For a brief period in the 1930s, big band jazz was the popular music of America.
Bands led by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman toured the nation and generated hit after hit. Audiences flocked to ballrooms to dance and swing to this high form of art.
But those days seem long gone in this modern era of hip-hop, rock and electronica. Today, big bands are confined to the margins, with minimal cultural impact.
As a jazz aficionado, I was elated when my friend Donna Julian informed me that a big band plays every month in Harrisburg. And she assured me that this group is really, really good.
I attended my first River City Big Band show in February, at—where else?—River City Blues Club and Dart Room on Cameron Street. The sheer power of the 16-piece ensemble blew me away. The improvised solos, the intricate blend of harmonies and the joyous energy mesmerized me. I’ve been to every concert since.
The band got its start in 2014 when club manager Jonas Hair invited Harrisburg-based jazz pianist Steve Rudolph to form a band and play regular gigs at the new venue. Rudolph next called his long-time friend Bill Perbetsky, an accomplished trumpet player and recently retired music director at Susquehanna Township High School.
“Steve and I sat down and put together our dream band,” Perbetsky said. “It basically formed in three weeks.”
The band plays every third Monday of the month, with occasional invitations to play at private or special events. It’s a rehearsal band, meaning the musicians never rehearse. They show up and read charts (musical scores) selected by Perbetsky and Rudolph.
“We don’t rehearse because all of the guys are very busy and have their own commitments to work, family and schools,” Rudolph said. “But they’re all incredible sight readers who have a deep knowledge of the history of big band music. When we put a chart in front of them, it will sound professional the first time through.”
The charts are written for four trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, piano, bass and drums. Cathy Chemi of Lititz sings vocals every other month, when her husband Skip Stine joins the band on trumpet.
The ensemble plays tunes by renowned jazz composers and popular songwriters. But they also perform originals composed specifically for the group. Rudolph estimates they have about 200 charts in their repertoire.
“We try to keep it fresh, and we’re constantly gathering new charts,” said Rudolph. “Usually, there are two or three new charts each month.”
Several core band members play every month. But other musicians rotate in and out. Many of them teach music at the high school or collegiate level and come from as far away as Philadelphia, State College, Lock Haven, Williamsport and Towson, Md. Perbetsky contacts band members before a gig to find out who’s available.
The tunes generally run five to 10 minutes, so, during a two-hour set, the audience hears a wide range of material that includes swing, ballads, Latin and funk. Most band members get a chance to solo at least once or twice a night.
The downstairs room seats about 130 people. Saxophonist Tom Strohman, a music professor at Lebanon Valley College, says the venue reminds him of a New York jazz club.
“There’s a certain intimacy and a certain camaraderie between the audience and the band that happens when everybody’s that close to each other,” he said. “There’s a certain vibe that happens there. That’s one of the selling points of the whole experience.”
The concerts start at 7 p.m. But if you want to hear the band, I recommend arriving early, as shows are usually jam-packed. There’s a $10 cover charge, and the proceeds are split evenly between the band members.
“Nobody gets paid a whole lot on this gig,” Rudolph said.
The band members aren’t there for the money. It’s about the opportunity to work with other great musicians and play great music in front of an enthusiastic audience.
“We just come at you with what we have that night,” Perbetsky said. “We’re raw, we’re honest, and we just love playing.”
And, with consistently high attendance month to month, there’s no end in sight for the River City Big Band.
“We try to honor the traditions of the music and still stay on top of what’s going on in the big band world,” Rudolph said. “We try to pick music that’s fun to play but still make an artistic statement. We want to keep the tradition of big band jazz alive in this area.”
River City Blues Club & Dart Room is located at 819 S. Cameron St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.rivercityhbg.com.