Big-band jazz revives memories of another era in Berwyn

Swingin' Sabbath

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By John Rice

Contributing Reporter

Earth-shaking, big-band jazz every Sunday evening.

FitzGerald's, the Berwyn nightclub on Roosevelt Road, has a long tradition of booking swing bands for the Sabbath but recently they've allowed a new organization to find the talent for the third Sunday of the month. The Chicagoland Big Band Jazz Society is committed to the historical study of the genre, supporting Sundays at FitzGerald's and promoting the future of big-band jazz.

The founders are Dr. Bob Novak and Harry Condon. It was their idea to book the Shout Section Big Band, fronted by songstress Maureen Christine, for the show on Oct. 16. Despite competition from the Bears, the joint was packed with a diverse bunch of big-band enthusiasts.

The 16-piece Shout Section swung through classics like "Take the A Train," "One O'Clock Jump," and "My Favorite Things." They generated a roof-raising wall of sound, energizing an enthusiastic foot-stomping audience. FitzGerald's 1930s roadhouse décor provided the perfect setting for the music.

The swing was irresistible, punctuated by blasts of sonic brilliance. As many as four couples were dancing at a time. One hoofer is still leading at the age of 85. Even kids could be found in the audience of this truly all-ages show.

Between instrumentals, Maureen Christine grabbed the mic. Her soulful pipes soared above muted trombones on "The Street Where You Live." Next was the slow-tempo torcher, "Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me," which evolved into a sassy shouter, accented by a full-throated trombone solo. Before her third number, Christine recounted how Nat King Cole got the idea for the song from listening to one of his father's sermons. During "Straighten Up and Fly Right" she swung breezily, with saxes echoing her supple vocals.

"Basie Power," aka swing on steroids, featured driving tenor sax solos, propelled by pulsating percussion. But the band was equally effective at quiet, lilting ballads like "Cathy's Song." They even veered into folk rock territory with "Country Roads."

Band leader Brett Dean was first inspired to play big-band music, fittingly enough, by listening to a "Live from FitzGerald's" CD when he was 13. "Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Billy May — that became my popular music." The trumpeter also teaches music to middle-schoolers in St. Charles.

The Shout Section Big Band came together three years ago. They rehearse not far from FitzGerald's at Riverside-Brookfield High School but this was their first gig at the Berwyn club.

"It's fantastic." Dean said, "The sound is great and the history is incredible."

Christine, who was singing with the band for the first time, is married to Michael Bazan, who plays alto sax for the Shout Section. She was also taken with FitzGerald's. "It has nice acoustics and the energy level is incredible. During the third set, people were stomping their feet so hard, I could feel the floor move."

Big-band music has been moving Christine, since she started singing at 16. "My grandpa was a big fan. It's such happy music and it appeals to a wide demographic." She sings selections from the Great American Songbook with various bands and pops orchestras. She used to average almost a hundred engagements a year before the recession reduced demand.

Her CD, My Romance, was pre-nominated for a Grammy but didn't make the final cut. Some guy named Harry Connick won that year.

The unmistakable sound of Duke Ellington got the second set off to a rousing start. "A Train" featured a rip-snorting solo on tenor sax, followed by a stratospheric trumpet solo. Nearing the finale, the band started a slow build, the subterranean theme rising from the sax section to encompass the whole thundering ensemble. After the shattering climax, Christine took the spotlight again for "Almost Like Being in Love."

"50 MPH" had even the kids in the audience bobbing their heads to the driving beat and blaring horns. Club Owner Bill FitzGerald encourages young people to be part of the audience. In fact, he books youth ensembles like the OPRF Jazz Band to open for the professionals.

As for the pros, FitzGerald's has a generous arrangement with them. "They get about ninety percent of what we take in at the door," Fitzgerald said, referring to the $10 cover. "So the more people we have, the more fun it is and the more money the band makes."

The Shout Section Big Band is only one of many swing ensembles the club books on Sundays. Mainstays include the Chicago Grandstand Big Band, Bill O'Connell's Chicago Skyliners and the brilliant John Burnett Orchestra. The club also books special guests like the Brienn Perry Orchestra, which took the stage on Oct. 30.

Getting back to the "amateurs" who are fighting to keep big band alive, Novak, aka the Jazz Doc, is a semi-retired obstetrician from Riverside. He grew up during the big-band era, which encompassed 1935 to 1950 by his estimation. This was a time when as many as 600 big bands criss-crossed the States. The classically trained clarinetist even led his own swing ensemble from 1948-52. He played piano with his group, which was booked virtually every weekend. He counts Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington among his personal favorites.

What happened to big band?

"TV and rock 'n' roll ruined it," the Jazz Doc complained, "We're trying to resurrect the memories, promote the present and raise funds for the future." He hopes they can underwrite music scholarships for students and pay for musicians to introduce this "danceable music" to schools.

Condon also came of age during the "Swing Era." He's a huge fan of Sundays at FitzGerald's, traveling all the way from his home in Crete for his weekly fix. "These are bands that make you say 'Wow'! What a great sound — so dynamic, so precise, with solos playing on top and bottom."

He identifies be-bop as the culprit that killed big-band jazz. The former trumpet player understood artists like Miles Davis, musically and melodically, but he just didn't care for the style. When big-band jazz left the radio, "Europe took our music and ran with it," Condon said. "Jazz wasn't appreciated here, but they welcomed it with open arms."

Happily for jazz buffs, an oasis appeared in the desert of pop music when FitzGerald's conjured its Sunday swing sessions in 1983. Still, the jazz society founders feared their music was on the verge of extinction.

"There used to be hundreds of dance clubs like the Willowbrook," Novak said. "Now there are two left in the U.S. There's only about 75 live music venues left in the whole Chicago area.

Rather than cursing the silence, the duo decided to light a fire. In 2010 they launched their Chicagoland Big Band Jazz Society, with 120 members so far, subscribing to their quarterly newsletter. Their goal is to raise the membership to 1,000. After they secure their non-profit status, they plan to hold fundraisers for their scholarship program.

So far, booking bands has not been a problem. "We have more bands than dates," Novak said. "I didn't know so many bands existed. They're coming to us." They're also getting requests from other venues seeking the big-band sound.

For those who would like to support the society, or subscribe to its newsletter, their website is chicagolandbigbandsociety.org. Patrons can also write to them at P.O. Box 404, Riverside, IL 60546, or call the Jazz Doc at 708-447-8696.

But enthusiasts can also get behind the society simply by coming to FitzGerald's on Sunday evenings. The foot-stomping starts at 6 p.m.

J. GEIL/Photo Editor | Buy this picture at WednesdayJournalOnline.MyCapture.com

 

J. GEIL/Photo Editor | Buy this picture at WednesdayJournalOnline.MyCapture.com

 

J. GEIL/Photo Editor | Buy this picture at WednesdayJournalOnline.MyCapture.com

like it was yesterday: The musical past is present during big-band night.

J. GEIL/Photo Editor | Buy this picture at WednesdayJournalOnline.MyCapture.com

Reader Comments

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OP - Frank  

Posted: November 10th, 2011 6:50 AM

FizGeralds is a great place. Thanks for doing business as you do. They are providing for an opportunity of part of History.

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