Three years ago this month, the District’s jazz scene received a true gift. The Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra made its debut, giving the city its only regularly performing big band. Every Monday, 17 of the area’s most talented musicians hold court in the historic club, playing two sets of music and sometimes pulling in the occasional guest band or invited soloist. The audience, often standing-room-only, hears an eclectic book of music that includes classics by Count Basie and Duke Ellington alongside compositions by orchestra members. Not a bad deal for $10.
Pulling this off is no small feat, especially considering the previous big band that performed at the Caverns crumbled under less-than-amicable circumstances. BCJO co-directors and co-founders Brad Linde and Joe Herrera deserve a great deal of credit. First off, the gig is on an off-night, by necessity. These are working musicians, so finding a time slot between Thursday and Sunday would be all but impossible. Even on a Monday, putting together a roster of skilled musicians, and finding acceptable substitutes, takes effort. Nonetheless, a number of top-flight musicians such as Elijah Jamal Balbed, Sarah Hughes, Shannon Gunn and Brent Birckhead appear regularly with the band, despite the fact that it’s not a big money-maker.
“In a very short time, the BCJO has become like a family and an institution for those that come to listen and to play,” Linde said. “That means so much, to have everyone want to show up and play together each week, to work on our group sound, our reading, and to enjoy improvising and exploring new music together.”
While New York City might have half a dozen clubs that feature a weekly big band night, pulling off that feat here in D.C., where the ranks of professional musicians are much thinner, is quite a challenge. Then there’s the fact that in this fairly small city, people aren’t known for partying on Monday nights. That so many people, including a number of regulars, are willing to come out week after week indicates that the band is doing something right.
“The audience experiences the band in an intimate environment. They sit very close to the band, they talk to us before and after the show,” Linde said. “But what is most important is that they are getting an honest experience.”
It’s more than just atmosphere that makes a Monday night in the Caverns something special. No matter how good a band is, if it offers the same thing every week, people will tire of it. To that end, Linde and Herrera have taken a forward-thinking approach, giving the orchestra a chance to develop its own evolving voice. Arrangers like Dan Roberts, Amy K. Bormet, and Leigh Pilzer have contributed compositions and arrangements. The group also workshops new music in front of the audience, giving them a look into the process behind learning and performing an arrangement.
Much like its big band counterparts in the Big Apple, the BCJO is also building a reputation by performing in venues throughout the area. The orchestra played its rendition of Ellington’s arrangement of The Nutcracker Suite in front of sold-out crowds at Strathmore during the holiday season. Linde is also working on a big band/burlesque collaboration with Tilted Torch that will take place at the Howard Theatre. The directors are also looking for ways to institutionalize the orchestra outside of the Caverns, so that it is more than just a live music event. They are not only planning to record an album, but are also developing educational outreach and other special projects.
“The idea of the band was to become something bigger than an individual or group. Naming it after the club, having co-direction, allowing for all styles and a large repertoire were parts of the plan to have the band exist into perpetuity,” Linde said.
This eye toward the future promises good tidings for the local jazz community, as does the fact that the new Bethesda Blues and Jazz Supper Club also recently launched a Monday-night big band. One might worry that in competing for a relatively small audience, this band and the BCJO could somehow cancel each other out. My guess is that this won’t be the case. I don’t sense that many people from the ‘burbs come to Bohemian. Furthermore, the Caverns and the Supper Club are operating under very different business models. (Look out for more on the Bethesda club in next month’s column.) So the upshot for now is that there is more big band to go around for everyone, and that’s a very good thing.
Sriram Gopal is CapitalBop’s monthly columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]