The Usual Suspects
● By Laura Christman
Little, Big BandJuly 2015
By Laura Christman
Photos: Chris Nelson
In the Usual Suspects Little Big Band, ages run from the 20s into the 70s. Hometowns stretch from Oak Run to Weaverville. Occupations include surgical nurse, classroom aide, store manager, physician and retired park ranger.
The common line running through the mix of musicians? They’re serious about jazz.
The Usual Suspects is composed of high-caliber musicians with a strong connection to community. The name is a nod to their familiarity. Many are fixtures of the North State music scene. They belong to various bands, perform with symphonies and pit orchestras and play in restaurant lounges.
“You see the same faces in different combinations,” band leader Jeff Jones says.
Jones thought it would be fun if area jazz players formed a little big band – a downsized version of a traditional big band. Actually, he hoped someone else might come along and create such a band, and then he could play saxophone in it.
“I never considered myself a leader personality,” he notes.
But time went by and a little big band didn’t materialize. So about five years ago, Jones started calling musician friends to pitch the project. The response was: “Let’s do it!”
The Usual Suspects has 11 players and a singer, plus Jones as leader. The roster has changed a bit but it’s mostly the same musicians meeting monthly to rehearse at The Music Connection in Redding.
Saxophonist Frank Eller says the mix of ages and backgrounds strengthens the band. “Everyone brings something different to the table.”
As the newest member, Eller found the band welcoming and supportive. “Everyone is really friendly. It’s not competitive.”
“There are no egos. There is a lot of musical respect and admiration,” trombonist Joe Larsen says. “To have a band like this in the community – wow – how fantastic.”
“Everyone loves the music, and it really shows,” trombonist Monica Hicks says.
Bruce Calin, a professional musician who was in the house band for “A Prairie Home Companion,” plays bass in The Usual Suspects. He hopes audiences enjoy the band’s music and come away with an appreciation for the level of musicianship in the North State.
“We have some great bands that come through, and that is fine, but these are people right here in town writing the music; playing the music,” Calin says.
He’s happy to be in the band. “It’s the kind of music I’ve always liked to play, so it’s a good musical experience, and I like the people.”
The band has performed at Simpson University and Old City Hall in Redding and Nor-Cal Jazz Festival in Chico. Last summer it opened for the Bandaloop performances on the Sundial Bridge for the bridge’s 10th anniversary celebration. The band typically gives two or three shows a year.
“We’re not a for-profit group at all,” Jones says. “We definitely play for our own enjoyment.”
A retired state and national park ranger, Jones says music doesn’t have to be your livelihood to be an important part of your life.
“It’s enjoyable to do something outside your usual line of work,” says Dave Short, a saxophonist in the band and a family physician in Redding.
Playing in the band is a way to step away from everyday life. Jazz is a creative outlet that demands concentration. “To read music of this type of complexity, you really have to focus,” Short says.
The Usual Suspects’ jazz selections range from traditional to experimental. Jones arranges and composes some pieces, and encourages other members to write and arrange too.
“I think that’s the most fun. It’s really enjoyable to hear something you wrote played,” he says.
A band isn’t just an outlet for musicians; it provides opportunities for the community to hear live music. And that’s vital, Jones says.
“I think there is just an incredible difference between artificially produced music and music produced by people,” he says. “There is a different energy. There is that human element.”
Many of the musicians in The Usual Suspects trace their lifelong interest in playing to school music programs. Some first picked up their instruments in elementary school. Supporting music education is a band theme. During performances, Jones recognizes any music teachers in the audience and puts in a plug for music programs. Playing in a school band offers lessons beyond music, he says.
“There is discipline. There is teamwork and intellectual challenge that spill over into other classes,” Jones says.
“To me, if the kids aren’t learning music in school, we’re all in trouble,” Calin says.
The Usual Suspects will perform Aug. 9 at Trinity Alps
Performing Arts Center in Weaverville at 3 pm. For details, email Jones at