The View From The Back

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“Hi, I’m Ed” I announced to the lady who appeared to be running things at the big band rehearsal. She smiled, and said “Nicole … nice to meet you”, while gesturing to the back of the rehearsal space. “I have you set up back here”, a half grin appearing on her face.

“Wouldn’t have it any other way”, I said, smiling back as I headed to the rear left corner of the space.

See, it’s been this way forever, or at least the last 100 years or so. And everyone has seen it, the iconic silhouette of a jazz big band with the upright bass rising in the back on the left hand side of the band.

That space? That’s my place, the view from the back of the band, next to the drummer to my left, with the piano and guitar in front of us. The rhythm section, the guys providing that beat that propels the band, that beat that makes you all tap your feet and dance.

Just about all big bands are set up the same way. The rhythm section is on the viewers left hand side, and off to the side of the rhythm section are the trumpets (usually 4) on the back row, trombones (again, usually 4) in the middle row and the woodwinds/saxes (usually 5) in the front. If there are any featured vocalists, they are in the front of the entire band.

17 musicians, a singer and a conductor … classic big band. Of all of the musical forms/formats in which I play, this is my favorite. As a friend of mine said recently, there is nothing quite as cool as the feeling you get pushing a slamming big band, and the more fun you have as a rhythm section, the better the band plays.

I happened upon this band quite by accident while checking into some estate sales on Craigslist. I nearly always shy away from these situations since the majority of the time these bands are comprised of high school kids, or frustrated used-to-be musicians that have an old sax laying around in their closet, or old people looking to fill some of their time, or new-comers that are trying to learn to play an instrument. In these cases, the resultant band is just horrible sounding and very unprofessional.

Something about my initial discussions with Nicole led me to believe that this band was going to be different. I had told her that I was interested, but only if the individual players were, at a minimum, reasonably proficient at their instruments. She had advised me that the drummer, in particular, was a very tasteful and skilled musician, which gave me the motivation to give it a try.

Of late, the double bass has been giving a bit of a fit when I play it. Actually, the bass is fine, it’s the bass player that is giving me trouble. I have developed arthritis in both of my shoulders and a bit of the same in my right hand, and playing the big bass is a physically demanding thing, much more intensive than the electric bass. Due to the intensity of playing jazz in a smaller unit (trio, quartet) I find I cannot keep the strength to play the big boy at the level I need, so it’s been electric bass only in my smaller band (Unit 5).

This big band format allows for a different playing style, a lot more “ensemble” and a lot less “solo”, meaning I don’t have to work quite as hard physically in the big band setting. So it’s been a great situation for me … playing a musical style I really enjoy, playing the instrument type I prefer to play, being able to get my chops back in shape with the double bass, and being with a great group of players.

Yup, all of these people can play, and play well! The band director, Nicole, just yanks out tunes from the set of charts, counts off the band and away it goes. There has yet to be a song that they haven’t been able to sight read, meaning they can just play the song the first time they see it without having to rehearse it.

I can just hear everyone thinking, “so what … what’s the big deal? Isn’t that why you studied music, in order to read it?”

Think of it this way … whatever it is that you do for a living (or hobby), imagine getting 19 people who have never met each other being handed a brand new assignment they have never seen, something that requires them to rely on all 19 members knowing what they are doing in order for the whole project to be successful?

Like all great teams it takes time for a good unit to properly meld, and this newest big band is no different. But these players are already sounding very good, and I can only imagine things will continue to improve in leaps and bounds as we get used to working as a unit.

This situation is part of an on-going trend here in Georgia, where every time I think I have my life as close to perfect as possible, another thing happens and makes it even better! As Sheila and I approach our 1-year anniversary I marvel, every day, at my incredible good fortune … Life is very, very good!

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