Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller--the iconic names of big band jazz music stir fond memories for many, whether evoking nostalgic feelings around events or just as a reminder of the swingin' rhythms that make listeners want to tap their toes whenever they hear it. And though some might think otherwise, it's not a type of jazz music relegated to the past. Edmonton's Don Berner is making sure of that.
Now at the helm of his own big band, saxophonist Berner is a true aficionado; a long-time player bringing together a troupe of talented horn, reed and rhythm musicians to salute the legends, and introduce new compositions to a loyal following--old and not so old. This year's concert-style offerings (each exploring a different theme in the big band genre) is testament to Berner's determination to keep the music alive and in front of audiences, whether in an intimate and acoustically-rich church setting, or even an occasional collaboration with swing dance organizations or community clubs in town.
"It's not constantly about educating an audience--it has to be fun," said Berner, who studied music at Grant MacEwan College in the mid-90s alongside many of his present band mates. "I use Tommy's (Banks) formula--get the best musicians you can and highlight them with solos as appropriate."
Music that challenges players; engages audiences
Berner's strategy is a solid one, as his big band becomes one of just a few professional ensembles presenting a full concert season this year. The Don Berner Big Band is noteworthy for usually featuring an 18-piece ensemble (trombone, three trumpets, five saxophones, a rhythm section--bass, percussion, piano--and vocalist) when few such sizeable groups still exist on the pro scene. Because of COVID-19, Berner has pared down the horn section to includes three on sax (including himself), two trumpets and one trombone. "But when you can have 15 horns playing together--the power and presence of that creates some amazing moments," he said.
The band's lead trumpet player, Joel Gray, says he's practicing to play the high notes needed for upcoming concerts. "I'm so excited to play for a live audience again. The screaming high notes in big band music can be quite challenging--you have to stay in shape to play," he laughed, pointing to jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, 70s-era 'Canadian jazz royalty' as favourites. "The old Hockey Night in Canada theme; the Wayne & Shuster show--if you know them, you know McConnell's contribution", said Gray.
Finding integrity--and a career--in big band music
Though Berner's career has seen him play rock and pop in gigs around the world, and in countless orchestra pits for touring and local musical productions, it's jazz and swing that is his calling card. Berner speaks thoughtfully about how he's been able to make a career as a jazz musician--starting as a teen when he learned the ropes playing in community bands; even landing a spot playing sax (and doubling on clarinet and flute) in the legendary Tommy Banks Big Band.
"In the 1940s, jazz musicians made a good living--there was a financial investment in the music then that isn't the same today," he said. "But I feel fortunate to have made a satisfying career in the field. Composers still create and experiment in this genre, and I look forward to playing it all: the standards or newer works."
Though traditionally a music appealing to an older audience, the 47-year-old Berner said more of the under-40 set is discovering big band, largely thanks to online access to different genres of what is 'just good music'. In fact, Berner's final concert of the season sees Canadian songwriter Alfie Zappacosta on stage next June, a chart-topper who'll bring a loyal fan base to enjoy his command of the jazz standards.
For high school music teacher Ron Ceilin, also a musical colleague of Berner, being an ardent supporter of big band music and the big band's upcoming season is a no-brainer. "I'm over 50, so this music is part of my story, but my mom loves it too. It has cultural reference, whether it's Charlie Parker's bebop or nostalgia around the war years," Ceilin said. "I tell my students and fellow teachers about these concerts--I'm a big fan. Tommy Banks played here in an era when this music was honoured, and Don is bringing attention to it again, and taking it forward."
Concerts include A Dec. 18 Yuletide 'Frank' Christmas, (with Johnny Summers), and a spring show celebrating the First Ladies of Jazz---Ella Fitzgerald, the Andrews Sisters, Doris Day and more, with regular band vocalist Kelly Alanna and guests.
Concerts take place at the 250-seat Ottewell United Church (6611 93A Ave. NW) with COVID-19 protocols in place. Tickets are at TIX on the Square (780-420-1757, tixonthesquare.ca). See donberner.com for more.
Big Band By the Numbers
Big bands originated during the early 1910s as accompaniment for dancing, and dominated jazz in the early 1940s when swing was most popular.
Big bands have four sections: trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and a rhythm section of guitar, piano, double bass, and drums. In the 1940s, Woody Herman's band used more horns than those in the 1930s, and Duke Ellington upped that number still, plus adding clarinet, a la Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman.
Big band music was known to uplift morale during World War II, with many musicians serving in the military and touring with the USO at the front. Glenn Miller, a major in the U.S. Army Air Forces, led a 50-piece military band that specialized in swing music.
Have a favourite? Stardust, Count Basie's April in Paris, Glen Miller's In the Mood and Pennsylvania 6-5000, and Artie Shaw's take on Begin the Beguine are just some all-time big band favourites.