Thursday, July 21, 2011

Auburn Knights Alumni will Swing for Three Nights in Auburn, Opelika

This Friday and Saturday nights (7/22-23) at the Auburn Opelika Marriott Hotel and Conference Center (map) the Auburn Knights Alumni Association will host its 54th reunion celebrating the Auburn Knights Orchestra, founded 81 years ago in 1930. Concerts start each night at 7:00 PM and are open to the public. Cost is $10 nightly. Tonight (Thursday, 7/21) from 8-11 PM, the Jane Drake Trio will host the Auburn Knights Jazz Jam at Piccolo featuring some of the players who will be at the reunion.

My next post has more about this event.

When I was in high school, the shining band upon a hill was the Auburn Knights Orchestra, a stage band made up of mainly Auburn University students and run by same, though unaffiliated with AU. To me and many other of my fellow students in the Auburn High School band program, they personified jazz (as we knew it), possessed dominion over the eighth note, and exuded coolness. It was, somehow, a regularly gigging 16-member 1940s style swing band of teenagers and 20-somethings.

AHS head band director Tommy Goff was a 1950s Knights alum. He did a spectacular job inspiring us kids to swing in the school's own big band class. But in no way could we duplicate the effortless playing and distinct cohesiveness displayed by the AKO. And they could blow, too; easily half a dozen of the players could improvise well. To us, they were on the same level as Miles and Trane and the band as tight as Basie's. Of course, we were young and didn't know any better. But even in reality, the band's musicianship must have rivaled that of seasoned groups of the same makeup and regional scope. I can say for certain that they at least outplayed AU's own big band.

For the last 81 years, minus a few during the second world war, the band has helped to produce a few well known international jazz artists, a few more great players with their own projects and serious international credits as sidemen, regional stars, and scores of hard-working professional musicians and educators. This is not to forget those who have followed non-musical paths and are now great listeners and fans. The Auburn Opelika Marriott Hotel and Conference Center at Grand National is, from this moment and until Saturday night, a gravitational hub for this community. Do you feel the pull?

What to Expect

In a nutshell, come out to hear four hours of big-band music each of Friday and Saturday nights for $10 cover per night. The Auburn Knights Alumni Association is the event's organizer. Starting at 7:00 on both nights, seven decade-focused reunion bands from the 1930s to the 2000s will perform, with the 70s and 80s combined in one band. The current Knights will close the event at 10:00 PM on Saturday night.

Each band will include alums from its decade, though 91-year-old Charlie Higgins will actually be the only one from the original 30s band to play. Alumni players share their talents across almost all the bands to help round out personnel. Friends of the Auburn Knights Alumni Association who were never formally AKO members, perform as well. These are regional players who support the idea of people getting together to play good music for an enthusiastic audience.

Below I've listed some of the players who will be there, and I'll update this post as I learn more. Right now, I'm late putting out some signs. See you there.

The Players

The 30s Band will include in its set what Higgins, its leader and the event's coordinator, told me was called a 3-2-1 band. This is the original instrumentation of the Knights when it was formed in 1930. The group is tuba, banjo, drums, 3 saxes, 2 trumpets and 1 trombone. It will play a few stock arrangements from way back. For some local color, we'll hear vocalist Jane Drake, pianist Jonathan Lynn and I'll be on 2nd alto (or 3rd sax to the old timers). Also, guitarist Patrick Bruce may be playing the banjo on the 3-2-1 charts.

UPDATE: He won't. Also, I am loving listening to the solos of tenor saxophonist Walt Hines who just got off the road with the Russ Morgan Orchestra. He was also the original founder of the Recreators, a big band in Montgomery. His improv vocabulary is so authentically right from that period. And we're doing a very cool arrangement of "My Funny Valentine." Jane sings it great.

The 40s band will be fronted by great Atlanta-area saxophonist Bob Greenhaw and will include saxophonist and arranger Everett Lawler who founded Birmingham's SuperJazz Big Band.

The 50s band, led this year by Al Norman, is usually adorned with another Atlanta heavy, saxophonist Rick Bell, but I still need to confirm his attendance this year. A couple years back, Bell played the most beautiful version of "My One and Only Love" that I have ever heard live.

UPDATE: I just left the beginning of the 50s Era Band's rehearsal and they sounded awesome. Also, Bell won't be at the reunion this year. In fact, I heard a rumor that he's stopped playing altogether to focus on his visual art pursuits.

Led by former Gadsden mayor Steve Means, the 60s band is always a hard swinging group.

Atlanta-area trombonist and educator Fritz Siler will lead the 70s/80s band. It will feature several great players including New Orleans pianist Victor Atkins, III (Not. See note below). He is known as "Brother" to the Knights community and "Red" to New Orleans folks (I never even had one nickname), Atkins has played extensively with Delfeayo Marsalis and has recorded and performed with the New Orleans based latin group Los Hombres Calientes. He appeared on the 2010 Grammy-award-winning CD Book One by Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Nashville producer and sweet-sounding saxophonist John Conner is a regular on the 70s/80s band, and Major Bailey formerly of the Army's Jazz Ambassadors will play bass trombone. I'll hold down the 2nd tenor (4th sax, old timers) book.

UPDATE: For some reason, Atkins decided to go to Brazil with Delfeayo instead of coming to Auburn to entertain me. But this band is sounding really nice. Jeff Jones sounds great on drums, and the trumpet section is tight. Plus, you've got to come hear Dorsey Ketcham sing. Wow.

The 90s group is led by Montgomery trombonist Wade Johnson, a very capable player, and is full of band directors and music teachers, some local. Mark Belfast is studying music education in the doctoral program at Florida State University and will play trumpet (lead, I think). Patrick Bruce, who performs around here a lot, will play guitar and I'll be on lead tenor.

UPDATE: This is a very good band. We'll be opening with Duke Ellington's "Main Stem," an amazing chart. Ketcham sings with this group, too, and the 2000s band.

Belfast will also lead the 2000s band.

The Schedule

Friday Night (July 22, 2011)
7:00 - 40s Era Band
8:00 - 90s Era Band
9:00 - 60s Era Band
10:00 - 70s/80s Era Band

Saturday Night (July 23, 2011)
7:00 - 30s Era Band
8:00 - 2000s Era Band
9:00 - 50s Era Band
10:00 - Current Auburn Knights Orchestra

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for writing about this so eloquently, Patrick. I'm chuffed just to be in the same room with so many of these guys.