play? he was asking.

By this time starting to play out a little bit, I went home and grabbed my gear, including a clarinet and flute, figuring that I might need those as well. (I did get paid, by the way.)

I soon learned, however, that it’s one thing to listen to a certain band’s music. It’s another thing to actually play it, and for the most part I was in over my head, especially on one tune that called for a clarinet, which I didn’t play that well to begin with. Though my playing has greatly improved since then — I later took three years of clarinet lessons — I’m still not sure if I could handle it.

In 2001, I interviewed Mr. Bennett for the Post-Gazette for what was billed as the band’s final performance, again at Foster’s, though it would re-form the next year at the Chapel of Blues on the West End. But I eventually stopped going because I had begun playing pickup basketball on Mondays and felt at the time that my health was more important. Eventually the Chapel became defunct, as did the band.

A couple of years ago, to my extreme surprise, I learned the band had re-formed — again. So I went up to Jergel’s Rhythm Grille in Marshall, where it was playing, to check it out.

While there, I got another surprise: I was actually a bit bored, even while watching “A Good Time Was Had By All.” Although the music was pretty much the same, it just didn’t hit me the way it had so many years ago.

Part of that might be because for the last seven years I’ve belonged to and, for the last four or five, written for another big band which rehearses on Mondays. Truth be told, I prefer playing with our band than simply listening to another one.

And then, only one original member, Mr. Guzzi, is still there, albeit playing a different chair, although some of the newer cats I do know.

If you’re curious, the band, which is playing every last Monday of the month during the summer and returns on a weekly basis come September, apparently still draws a crowd at Jergel’s. But, on an emotional level, I’ve moved on.

In 2001 Mr. Bennett said, “It’s run out of steam.”

For me, in 2014, it apparently has as well.

Rick Nowlin is a Post-Gazette news assistant (412-263-3871 or rnowlin@post-gazette.com).


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