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, alto 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 full season of 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 in 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 (now university) in the mid-90s alongside many of his present band mates and who relishes performing the music of legendary bandleader Count Basie in the first concert this fall. (This Sat. Oct. 16). "The Basie Band, with a hard swinging style, offers opportunity for solos, and it's just happy, bluesy and feel-good music. 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 formula 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 also noteworthy for featuring an 18-piece ensemble (trombone, three trumpets, five saxophones, a rhythm section--bass, percussion, piano--and vocalist) when few such sizeable ensembles 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, agrees. Growing up playing in high school and college bands, 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 theatre shows and local musical productions, it's jazz and swing--an essential part of big band music--that is his passion and 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 alto sax (and doubling on clarinet and flute) in the legendary Tommy Banks Big Band.
"In the 1940s heyday, 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--even though it's music with a great history, I always look forward to playing the standards or newer works, and the challenge of how to interpret and present them."
Though traditionally a music appealing to an older audience, and with most of the band members older than he, 47-year-old Berner said more of the under-40 set is discovering big band, largely thanks to online exposure to different genres of what is 'just good music'. To that end, Berner's final concert of the 2021/22 season sees Canadian songwriter Alfie Zappacosta on stage in June, a chart-topper bringing 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 Berner'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 a cultural reference, whether it's Charlie Parker's bebop, nostalgia around the war years, or swing dance with the Glenn Miller Orchestra," 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."
Other concerts in this year's series include A Dec. 18 Yuletide 'Frank' Christmas, (with Johnny Summers) and featuring music from the Sinatra songbook, 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.
All 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).
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. A resurgence in swing dance classes and clubs in the 1990s (Lindy Hop, Charleston) has likewise led to a renewed interest in big band music.
Big bands have four sections: trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and a rhythm section of guitar, piano, double bass, and drums. The numbers of trumpet, trombone and sax has changed over time: 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.
Unlike predecessors, twenty-first century big bands have been known to exceed 20 players, (the average remains 17), with some European bands using 30 or more instruments.
Perennial big band favourites include 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.