Calgary: A Big Band Haven?

Calgary Jazz Orchestra 

For awhile now, I’ve known about Calgary’s Prime Time Big Band that performs regularly at the Ironwood in Inglewood. However, over the holidays, I was invited by friends to join them at a performance of Johnny Summers and the Calgary Jazz Orchestra’s “A Perfectly Frank Christmas.” While at the concert, I began to wonder, “how many big bands are there in Calgary?” 

Serendipitously, one of the other guests in our concert fivesome was John Towell, who is a trombonist and part of Calgary’s Big Band community.  When asked about Calgary’s Big Band music scene, he quickly exclaimed, “I don’t know if Calgary is a unique haven for big bands. It’s possible something similar happens in many cities. But it’s certainly ‘under the radar’ – people are often surprised to discover the level of activity here. And the big bands are just part of the picture. Add in concert bands, orchestras, choirs and numerous smaller groups and you realize there are a huge number of Calgarians actively involved in our music scene.” 

Trombone section. Wednesday Night Big Band (photo credit: Gerry David)

We continued our conversation about Calgary’s “big band” music scene after the concert at The Nash’s Sunday Dinner (probably the best meal I had in 2015; the $39 family style meal was as my two-year old friend would say, “DELICIOUS”). I wasn’t home more than an hour and I received an email from John saying, “here is a reasonably complete big band list for Calgary – there could be more.”

 

 

Calgary's Big Bands

 Source: “Anthony’s Community Music Pages” (Anthony Reimer: jazzace.ca/music)

Big Bands 101

During our discussion, I asked John what is the definition of a “Big Band” and he quickly said they usually have about 20 musicians and singers. The standard line-up is five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, 3 to 4 rhythm instruments (piano, bass, guitar and drum) and one or more singers.

He went on to explain that not all “Big Bands” are called Big Bands. They may also be called Jazz Orchestras, Jazz Bands or Swing Bands (the latter 2 terms can also refer to smaller groups). Bands that get together primarily for fun (vs. money) may also be referred to as rehearsal bands, reading bands, hobby bands, weekend warriors or ‘kicks’ bands. Who knew?

Wednesday Night Big Band (photo credit: Gerry David)

Calgary’s Big Band Community

In Calgary, Big Band musicians come from all walks of life, from high school students to 80+-year-old seniors; from enthusiastic amateurs to talented professionals as good as you would find anywhere. It is a true community.

Some of Calgary’s Big Bands focus on dance music of the big band ‘swing’ era, while others are more into the jazz repertoire of the 1940’s to present. Most bands perform commercially available arrangements (charts), although a few feature compositions and arrangements by local musicians (i.e. Johnny Summers/Calgary Jazz Orchestra, Calgary Creative Arts Ensemble).

You will find Calgary’s big bands performing in all kinds of venues – nightclubs, churches, Legions, community centres, schools and senior citizens’ centres are the most common.

The Calgary Jazz Orchestra’s two sold-out “A Perfectly Frank Christmas” performances, for example were held at the River Park Church in Marda Loop. The made me wonder, “how many churches in Calgary double up as concert halls?” A quick check of their website and it looks like RPC is the home of CJO’s! (Perhaps Churches as Concert Halls could be the subject of a future blog)

I digress. Arguably the best spot to experience Calgary’s Big Band on a regular basis is the Saturday brunch with Prime Time Big Band at the Ironwood Stage & Grill in Inglewood (now in its 13th season and likely the only regular event of this kind in Canada). Every two weeks, the 20-piece Prime Time plays a new program to packed houses. All ages and backgrounds come to hear music ranging from Duke Ellington classics to The Big Phat Band’s exuberant contemporary tunes. Founded 20 years ago by bandleader Dave Jones, Prime Time’s membership is made up of almost all of the city’s most veteran jazz musicians, including Eric Friedenberg (on saxophones and woodwinds), Al Muirhead (on trumpet and flugelhorn), Brian Walley (on trombone), Kai Poscente (on bass) and John de Waal (on drums), playing alongside more recently established local pros and invited international guests. Hint: Order your tickets early, as it is almost always a sell-out.

If you are interested in a specific band’s performances they are usually publicized via each band’s own mailing list, website and Facebook page. Another good source of public performances is the JazzYYC website (jazzyyc.com).

Wednesday Night Big Band (photo credit: Gerry David)

Last Words

Given what must be hundreds, if not thousands of big band musicians calling Calgary home and many thousands more attending their concerts, it puzzles me that Calgary has struggled over the past 25 years to create a vibrant and viable Jazz Festival or a jazz club (like the now closed Beat Niq). 

Up close and personal....

Towell disagrees, “The rumours of demise of jazz in Calgary is highly exaggerated.  The JazzYYC Society has revived Calgary’s Summer Jazz Festival after superstitiously avoiding the “F” word for a couple of prior years’ events. And a scan of events on the JazzYYC website, or in Calgary Herald’s Swerve magazine, reveals Calgarians can get out and hear live local jazz musicians almost any day of the week. Go listen!"

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