Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Big Fan of the Big Band

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Big Fan of the Big Band

Article excerpt

From 1989 to 2002 my whereabouts on Monday nights were no mystery - I was wherever the Balcony Big Band was performing.

Whether at the posh Shadyside supper club where it served as the house band or Foster's at the Holiday Inn in Oakland, the James Street Restaurant, Dowe's on 9th or the Chapel of Blues, places where it played after the Balcony closed at the end of 1997, I could almost always be found there. The only time I ever remember missing consistently was when I was taking a Monday night class at the University of Pittsburgh.

I had met Howard "H.B." Bennett, the band's founder, leader and drummer who booked entertainment for the club, in the video department of the Shakespeare Street Giant Eagle, where I worked at the time. We began talking about jazz, and he asked me to stop down on a Monday (the band played on Mondays to emulate the decades-long big-band tradition in New York).

Since I'd always enjoyed big-band jazz, I took him up on the invite and was hooked almost immediately. The personnel originally comprised many of the then-younger (20s and 30s) jazz musicians in Pittsburgh.

I appreciated especially that the band played a lot of fusion - popular then and even today my chief musical passion - when it started out, but even after it shifted to a more straight-ahead style of jazz, I kept coming. Being a regular, I became friendly with many of the musicians, and since I was a "cat" in my own right, although not playing much actively at the time, we were able to shoot the breeze. I even offered Mr. Bennett one of my arrangements, to which he responded, "You're a hell of a copyist," but he declined to take it because it was my only copy. (Charts had to be handwritten in those days.)

Over time the band would become an institution, even reaching beyond jazz. Three years later it received an nomination for "Band of the Year" in the now-defunct In Pittsburgh newsweekly, quite a feat for a group that didn't play pop-rock, and it released an album, "Seasoned to Taste," featuring arrangements by band members, primarily trumpet soloist Ralph Guzzi. My favorite tunes in its book: The funky "Heart of the Matter" by Bob Mintzer, the ballad "Last Season" by Maria Schneider and the Latin "Later That Same Day" by Mike Tomaro.

The band also knew how to put on a show. A consistent crowd pleaser was the rollicking set-closer "A Good Time Was Had By All," originally by the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and during which the saxophone section, after trading off solos, sauntered into the audience and, upon its return to the bandstand, even shimmied a little during a four-bar break in the shout chorus.

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Of the hundreds of times I've seen the band through the years, two performances stick out.

Just before Christmas of 1995, if I remember correctly, a college-age African-American with an "I'm-so-lucky-to-get-this-gig" vibe was playing fourth trumpet (literally, cornet). …

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