One Big Band
● By Gwen Lawler Tough
The Redding-Based Straight Ahead Big Band
story: Gwen Lawler-Tough photos: provided by Straight Ahead Band
The evening is still young and the dance floor beckons. Who can sit still when the 18-member Straight Ahead Big Band’s commanding rhythm fills the room with one of its great jazz charts, like “All of Me”? Vocalist Nancy Fischer brings it all home when she sings: “You took the part that once was my heart/So why not take all of me?”
Or, why not take a look at the only big band orchestra between Redding and Portland? The Redding-based Straight Ahead Big Band has played its irrepressible brand of Count Basie-style swing all over the north state for 20 years. Saxophone player Steve Fischer leads these local musicians who have been playing their instruments since grade school. Dr. Bob Hansen began his piano mastery 45 years ago back in New Jersey. George Geohner learned trumpet in fifth grade and has played in a band for more than half of his 82 years. Lead trumpet player Sal D’Acquisto teaches instrumental music at Parsons Junior High and is one of a number of local music directors in the big band, including Shasta High School’s Lou Polcari (alto sax), Central Valley High School’s Bill Corum (trombone) and Enterprise Elementary School District’s Carlo Fazio (trumpet).
Jazz trombone player John Schlenz, 75, has a master’s degree in music and has worked in academia as well as serving as a professional studio musician in the Los Angeles area. He arranges for the Straight Ahead Big Band and its smaller version, the seven-member “Combo.” Rounding out the trombone section are Ron Largent and Todd Wright. Tenor saxophone players Dr. Mitch Hawley, Enterprise High and University of Nevada graduate Tyler Spencer and trumpet player Dick Morris complete the big brass section that epitomizes the big band sound. The band’s bass player is attorney Tom Andrews.
The youngest band members are Shasta College student and guitar player Dave Westfall and two Shasta High School students – sophomores Tracy Manuel on percussion and Anthony Polcari, who plays bass when Andrews isn’t available. Polcari has impressive musical chops for someone 16 years of age - he’s played cello for the North State Symphony for three years. He caught the jazz bug listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” “Once you hear something you like, you get hooked on it. That’s the magic moment,” he says, adding that it’s also “a lot of fun playing with my Dad.”
Having fun is a common denominator for the Straight Ahead Big Band. “What keeps everybody doing this is that they love the music, and we have fun doing it,” says Fischer. In spite of very busy lives, They are drawn together by the sheer joy of making music together. Listen to Hansen’s creative, expressive piano introduction to “Take the A Train” on their “Second Track” CD. Schlenz explains the improvisation that takes place: “It’s your job (as a musician) to create a countermelody that’s interesting, on the spot, and every time it’s different.”
The band performs a wide repertoire of music from the ‘30s to the ‘90s, about 400 charts in all, from great big bands including Woody Hermann, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Stan Kenton. They have performed at numerous community events and fund raisers, as well as private parties, weddings, and anniversaries. They support school music programs, and one day in March, Steve and Nancy Fischer hang out all day in the Mt. Shasta Mall food court listening to area middle and high school jazz bands as part of the River City Jazz Society’s annual Jazz at the Mall Day. Band members love to encourage young local talent and often invite student musicians to their rehearsals.
If you haven’t had the thrill of listening to a live big band recently, buckle up and let the Straight Ahead Big Band take you for a ride.
For performance dates and to hear some of the band’s music, visit: straightaheadbigband.com