Here come the horn players. Every Tuesday night, they negotiate the labyrinthine hallways leading to Jazz Central in the funky basement of a Minneapolis office building, lugging their sheathed instruments and fat stacks of heavily notated music charts.
Big bands have been a steadfast component of the Twin Cities scene for decades. Fans in thrall to the vintage sounds of the 1930s and ’40s can get their fix at venues such as the Cinema Ballroom in St. Paul and the Bloomington Event Center, where novices can get a swing dance lesson before sharing the floor with veteran pivoters.
But at the same time, there has been a dramatic surge in original music for big bands that has invigorated players and listeners.
“The scene is better now than it was before — maybe better than it ever was,” said veteran trombonist Pete Enblom.
The Twin Cities area sits among a plethora of music schools with thriving programs for big-band scholarship, especially the University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. The influx of young talent — who’d rather hone their chops on difficult new charts than on classics from a bygone era — has, in turn, inspired older musicians.
“Not everybody is making a ton of money,” said Enblom, “but there is so much energy coming from these younger cats. I can come down, develop some camaraderie and learn some things. And nobody is making you put on a funny hat and play ‘In the Mood.’ ”
Jerry Swanberg, who has tracked the music for two decades as host of KBEM radio’s “Big Band Scene,” counts 47 big bands that are relatively active in the area, including college ensembles. In an average month, there are 32 events at 19 venues, performed by 27 groups.
An appetite for new work
A key catalyst is Jazz Central, co-founded nine years ago by musician Mac Santiago as a noncommercial (and now officially nonprofit) nook for adventurous performance and musical education.
A few months after it opened, a young trumpeter and composer named Adam Meckler approached Santiago about bringing in his big band the final Tuesday of every month. Meckler had just completed his masters in music at the U and needed a place to hone his expanding book of idiosyncratic original material.
“I wasn’t a composition major,” he said, “so I came up in a separate world, creating my own thing,” influenced by “elements of chaos and collective improvisation” along with rock and hip-hop.
The Adam Meckler Orchestra’s stint at Jazz Central lasted about a year and a half before overflow crowds in the 50-person-capacity room got the attention of the fire marshal. But it proved that there was an eager audience for challenging music.
A few months after he began, the Cedar Avenue Big Band, which got its start more than 20 years ago, booked a different Tuesday night each month at Jazz Central. Another was grabbed by the newly minted Bill Simenson Orchestra, featuring all-original music by a Cedar Big Band alum. After Meckler was forced to move on, Santiago indulged his passion for Latin big-band music by co-founding the Twin Cities Latin Jazz Orchestra to play in his stead. The adventurous but more classic Explosion Big Band secured the remaining Tuesday.
While there is ample crossover among the players in these 17- and 18-piece ensembles, competition for slots is fierce and healthy.
“You can feel the hunger and the energy here,” trombonist Enblom said between sets by Explosion last month.
After graduating from college in the 1970s, he played in Buddy Rich’s big band and the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Now he is a member of Explosion, Simenson and the Latin Jazz Orchestra plus two others that perform regularly at Crooners Supper Club in Fridley: the Acme Jazz Company and a Sinatra-oriented band led by vocalist Andrew Walesch.
Composers are a catalyst
After compiling impressive credentials in that jazz mecca, the couple came to Minnesota because they had started a family and wanted the support of Sanford’s mother in Northfield.
Concerned about the comparative lack of resources and opportunity in the Twin Cities area, they held a few informal sessions to discern, as Sanford put it, “if musicians here were interested in our music and if they could play.
“On both counts we were pleasantly surprised,” he said. “There are good readers and open-minded improvisers and people who can double [on various instruments], which is especially important for Asuka’s work.”
Sanford sought to replicate the composers’ network known as the BMI Workshop in New York. He and Kakitani knew Meckler before they arrived in town, and Meckler in turn recommended saxophonist/composer Aaron Hedenstrom, a former St. Paul Central High School grad who studied at Eau Claire, then got a master’s and doctorate at the renowned North Texas State music program.
That foursome founded the Twin Cities Jazz Composers Workshop in 2017, with composers Dave Stamps, Kari Musil and John Baumgartner added since then. They meet regularly, with each member bringing at least one original piece for the group to critique.
This year, Meckler took a job as director of jazz studies at Michigan Tech University, going out with a bang via a sold-out show for 300 people at the Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis to celebrate his second Adam Meckler Orchestra record. He plans to do a couple of shows a year in the Twin Cities as well as initiating bands for his music in Chicago and New York.
“I can’t overstate the importance of Jazz Central in allowing me the time and space to develop my music on my own artistic terms,” he said.
Sanford and Kakitani continue to expand their influence on the scene. Like Meckler, their joint project, the Inatnas Orchestra, has performed to good crowds at Crooners in Fridley and the Black Dog Cafe in St. Paul. Sanford recently took over the JazzMN Orchestra — the area’s most prestigious big band — after founder Doug Snapp stepped down.
Meanwhile, the horn players raise the low ceiling at Jazz Central a few notches with their passion every Tuesday night.
“I like the workshop aspect of Tuesdays at Jazz Central,” said Hedenstrom, whose own big band plays the venue whenever a fifth Tuesday occurs on the calendar. “Most original music is not easy to play well the first time you read through it — it takes time and a willingness to learn it.”
A true labor of love, the Explosion Big Band earmarks whatever money it brings in at the door to buy fresh arrangements. On a recent Tuesday, the members wrestled with a new chart by progressive arranger Bob Mintzer of a Weather Report song.
When the band nailed the piece the second time through, Enblom dropped the trombone from his lips and beamed a satisfied smile.
Big-band datebook: Where to listen (and dance) in the Twin Cities
At Jazz Central
Sept. 10: Cedar Avenue Big Band.
Sept. 17: Explosion Big Band.
Sept. 24: Twin Cities Latin Jazz Orchestra.
Oct. 1: Bill Simenson Orchestra.
(All shows 8:30 p.m., $5-$10, 407 Central Av. SE., Mpls.)
Other notable shows
Sept. 10: Nova Contemporary Jazz Orchestra. 7 p.m., Minnesota Music Cafe, 449 Payne Av., St. Paul.
Sept. 14: Brio Brass at Selby Jazz Festival. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Selby & Milton Avs., St. Paul.
Sept. 22: Capri Big Band at Annunciation Catholic Church. Noon, 509 W. 54th St., Mpls.
Sept. 29: Acme Jazz Company featuring Arne Fogel at Crooners Lounge. 5 p.m., $10, 6161 Hwy. 65 NE., Fridley.
Oct. 7: JazzMN Orchestra with Debbie Duncan. 7:30 p.m., $38-$53, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, 501 W. 78th St., Chanhassen.
For swing dancers
Sept. 8: Jerry O’Hagan Orchestra with Charmin Michelle. Lesson at 6:15 p.m., music at 7, Cinema Ballroom, 1560 St. Clair Av., St. Paul.
Sept. 12: Minnesota Jazz Orchestra. Lesson at 6:15 p.m., music at 7, $8, Wabasha Street Caves, 215 S. Wabasha St., St. Paul.
Sept. 14: Roseville Swing Band at Bombers Moon Ball. Lesson at 7, music at 8, $14.50-$17, Fleming Field, 310 Airport Road, South St. Paul.
Sept. 17: River City Jazz Orchestra. 7 p.m., Minnesota Music Cafe.
Oct. 11: Classic Big Band & the Nostalgics Vocal Quartet. Lesson at 7:15 p.m., music at 8, Bloomington Event Center, 1114 American Blvd. W.
Britt Robson is a Minneapolis journalist and critic.