Big Band Swings Against History's Tide

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."

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