Posts Tagged ‘Atlanta Seventeen’

Big Band Jazz at the Liberty: The Atlanta Seventeen

September 17, 2008

  I had barely come down from the high provided by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra’s inspired Beethoven concert Saturday night at the Bill Heard Theater, when I was lifted right back up there by the Atlanta Seventeen Sunday night at the Liberty. The locale was appropriate, since the Liberty, back when it was a “colored” theater in old Jim Crow days, featured the great big bands of the 1930’s and 40’s like Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Atlanta Seventeen played some of the Basie arrangements during the concert.

  It was a totally different type of music from what we heard Saturday at the Bill Herd Theater, but that swinging big band had something important in common with the CSO: it was also inspired. 

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Atlanta Seventeen (Courtesy: Borden Black)

  What’s more, it was exciting.  As the program states, “To experience this dynamic, well rehearsed ensemble in action is a delight for big band enthusiasts of all ages who identify with the kind of exceitemnt generated only by precision playing.” 

  I wish I could describe the way the music affected me, and judging by the thundering applause, everyone attending the Columbus Jazz Society sponsored concert, but it’s something that words just can’t convey. As the saying goes, “You had to be there.” And you really did, because there is no replacing the emotional impact of live music. As good as sound systems are, they still cannot match “being there.”

  While the band is made up mainly of Atlanta area professional and business types – one of its saxophonists is a dentist –  it has a large percentage of former high school and college band directors. Bob Greenhaw, who played with my late nephew Jack Gibson in the Columbus High Band, the teenage rock group “Abstracts,” and the Auburn Knights big band more than 40 years ago , is the leader.

  Greenhaw became a high school band director, teaching at Richards Middle School and than at Hardway High School in Columbus. He finished out his career as director of the music program at Valdosta State University.

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Bob Greenhaw, Atlanta Seventeen (Courtesy: Borden Black)

  When I spotted Paul VanderGheynst sitting on the second row, playing trombone, I thought the retired Columbus State University director of the school’s jazz music program had been brought in to fill in for a trombone player who couldn’t make the trip. Wrong. Though he still lives in Columbus, he is a regular member of the Atlanta Seventeen.  “If I want to play regularly I have to go to Atlanta, Dick. There is nothing here.”  Well, we do have the Cavaliers big band, but they don’t perform a lot.

  The current director of the CSU jazz program, which features an outstanding jazz big band, was sitting in for the Atlanta Seventeen’s pianist, who couldn’t make the trip.  Shirantha Beddage plays incredible jazz piano. He also specializes in saxophone.  He also brought some student musicians with him. They played jazz combo music during the jam session which featured local musicians during the Atlanta Seventeen’s break. He is also president of the Columbus Jazz Society, sponsor of this memorable concert at the LIberty Theater.

  The emcee and president of the Seventeen, Fritz Siler, also taught at Spencer High in Columbus.

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Fritz Siler, Atlanta Seventeen (Courtesy: Borden Black)

   Cecil Wilder taught at Rothchild Middle School and Kendrick High School.

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Cecil Wilder, Atlanta Seventeen (Courtesy: Borden Black)

 

   So, you can see that Columbus is well represented in this truly impressive big band.

  Having been a drummer for a couple of big bands many years ago, I always pay close attention to the drummer.  Tony McCuthcen, the Seventeen’s drummer, was truly impressive, especially when he played the late, great drummer Buddy Rich solos in the concert’s finale “Mexicali Nose.”  I figured he was probably another Atlanta businessman, but Stiler cleared that up for me. McCutchen is the director of percussion for the University of Georgia’s music program, which includes the more than 300-piece Red Coat Marching Band.    

  If you like jazz, I strongly recommend that you join the Columbus Jazz Society. It’s annual membership fees are reasonable, only $35 for an individual, $60 for a family, and $20 for seniors and students. For that you get to attend the monthly jazz sessions at the Liberty.  Believe me, if you like live jazz, you’ll enjoy these sessions. Also, it’s a friendly crowd. After all, they have something in common; they love music, especially when it is jazz.

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Great Orchestra, but Where Were the People?

September 16, 2008

    What a weekend. The Columbus Symphony raised the musical roof Saturday evening with one of the greatest warhorses in classical music, Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Then, on Sunday night, the Atlanta Seventeen blew everyone away with Count Basie-Buddy Rich-type big band jazz charts. 

  First, the Columbus Symphony season opener.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra

Courtesy: Columbus Symphony Orchestra

  As we sat on the front row of the balcony soaking in Beethoven emotion, I decided that the front row is not a good place to be in the balcony. You have to lean foward in order to see over the rail. We moved up to the second row after the intermission where the view was better. There was no problem moving almost anywhere you wanted in the balcony because there were plenty of empty seats.  

  What a shame. We have a first-rate orchestra, thanks to conductor George del Gobo, and all of the fine musicians, many of whom come from out of town. It was doing Beethoven justice – really outstanding performances.

Columbus Symphony Orchestra)

George Del Gobo, Musical Director, Columbus Symphony Orchestra (Courtesy: Columbus Symphony Orchestra)

  But where were the people?  Looking down from the balcony, I could see that the orchestra level had a lot of empty seats, too. But, that’s not as bad as it sounds. As the CSO’s Executive Director J.J. Musgrove said, “There are about 150 empty seats [on the orchestra level] , but that doesn’t represent a loss because they belong to season ticket holders.” He suggested that when season ticket holders can’t come, it would be a good idea to give the tickets to someone else so that they will be exposed to the symphony and maybe decide to buy a ticket in the future.

  Actually the symphony is doing right well in this economic downturn. Musgrove said the orchestra went against the national trend and had a budget surplus for the last two years. It was only $1,500, but that’s better than losing money. Also, the orchestra is not truncating its season the way a lot of big orchestras are doing right now, some cutting their season in half.

  No symphony orchestra can make it on ticket sales alone. Only 19 percent of the CSO’s budget comes from that. The rest comes from contributions by individuals and foundations. There is a small but generous corps of contributors for the Columbus orchestra.

  I asked Musgrove if symphonic music is losing its audience. He said, “We’ve been debating that one for a few hundred years.”  He did admit that keeping people coming depends greatly on their being exposed to the music when they are children, and he is concerned that elementary school music programs are the first to go any time there is a school budget crunch.  Also, a big factor is if they have ever played an instrument. He said studies have shown that about 70 percent of symphony concert audiences have played an instrument at some time in their lives.  I’m part of the 70  percent. Percussion was my game.

  You know, what he said makes me reflect back to my childhood. I don’t think I really heard any symphonic music until I was in the 4th grade at Wynnton  School. Up until then I was only exposed to popular music, vocalists like Bing Crosby, Wee Bonnie Baker, and Kate Smith, and big bands like Sammy Kaye, Glenn Miller and Kay Kyser. 

 My fourth grade teacher brought her own small record player to class and played some symphonic records for us from time to time. I was sitting on the other side of the room when she explained that she couldn’t turn up the volume any more because it might disturb other classes. She asked, “Is there anyone who can’t hear this well? If so, and you really want to hear it better, I’ll let you move closer to the record player.” I held up my hand.  I guess I didn’t look very cultural because she seemed really surprised that I wanted to hear that long-haired music better, but, she seemed pleased that I did and let me move closer. I wasn’t doing that for show. I really liked it and wanted to hear it better.  

  I never got over really liking it, and the first time I heard a live symphony performance I was really hooked.  I was in the Jordan Vocational High School Band at the time. Our band director Bob Barr said, “The whole band has been invited to attend the Three Arts League concert by the Pittsburg Symphony.” When questioned about who paid for the tickets, he said, “Some rich lady. She doesn’t want everyone to know who she is.”  My guess is that it was the late Virginia Illges, a primary backer of the League. She was instrumental in starting the Columbus Symphony and asked Barr to be its first conductor. Whoever it was, she also paid for the Columbus High Band to go. What a great gift. We were sitting right on the front two rows and when that grand orchestra cranked up, it was magical.    

  It does pay to provide musical education, because appreciating great music gives one pleasure all through life, especially when you can hear it live and played by a good orchestra.  Speaking of live and by a good orchestra, tomorrow  I’ll tell you about the wonderful evening of music provided by the Columbus Jazz Society on Sunday night. Stay tuned.