Big Band Reunion 25th Anniversary Concert

BBR-Stand-signsBY George Halas

As the Beatles sang, “It was 25 years ago today Bob and Nate got the band to play.”

On Tuesday, October 25th from 7:30 – 9:00 p.m. at Frank’s Pizza Palace on College Avenue in Appleton, under the direction of current co-leaders Ken Skitch and Marty Robinson, The Big Band Reunion will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the group with a free concert.

“This is a free event to show our appreciation for the years of support shown to the band,” Skitch said. “Goodwill donations will be accepted at the door and our CD’s will be available for sale.”

The concert will feature special appearances by Fox Cities’ musical luminaries including founding father Bob Levy and Christine Granatella. Emcee for the evening, vocalist, recording artist and 91.1 The Avenue DJ Steve March-Torme will join the band for a song.

In addition, the band has teamed up with Todd and DeDe Heid, of Heid Music to commission a new composition, “Say Hey,” by the legendary John Harmon who will join the band for its premier performance. The BBR also plans to use this piece to promote their education initiative, part of which is to invite members of local school jazz programs to sit in and perform with the band on a Tuesday night. As part of the education initiative, The BBR will make copies of Harmon’s composition available to local school big bands at no charge.

Harmon wrote the piece to honor his good friend, Levy, and the title is the signature saying of New York/San Francisco Giants Hall of Fame centerfielder Willie Mays, Levy’s favorite baseball player.

“In addition to inviting school jazz programs to sit in with us, we plan to showcase a variety of regional talent as guest artists with us, Skitch said. “It’s a way of keeping things fresh week to week. You never know who we might get.” 

Founded in 1991 by co-leaders Levy and Nick Keelan, The Big Band Reunion began playing at the China Palace in Appleton for two seasons, moved to Calvados Lounge in the Paper Valley Hotel for two seasons and then had one season at The Wooden Nickel before settling down at its current home, Frank’s Pizza Palace.

“Jeannie and her dad, Frank welcomed us there it became the staple for the next twenty years and is still going strong, “Levy said. “Jeannie Brice Pierre is a terrific supporter of the band and all the guys adore her.” 

The Band’s significant accomplishments include two recordings and several appearances at the Neenah Jazz Fest, the Fox Jazz Festival and Fond du Lac Jazz Festival. But perhaps its greatest accomplishment has been consistently playing every Tuesday night from October through May – for free – for 25 years. The band members do it for love of the music… well as free pizza and beer.

“Tuesday nights have always been our night, sometime affectionately called our ‘bowling night,” Skitch said. “Ever since high school I have enjoyed playing big band music. When I heard from Nick Keelan that he and Bob were putting a band together I knew I had to be a part of it. Playing all types of music feeds my soul, but big band in particular is what I most enjoy. The opportunities to play in a strong section or play a feature solo with the band is just what I need.”

Levy recognized the appeal of the music to both band members and fans.

“It was originally my idea and I approached Nick Keelan about being a coleader with me,” Levy said. “After the first three-four years he told me he wanted to play in the Oshkosh Symphony and because he would be rehearsing the same night he was too busy to continue and I took it on by myself from there. Previously, there had been a big band called the Valley Jazz Orchestra that had been co-led by Fred Sturm and Nick for a few years, but they only performed two-three times a year and were kind of fading out, so the time just seemed right.”

Recruiting good players turned out to be relatively easy.

“This was easy as there were so many players in the Fox Valley region,” Levy recalls. “Even though a good number worked fairly regularly playing in smaller combos on weekends, there has always been a yearning among instrumentalists to play in big bands where the power, excitement, and energy is almost like nothing else. We all grew up with the bands of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, and they were our heroes. One has to remember that all through high school and in college these same musicians did play in jazz ensembles and big bands, but once out of school there was no outlet for them. For several players it was a dream come true. Retired priest, saxophonist Joe Mattern, one of three founding members still playing with the group – Brad Curran and co-leader Ken Skitch are the others – told me twenty years ago that he never dreamed he’d have something like this to look forward to in his sixties.  Longtime member saxophonist Don Carlson commutes from Door County weekly no matter how bad the winter weather is.”

Levy has a lot of great BBR memories.

“Ever so many, but probably the best are from big events and when guest soloists join us,” Levy said.

The BBR played for fund raisers at the Paper Valley, Timber Rattlers Stadium, at Lawrence University, Fox Jazzfest, St. Norbert’s and with jazz giants Clark Terry, Bill Watrous, Carl Fontana, Donny McCaslin, Janet Planet, John Harmon, Chris Salerno, Dan Jerabek, Tom Washatka, Jose Encarnacion, Chris Granatella, Randi Fay and numerous others. And, of course, the two recording projects.

“Whenever the band played Basie’s ‘Muttnik,’ I never tired of this all-time favorite Quincy Jones tune,” Levy said “I never imagined the band would keep going strong all these many years and I’m thrilled to see the wonderful job Ken Skitch and Marty Robinson are doing as co-leaders now. Bravos to them, and may the band continue for the next twenty five years! Congrats to everyone!”

Should be a great show…..and The Inquisition is guessing “Muttnik” is on the set list.

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