How to Build a Big, Big Band
By Virginia Butterfield
They meet every Sunday afternoon and play their hearts out, the members of this big, big band with the sound of ’40s swing. Their leader is Dan Terry, a veteran of 50 years in the big-band biz. He’s performed with Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and many other luminaries of the jazz world. He’s appeared on The Tonight Show and toured with the Birdland All Stars in concerts at Boston Arena and Carnegie Hall. He’s been a featured artist with the Count Basie Band. And now he’s turning his attention to kids in the San Diego area who are talented, dedicated ... and swingin’ for success.
This is the San Diego Youth Swing Band, and it comes on 20-strong, playing the music the musicians’ parents and grandparents loved. Not many bands nowadays can afford as many players; this is like the old days with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey.
As I search for their rehearsal spot at Mesa College, I’m told it will be the theater building, the last building on the right. Puzzled by the dead-end aspect of this assemblage of buildings, I’m about to turn around and head back when I spy a loading platform with a drum-carrying van pulling into the dock. The band’s “roadie,” Will Petty, helps me park where I won’t interfere with the unloading of drums, and we hurry to a rehearsal hall inside.
Seventeen of the 20 kids are seated and ready to start, adjusting their bright blue caps, recently passed out by Terry. His gray slacks are sharply pressed; his beige sweater sports leather elbow patches. He wears a blue cap, too, and watches while a few of the showoffs turn their hats backward with straps across their foreheads. I feel sure Terry will mention, sometime before the concert next Friday, that all caps must be worn in regulation fashion, but at the moment he’s not sweating the small stuff. He’s explaining—in a kind of this-is-how-it-is-in-the-real-world fashion—how their next gig might present some problems.
“They tell me they’ve only got one mike. Can you beat that? One mike. I said, ‘Why only one mike?’ ‘You guys are loud,’ they said. ‘Nobody’ll have any trouble hearing you.’ ‘Yes, indoors we’re loud, in a room like this. But outdoors? And I’ve got soloists.’ I said. Anyway, I’ll just bring some extra equipment. We can’t play with only one mike.”
The kids nod. Terry will take care of them. They’re shuffling music, adjusting their caps, blowing some experimental notes on their instruments. Suddenly, at a signal from Terry, they’re galvanized into action ... and yes, they’re loud. They’re exceptionally loud.
But great. They’re into “I left My Heart in San Francisco.” Very syncopated. The hall jumps right off the campus.
Who are these talented kids, and how did they come together? Terry searched the San Diego County schools for the pick of the lot, choosing one here, one there, to fill the positions in his swing band. One of the girls saw his ad at a music store where she was taking trombone lessons and called him to audition. She’s the one who comes in a little late, a tall girl with ponytail, wearing tank top and jeans. Terry lets her tardiness pass for a few minutes, then, when the set is over, asks why she was late.
“My trombone went off in my brother’s car,” she explains.
“I went all over El Cajon looking to borrow another one. Now I have three.”
Terry passes her a cap, and she pulls it on her head. Another youngster might have just said, “Oh, well, I don’t have my trombone. I’ll go next Sunday.” But not one of these kids. They move heaven and earth to get to rehearsal.
Igmar “Snooky” Thomas, 17, is one of the originals—he’s been with the band two years. He comes from Vista and thinks he took up trumpet late. “In the sixth grade,” he says, apologetically. His mother has to drive him to Mesa College from Vista—unless he’s lucky enough to car pool.
Nicole Bledsoe, who plays alto sax, went to high school in Ramona. She played piano in fifth grade, then told her mother she didn’t want to take lessons anymore. Her mother said, “Okay, but if you give up piano, you have to learn another instrument.” She chose alto sax because it was her father’s favorite.
Paul Miller, who plays clarinet, went to San Marcos High School. He, too, was a piano player who switched. He’ll try for the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Miller was drum major in a marching band for a couple of years, but when he came into Terry’s program, he just kept improving on the clarinet. He now has great instruction, he says, at UCSD.
As the band swings into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” I ask Petty how long it takes these kids to learn a number. “Oh, one or two times,” he says. “They’re quick.”
They launch into “Back Bay Shuffle,” and Terry comments on their rhythm. The bass player won’t be here until 4 o’clock, and they miss him. “Swing within yourself, without the bass,” says Terry. The second time around, the hall is jumping.
“How often does the band get hired?” I ask.
“Two or three times a month,” says Petty. “Sometimes they even get paid.” The upcoming gig means $100 for each performer, and the band takes this kind of activity seriously. “But even without money, they have a great time,” Petty says. “They’re all friends.”
Ginny Broersma is the trombonist who drove all over El Cajon looking to borrow somebody’s instrument. She’s the one who saw the flyer in a music store. Broersma goes to Christian High, a private school in El Cajon. Her brother, Luke, plays bass and was in the band for a while, but he’s now so busy with other engagements, he had to drop out.
“These kids are playing my [music] library,” says Terry, “the scores I played in Carnegie Hall and Birdland. I don’t give them easy music. These players are as good as any I’ve ever heard.”
Patrick Weill is 22—“one of the older kids.” He minored in music at UCSD and plays with Jimmy Cheatam’s UCSD Jazz Band and Buddy Blue. In Sacramento, Weill attended a magnet school for music. “We went to Australia, everywhere,” he says. A brilliant saxophone player, he puts his heart into his solos. His dream? “To be a well-paid musician, do lots of gigs, practice hard, all the time.”
This is certainly the place to do it. The kids haven’t let up for two hours. Finally Terry gives them a break. Andrew Young, the guitarist, takes this time to do his trigonometry homework. He tells me he’s switched high schools three times in three years to get the kind of musical education he needs. “I went from Scripps High School to Performing Arts to Coronado.” Did his parents move each time? No, he petitioned for the different schools. He obviously knows what he wants and has the gumption to go after it.
“I have great plans for this band,” says Terry. “First a CD. And I want to get us airplay, do a jazz concert, get on The Tonight Show. And finally, I want to get to the White House.”
The White House in Washington? The Clintons’ place?
“He plays the sax, you know,” says Terry. “Not very well, but he plays it. We’ll get there; don’t you worry about that.”
I’m not worried at all. I’m just afraid he’ll lose some of his best players along the way. Surely they’ll get picked up by managers, even as young as they are. But that’s not a present worry.
Each player takes a sheet of directions to the next gig, then settles back to spend the last hour of rehearsal on a few numbers: “New York, New York,” “Auld Lang Syne” and, once again, “Back Bay Shuffle”—which sends them flying.
One thing I discover: Very few come from the city schools. One, to be exact—a young man from Mission Bay High. “That’s because they don’t get any training,” says Terry. “Music and art have been cut back in the [public] schools. I tried everywhere. You can’t know how many schools I visited. I went to all the schools in the district, from one end of the county to the other. I listened and listened. But those kids don’t get the education.
“My kids want to go on to music careers,” Terry says. “I’m not their agent, but I try to help. I have connections at Berklee College of Music in Boston, at the University of North Texas, at Arizona State University in Tempe.”
Anne Marie Haney, who’s been involved in San Diego schools since the ’60s, laments that classroom teachers aren’t equipped to teach music. “There are CDs tailor-made [to help] elementary teachers,” she says, “but the schools are not sufficiently budgeted for it. Education is sporadic. There are 23 positions where the instrumental music teachers go to a number of elementary schools each week—seven or eight schools. But you can’t blow on an instrument for eight weeks, then rotate to violin. There is never any time to practice. In the schools now, it’s not a skill development but an exposure experience.”
Haney represents citizen input. Her nonprofit organization, the Community Council for Music in the Schools, loans 500 donated instruments, which she has gathered and had repaired, to 60 schools. “What the Swing Band kids are experiencing,” she says, “is an enrichment opportunity that is fabulous. But students in the city schools are relegated to the most elemental responses to music. It’s been proven that music is a core subject—that students who study music are better at other academic subjects, especially math. But so few discover the joy of making music. And the worst part is that the schools that don’t have music are in our poorest areas.”
It’s people like Haney who’ve kept music alive—though only barely—in San Diego’s city schools.
One of the band members pipes up to tell me what it’s like in the city schools. “They’re only interested in the reputation of the school—and in marching-band festivals,” she says with disgust. Others agree.
These kids know they’re fortunate to have found a musical home. Expenses for the group are picked up by Terry’s sister, Margaret Cummings, and by Murray Galinson, the Weingart Foundation and the Mandell Weiss Charities.
A week later, we’re standing in an outdoor audience listening to the San Diego Youth Swing Band play. Now I understand the choice of rehearsal numbers: The gig is at the preview opening of Legoland, where New York and San Francisco are among the cities duplicated in miniature in Lego blocks. When the band strikes up “New York, New York,” crowds flock to the waterside, where the group’s playing. It’s a happy crowd, ready to welcome San Diego’s newest theme attraction and to swing along with the musical accompaniment. They keep time to the beat and applaud the solos.
Some day these kids will be playing in their own bands, on better stages, with more hoopla and to greater applause. As it is, small groups of fans have come to hear their favorites. You know how it is with the sound of a hot sax. Or a cool horn. Or the roll of a drum.
Dan Terry beams with pride. “They played well,” he says when the concert is over. “I don’t think they ever played better.”