Our Big Band Battles
Our upcoming “Big Band Battle” with George Gee on May 27th sends me on a trip down Memory Lane; I recall many great moments from past battles.
Our first confrontation with another Big Band was no confrontation at all. It was billed as “Baltimore vs. Washington,” and was taped at Maryland Public Television’s studio on February 7-8, 1989. The B’more-based band, Zim Zemarel’s, taped on the 7th, then we taped on the 8th, so we never saw each other until the show first aired in March. The show had a long life; it was played for a while at every MPT fundraiser – so you know it got some airplay! I remember a lot of folks watched it one New Year’s Eve, while we were out of town in York, PA, being swindled (that’s another story). The show’s emcee, Ken Jackson, sponsored a live re-match downtown at the Lord Baltimore Hotel later that Spring. That’s when I met Chris Vadala, fresh off the road with Chuck Mangione. Chris now heads Jazz Studies at UMd.
Our second battle experience was memorable for several reasons. Tom Koerner produced and promoted this battle vs. NYC’s George Gee at Glen Echo on March 28, 1999. Tom has produced all the battles with out-of-towners, and has created many other special swing events here in DC since the 1990s. Anyway, Tom bragged to the Park authorities that the event was going to bring in 1500 dancers, so they naturally responded by invoking the ballroom’s fire code limits for the first time. We took a combo outdoors and serenaded some very agitated dancers who’d been surprised by the lockout. The combo changed their mood; they were dancing in line all the way down to the parking lot! Indoors the back & forth was terrific. Both bands had been honing their skills for swing dancers – George at his own club, Swing 46, in Manhattan, and us at America Restaurant in Tysons Corner Mall, an unusual venue sometimes called the “epicenter of the neo-swing movement.” When the dust settled the New York and DC musicians had a newfound respect, bond and camaraderie. George has been back here many times since. I’ve even subbed on his band as a trumpet sideman!
In July of 1999 we did two consecutive battles at America. First, the whole dang Bill Elliott Swing Orchestra with Cassie Miller and the Lucky Stars flew in from LA. We set up on opposite ends of the club and went back and forth until it literally got so hot that Bill’s guys called a short halt to set up velvet ropes around their bandstand – just so they could get some air! At the end of the night our soloists wandered down to their end for an amazing jam session. Bill’s band was full of Hollywood studio cats; I remember one of my trumpeters, Steve Eisen, telling me “If I’d known I was trading licks with Don Clarke I wouldn’t have been able to play a note.” I also remember telling Roger Neumann how I’d spent 50 hours transcribing his chart for Ray Charles’ “Beautiful Morning.” Roger said “Man, you should have asked me; I’d have given it to you!” Speaking of giving me charts, Bill opened up his whole book to me. Some of his charts have been cornerstones of our repertoire ever since. What a generous gentleman! Again, mutual respect and camaraderie were the order of the day.
Not so the very next week when we battled a 6-piece combo with a national rep called Indigo Swing. It was a mismatch, and the Indigo Swingers no doubt resented it; they didn’t mingle with us at all. I can’t imagine what they were thinking when they signed on to battle a 16-piece big band! Oh well, at least we got to play for lots of their fans.
In 2000, The Washington Post sponsored a three-way battle at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, but I never got to meet those other bands, because we had to go first, then race out to Tyson’s Corner to do our regular gig at America.
Four years later, the Post sponsored us in another battle at Carter Barron, vs. Eric Felten. The musicians all got along fine, but it was a weird battle: We came prepared with our best stuff, but Eric chose to use his very talented crew mainly as backup for his own vocals. So it was two bands in the ring, but only one swinging. Strange night, but it sure was a kick to see the dancers in the aisles getting down.
In 2012 the DC Lindy Exchange hired us to battle Glenn Crytzer from Seattle, who had won the previous year’s DCLX-sponsored battle vs. an LA-based band led by Jonathan Stout. Glenn pulled out all the stops, distributing pennants with his name on them, interjecting our shared number, Cotton Tail, with a surprise rendition of the Flintstone’s Theme, and generally turning the contest into blood sport. I’ve never been prouder of our band than that night, when Crytzer’s musicians gave us a standing ovation!
As bandleader, I have serious tunnel vision from the “podium.” It would be great to learn about other facets of what these high-energy events were like to experience. If you’ve attended any of our battles, I’d love to hear your personal observations, impressions, memories.
You won’t want to miss the Memorial Weekend battle. I can hardly wait for the re-match with George! He’s sure to load up with New York’s finest players, and put his band’s swingin’ foot forward. You can count on us to be loaded for bear. Bring both bands together and we’ll all be tootin’ through the roof! Be there or be square!
Posted in Tom Cunningham News