When Dr. Ron Turbyfill formed the Rowan Big Band All Stars some sixteen years ago, he freely admits that he wasn’t planning for the future.
“I just wanted to create opportunities for my students, my fellow music teachers and musician friends to play and perform for the public,” he says with his characteristic grin. What started out to be just for a gig or two has evolved into an eighteen-member big band powerhouse of sound, and it’s coming to the Lee Street Theatre for the first time on Friday, December 16th.
Big Band music grew out of American jazz in the early 1900’s and reached its peak of popularity during the World War II years 1940-50, also referred to as “The Swing Era.” Dozens of truly great bands crisscrossed the country, and big wooden radio consoles brought the music into family living rooms across America. Many of these wonderful songs have proved so popular for so long that they are collectively referred to as “the Great American Songbook,” and today’s big bands play many songs and arrangements that were first played a generation earlier. Since then other forms of music have taken over the airwaves, but there is still a steady and loyal fanbase for big band music and new community bands playing big band music are popping up in small communities all over the state and across the country. Part of the purpose of the Rowan Big Band is to promote and preserve the legacy of this authentically American form of music here in Rowan County.
Diverse group of musicians
The composition of Rowan’s own Big Band is not unlike a box of assorted Christmas chocolates, made up of a wide assortment of “music nuts” from newcomers to old hands, traveling from homes as close as Salisbury and some from as far away as Charlotte and Winston-Salem. In addition to a few current and former music teachers, there are lawyers and financial professionals, a retail manager, a wastewater engineer, a barbeque restaurant owner and an army nurse. Most are retired but some are still actively working; some play music as often as they can and some choose to play exclusively with the Rowan Big Band. A few, like the music teachers, the retired college music professor who plays trombone and the drummer who owns a percussion business in Winston-Salem, have made music their livelihood while others have come back to music only after long careers doing something else. Several, like the retired Army nurse who plays the baritone sax and many of the music teachers, are fully trained on one instrument but gifted enough to pick up another and teach themselves how to play it as a hobby.
The individual bios of band members are fascinating and diverse; a few of the band’s musicians have played gigs backing well-known performers like Tony Bennett, Gladys Knight and Bob Hope. One musician was once the featured trumpet for bandleader Harry James’ big band and the guitarist toured with the New York production of “Godspell” as a teenager. Many have performed with local bands, theatre productions and symphony organizations here and elsewhere. High school and college students often sit in with the band as well, learning to play the favorites their own grandparents might have listened to.
Retired educator Bandleader Ron Turbyfill started his own music career as a band teacher at West Rowan High School with the saxophone as his chosen instrument specialty. Before he left West he had established a solid student jazz performance ensemble and concert band in addition to the traditional marching band program that characterizes almost every local high school music program today. Although he later went on to school principal posts at Southeast Middle School, Sedgefield Elementary in Greensboro, South Rowan High School and ultimately Hanford Dole Elementary, he’s never forgotten his roots as a music educator. It’s not unusual for his former students – now grown and with children of their own – to greet him after performances.
A nonprofit organization itself, the band has dedicated the net proceeds from its performances to charities like Communities In Schools of Rowan County, an independent organization which recruits and coordinates mentors at five Rowan County elementary schools and two middle schools. All of the 18-piece band’s members are unpaid volunteers, and they are as devoted to their hobby as any amateur golfer is. Many of the instruments that they play cost hundreds of dollars – and some have several – but theirs is a hobby that demands the best sound that they can deliver. They devote hours of practice, especially just before a show, but it’s clear to see that they enjoy each other’s company enough to make the investment of time and money.
Turbyfill is quick to point out that considers all of the musicians to be his close friends and their contributions to the band to be personal favors. “One of the most rewarding things about doing this is that subs are always eager to play with us,” says Turbyfill. “In my book, that means that we must be doing something right.”
Over the years the Band has acquired a 200+ item music library, from early 1900’s selections in a style called “Tin Pan Alley” because of their New York origins to New Orleans-inspired Dixieland, to the hard-driving swing of Count Basie’s band from the mid 1960’s. Many of these arrangements recall the great bandleaders of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s like Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington, and the great singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Dean Martin. While none of this music is considered “Top 40” today, it was wildly popular among the generation that came of age seventy years ago. There are still enough big band fans around to make a crowd whenever the musicians get together for a “gig,” and the growth of community bands performing jazz all over the country suggests that a new generation is discovering the off-beat, catchy melodies of “swing” and the big band brand of jazz music.
Many of the musicians in the Rowan Big Band have played together since the band’s creation in 2000, and the group has performed a Christmas show annually for over ten years. This December’s Christmas Show will be their first performance at the Lee Street Theatre’s newly completed performing arts center, which opened for the first time in November, 2013.
The Rowan Big Band “All Stars” include:
Trumpet: Van Rowell, Bill Hall, Ned Weavil, Don Angel and Conard Haywood
Trombone: Chris Wilson, Randell Hastings, Charles Emerich, Eric Shakespeare
Saxophone: Ron Turbyfill, Michelle Lee Trivette, Ed Harper, Tim Hedrick, Mary Ellen Williams
Piano: Nancy Sloop
Drums: Austen Peters
Guitar: Graham Carlton
Bass: Craig Malz
Vocalists: Nikki Jones-Bailey, Bill Bucher, Jr., with guest vocalists Alexis Cowan, Carol Harris, Leslie Rich and Randy Overcash.
The Rowan Big Band is playing one show only at the Lee Street Theatre on Friday, December 16th at 7:30pm. Tickets are $15.00 each (plus a small service charge), and are available online at www.leestreet.org. More information about the band can be found online at www.rowanbigband.com.