Big Band Swings Against History's Tide

Joe Elefante is not on some nostalgia trip. He is a thoroughly modern musician with a talent for harnessing the passion of fellow enthusiasts for the big band sound that once dominated its era the way hip-hop and rock 'n' roll have ruled theirs.

A few jazz dinosaurs still roam the Earth. But the big band, that budget-busting aggregation of 12, 15 or even 17 players, is caught in an economic ice age.

However, one young dinosaur is determined to break the ice, playing just 30 minutes drive -- or 30 light years worth of notice -- from Broadway.

Talent and Distinctiveness

The Cecil's Big Band has all the elements to stave off extinction, including a talented, charismatic leader, Elefante, a piano player and band leader.

"Perfect pitch, he has a great ear," said Dennis Argul, a trombonist in the band. "He has great colors when he writes for the band. And he's a lovable guy, too. I mean, willing to give whatever he needs to give to the band to be a success."

Joe Elefante's Cecil's Big Band has a sound of its own, its leader said.

"We don't sound like anybody else," Elefante said. "You should go see anything that's itself and nothing else, you know? There's nowhere else you can see the Joe Elefante Big Band except for Cecil's."

The band also features a slew of talented soloists, like lead alto saxophonist Bruce Williams, saxophonist Craig Yaremko, trumpeter Freddy Hendrix and trombonist Rick Stepton, who often tries to describe his band's sound to his elderly mother.

"Every Monday night I call her and I say, 'Mom, I'm going to my favorite $5 big band,' Stepson said. "And she says, 'What kind of music is it?' I say, 'Well, it's sort of like in between Buddy Rich and something really modern.' "

What It Lacks

The Cecil's Big Band does lack one final component of success -- a modern audience to match the crowds that used to turn out for the big bands of the past.

"More often than not, we outnumber the audience," Elefante said. "What can you do? You can't put a gun to people's heads and force them to come hear your band. As far as how we deal with it, when there's four or five in the room, we have a really hard time getting it up for four or five people. But if we can get even a dozen, 15, you know, it's just a show. You just do your show."

Stepton has done shows with big band names like Buddy Rich, Woody Herman and Maynard Ferguson. He's one of two veteran major leaguers playing for Elefante's youthful team.

"I love playing on this band," he said. "I think I'm lucky to be my age, and to be welcomed in this band. And to me, it's a privilege and not the other way around. I'm in the process of growth, and what better way to grow than to surround yourself by younger people?"

'Keeps Me Alive'

Legendary jazz critic Nat Hentoff, who writes about big-band jazz in his book, "American Music Is," came to hear the Elefante band the night ABC News recorded them. It is fair to say he was pleased.

"Wow," he said. "It was so exciting to hear that sound again.

"The sound was like a typhoon," he added. "I almost had to hug the wall. And it's that kind of power. But it was more than the power. The mixture of the two older guys who are part of the old scene, which is never old, and the younger guys in their 20s and 30s, I'll tell you, it's music that keeps me alive."

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