Music, history, nostalgia merge at Nebraska Jazz Orchestra reunion
September 29th, 2015
Lincoln, NE – Four decades can take its toll on one’s memory.
For members of the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra (NJO) two things seem to stick in their brains from the early days. First, they had the kind of fun which brings on fits of laughter when stories are shared.
More importantly, they recall a level of musicianship which was nothing to laugh about.
“We really appreciated the level of talent that we assembled,” John Tavlin, the band’s founder, said recently. “These were serious players and good players.”
The bands first rhythm guitarist, Dennis “Putz” Stearns conceded that “it sounds conceited, but we were really good.” Especially during the NJO’s legendary 1978 tour of England and Scotland, Stearns recalls “the band was roaring. It was a juggernaut.”
Recently the group celebrated its 40th anniversary with a concert that reunited musicians from the early days.
“I think it had the effect of bringing us all back to that time,” said Rex Cadwallander, who right out of college composed original music for the NJO. He went on to make it a significant part of his career.
The orchestra remains a vibrant part of the state’s music scene. More importantly, it has a place in jazz history by forming the first resident professional jazz orchestra in the United States. Organized more like a classical symphony orchestra than a loosely affiliated modern music group, its status allows the group to pay musicians who are resident professionals with fixed positions. In addition to having a subscription series of concerts, it’s a non-profit doing jazz education for students and the state.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact that the organization is 40 years old,” Tavlin said.
A prototype of the group formed in 1974 but it was the following year when Tavlin and a group of like-minded big band music fans put together a group with a solid structure and the potential for funding.
His interest was pretty straight forward. “I wanted to play big band music.”
Pulling heavily from the shaggy-haired, oft-bearded music school crowd at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Tavlin assembled a surprisingly focused group of young players who loved “the whole notion of putting jazz into a rock context,” according to keyboardist Cadwallander. “What people refer to as fusion now.”
“Jazz and rock was really what was going on then,” Stearns said. “Everyone was chasing what would have been the remnants of Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago” and the high-energy, high-pitched trumpet playing of Maynard Ferguson.
In mid-September the NJO reunion band gathered for a one-night-only rehearsal in preparation for a one-night-only performance the next night.
While the current band polished the numbers for the concert, the out-of-town alumni gathered in the hallway, sharing hugs and stories. Tavlin laughingly recalls saxophonist Ted Larson would telegraph to the band leader his displeasure with the music selection. “He’d take out a cigarette lighter and set the edge of the music on fire.” (Today Larsen holds a Ph.D. and is an award-winning high school social studies teacher).
They’ve gone in a lot of different directions over the years.
Tavlin owns a jewelry story in Lincoln. He stopped playing with the group full time after 12 years but still plays with the trumpet section for some concerts.
Rex Cadwallander earned an Emmy for music composition and teaches in Connecticut.
Stearns left television news photography to set up a llama and alpaca farm in Kentucky.
Many others stayed with the NJO and continue to play.
“The truly remarkable thing about this is the longevity of this thing,” Stearns said. “It’s hard enough keeping a trio together much less 18 disparate individuals. And for 40 years? Wow. That’s pretty incredible!”
Ed Love, the orchestra’s energetic sax-playing conductor, gets credit for maintaining the group’s musical heartbeat over the years. There were equal parts excitement in the chance to see old friends and anxiety in leading a band that hadn’t played fully together as a group in many years.
“It’s just great to see that some of us are still alive. That’s really good,” Love said, noting that two members had survived open-heart surgery in the intervening years.
Asked if there were any musical challenges he replied with an upbeat “We’ll find out!”
“They haven’t quit playing,” Love said. “They’re all good players or I wouldn’t have invited them back.”
“I am absolutely confident that when we play tonight it’s going to feel more like it did 40 years ago,” Cadwallander said, leaning against the school’s upright piano. “It just takes a minute to get there.”
The concert was scheduled to open with a tune Cadwallander wrote specifically for the original players of the NJO. Titled S.O.L., it typified the group’s preferred style in the early days.
“It’s a swing tune to begin with and then it goes into a really heavy funk,” Tavlin explained. “It features at one point all the trumpets soloing simultaneously. It is definitely high and loud. It is a physical challenge to play that.”
It’s also an example of how the young band became a creative proving ground for its ambitious musicians.
“I think that was the second or third thing I ever wrote for a big band,” Cadwallander said. “These guys in their generosity as young musicians, gave me the opportunity to try out a lot of things to learn a lot of stuff. It was a huge gift to me. It was like having a laboratory.”
The rehearsal was so quickly paced there was little time for the concert’s featured soloists to try out their parts. The emphasis was on getting each section back in sync with each other. That part appeared to be going just fine.
Tavlin and the three other players in the trumpet section traded non-verbal cues and small grins throughout the tune, clearly in a comfortable place.
“A lot of it is the camaraderie particularly within the section and to instinctively know what the other players are going to do,” Tavlin explained. “There’s a lot of pleasure in that kind of thing because it sounded good (and) it feels good.”
There were ragged sections, but generally the practice went well and reinforced some who were jittery about returning to a group they loved.
There was just enough time for some misty nostalgia. Specific numbers like S.O.L. still resonated.
“When it was done I looked over at Rex who was sitting next to me and said, ‘what was that?’” Stearns said. “We both commented what a rush of memories came back at hearing that music.”
Conductor Love was smiling as he packed up his sax at rehearsal’s conclusion.
“It wasn’t perfect, but it’s amazing how things come together,” Love said. “People usually concentrate pretty well at the concert so we’ll be all right. We’ll be fine.”
The next night, before a full house at Lincoln’s Cornhusker Hotel, the veterans of Nebraska Jazz Orchestra fell into a groove they really never left.
There was hearty applause from the audience and a band stand beaming with smiles from musicians who reclaimed a 40-year-old bond.
“These are the guys who were there at the beginning and I think the whole arc of it is something worth celebrating,” Stearns said nodding. He’d been away from the band now longer than the span he actually played with them during the frantic early years.
“That’s why you make music,” Cadwallander said. “You are looking for those moments that come all too rarely when you actually achieve a kind of perfection. A kind of perfect congruency of events and sound that sends shivers up your spine.”
The Nebraska Jazz Orchestra continues its concert series through March of next year.
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