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."

When it comes to keeping the band really alive, the crucial element is having a regular place to play. Providing that place is Cecil Brooks III, the respected jazz drummer, record producer and -- for the last year and a half -- proprietor of the club Cecil's in the New York City suburb of West Orange, N.J.

"The arrangements are much tighter," Brooks said. "You can hear … a lot of the cohesiveness is coming together."

But is he making a buck on Monday nights?

"Well, not at the moment," Brooks admitted. "It's just not economically feasible to be able to pay 17 guys to come together. But a sympathetic club owner with empathy toward musicians, who happens to be a musician, can deal with the bumpy road and can go along for the ride until we get there."

Excitement and Romance

Big bands didn't always lack for an audience. Starting in the late 1920s, big bands like Duke Ellington's became dominant in jazz -- and by the mid-1930s, dominant in American popular music.

"They were rolling through the night like lit-up trains, going to big cities, rural towns, playing proms," Hentoff said. "And they brought two things: They brought excitement and also romance, because they played for dancing."

This was key for the big bands like Benny Goodman's or Artie Shaw's. People bought records and tickets for the bands they danced to.

"The big bands created dreams," Hentoff said. "My fantasy was some day there'd be an opening in the Ellington reed section and Duke would say, 'Why don't you try out?' "

Day Jobs

Yaremko, the saxophone player, lives that dream of playing professionally in a big band each Monday.

"I get my soloing opportunities and that's great," he said. "But to make the saxophone section sound grand, and to see where that role is within each composition, is really, really important and helps contribute to just make the band sound great."

Yaremko's chance to play in the Cecil's Big Band reed section forced him to restructure his Mondays.

"I always definitely like to make sure I practice," he said. "I have to play alto, soprano saxophone and flute. So obviously, [I need to] try to hit all those horns, make sure I'm feeling good with that. And then, actually, [I] usually spend most afternoons on Monday teaching. So my head's in the music, and by the time I get here I'm really, you know, psyched to play."

Bass trombonist Argul teaches mornings and afternoons Monday through Friday at Newark's High School of the Arts. Although his Monday is more complicated than Yaremko's, it comes to the same conclusion.

"I teach here until 3:30, usually -- 3:00, 3:30," he said. "I have a wife and four children -- all girls. So, my next stop is there, usually. Drive to soccer practice and pick up from this dance practice. And if I pick up and drop off the right child at the right place at the right time, it's a victory.

"And then I leave my house at 8:00, get to Cecil's by 8:40, prepare for the gig and hit," he added. "As an art form, big band music is not on every street corner in every town, so the opportunity to play that kind of music on a regular basis excites me."

Sound of Surprise

Like the classic big bands, Joe Elefante's Cecil's Band can play hot or sweet, as in flugel horn player Hendrix's tune "For Sarah."

"I think that Freddy Hendrix's flugel horn sound is one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard in my life," Elefante said. "It is absolutely amazing and it gets me every single time."

Elefante said his band always serves up what one critic famously called "the sound of surprise."

"Almost every solo" is surprising, Elefante said. "I'm so blessed, and I don't mean to grandstand, but just by having such great musicians in my band that are able to do anything, surprises me. At any point, they're gonna play something that they've never played before, at least never played for me. And that's what I love. I don't like safe playing. I'm not into safe."

Triple A

Lead alto and soprano saxophonist Bruce Williams has had a lot to do with the Cecil's Big Band's survival. He books the club, hired Joe to lead its big band, and soon discovered that he had installed his own workshop and showcase.

"Playing in the big band really hones your skills," he said. "It helps you learn how to blend, work on the intonation, build camaraderie with other musicians. And also, you get to hear other people solo, and hear things inside the composition in terms of harmony and texture."

In the band, Williams is a star and a model.

"Bruce's playing is like a freight train," Elefante said. "It's awesome -- just got a lot of life. It's got a lot of fire. It's bright, alive."

"When Bruce Williams is soloing," added Yaremko, "I mean, you just want to sit there and clap your hands and … get into it. I mean, it's just really great to have that much energy going throughout the band and throughout the room."

Recently, Williams got his major league opportunity to play for a week at New York's famous Village Vanguard, a kind of Yankee Stadium of jazz venues.

"It means everything to me," he said, "because I love John Coltrane and Jackie McLean and McCoy Tyner, all these people that have played here. And I really aspire to be on their level at some point."

Opportunities like this are only going to come more often for Williams and Hendrix. And Elefante knows that their Monday nights in West Orange may soon be superseded by something better paying.

"I'm sure he'd like to be doing more major league work," Elefante said of Williams. "I'm sure he will be doing more major league work, but he's there. He's arrived. Freddy [has] gotten a couple of swings in the majors, but he's, he's about the top cat in triple A right now. Number one prospect."

Meanwhile, soloing, section work and just playing inside a swinging big band is opportunity enough for veteran Stepton.

"Sitting in the middle of the band is really overpowering," he said. "That sheer power and energy of all the harmonies, all the voices, all the sections, just propelling themselves forward in a musical way. … I guess it might be like being at a concert where you're in the middle of a crowd that's just screaming for whomever is there. And you know how that feels when you're surrounded by that? That's the way it sounds. It's like indescribable."

Up and Comers

Like most working musicians, Elefante also is a teaching musician, giving private lessons at his family's music shop.

"They don't have to be talented," he said. "They don't have to be motivated. They just have to want to be there and want to learn."

For his very best students -- the ones who are dedicated, musical and sharp -- Elefante has an invitation, a band they might join.

"You hear this thing in your head, and you hear all the colors and the sounds," he said. "And then to hear it actually come to life, it never sounds quite like it does in your head. It's always got a life of its own."

In agreement is the club owner. Brooks can't resist getting behind the drum kit.

"It's really magnificent to have that kind of force behind you, especially as a drummer," he said. "You get a chance to really experience the full wrath and power of being a drummer, playing with a big band. And I think it's a great experience."

'It's Got Fire'

Hendrix sees it as a sort of holy rocking.

"That's basically church, you know?" he said. "The band is our congregation. And the bandstand, that's where we jump for joy. That's where we scream and shout."

Hentoff, who's been listening to sounds like these for more than 50 years, hopes his grandchildren will be so lucky.

"There is no sound in any of music I know that is more galvanizing," he said. "No matter what's going on in the world, for at least the moment or the time you're listening, you're lifted out of yourself and back in, feeling just great."

Dinosaur alert. We have a spotting in West Orange today. And tomorrow, a big band could go thundering by near you.

"You can't match that sound," Elefante said. "It's powerful. It's dynamic. It's got range. It's got fire. You know, there's 17 different people contributing to it. That's what makes it so great."

ABC News originally reported this story Feb. 18, 2005, on "Nightline."