Earth-shaking, big-band jazz every Sunday evening.
FitzGerald’s, the Berwyn nightclub on Roosevelt Road, has a long tradition of booking swing bands for the Sabbath but recently they’ve allowed a new organization to find the talent for the third Sunday of the month. The Chicagoland Big Band Jazz Society is committed to the historical study of the genre, supporting Sundays at FitzGerald’s and promoting the future of big-band jazz.
The founders are Riverside resident Dr. Bob Novak and Harry Condon. It was their idea to book the Shout Section Big Band, fronted by songstress Maureen Christine, for the show on Oct. 16. Despite competition from the Bears, the joint was packed with a diverse bunch of big-band enthusiasts.
The 16-piece Shout Section swung through classics like “Take the A Train,” “One O’Clock Jump” and “My Favorite Things.” They generated a roof-raising wall of sound, energizing an enthusiastic foot-stomping audience. FitzGerald’s 1930s roadhouse décor provided the perfect setting for the music.
The swing was irresistible, punctuated by blasts of sonic brilliance. As many as four couples were dancing at a time. One hoofer is still leading at the age of 85. Even kids could be found in the audience of this truly all-ages show.
Band leader Brett Dean was first inspired to play big-band music, fittingly enough, by listening to a “Live from FitzGerald’s” CD when he was 13.
“Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, Billy May – that became my popular music, said Dean, a trumpeter also teaches music to middle schoolers in St. Charles.
The Shout Section Big Band came together three years ago. They rehearse not far from FitzGerald’s at Riverside-Brookfield High School, but this was their first gig at the Berwyn club.
“It’s fantastic.” Dean said, “The sound is great and the history is incredible.”
As for the pros, FitzGerald’s has a generous arrangement with them.
“They get about ninety percent of what we take in at the door,” said owner Bill Fitzgerald, referring to the $10 cover. “So the more people we have, the more fun it is and the more money the band makes.”
The Shout Section Big Band is only one of many swing ensembles the club books on Sundays. Mainstays include the Chicago Grandstand Big Band, Bill O’Connell’s Chicago Skyliners and the brilliant John Burnett Orchestra. The club also books special guests like the Brienn Perry Orchestra, which took the stage on Oct. 30.
Getting back to the “amateurs” who are fighting to keep big band alive, Novak, aka the Jazz Doc, is a semi-retired obstetrician from Riverside. He grew up during the big-band era, which encompassed 1935 to 1950 by his estimation. This was a time when as many as 600 big bands crisscrossed the states. The classically trained clarinetist even led his own swing ensemble from 1948 to 1952. He played piano with his group, which was booked virtually every weekend. He counts Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Count Basie and Duke Ellington among his personal favorites.
What happened to big band?
“TV and rock ‘n’ roll ruined it,” the Jazz Doc complained, “We’re trying to resurrect the memories, promote the present and raise funds for the future.”
He hopes they can underwrite music scholarships for students and pay for musicians to introduce this “danceable music” to schools.
Condon also came of age during the Swing Era. He’s a huge fan of Sundays at FitzGerald’s, traveling all the way from his home in Crete for his weekly fix. “These are bands that make you say ‘Wow’! What a great sound – so dynamic, so precise, with solos playing on top and bottom.”
He identifies be-bop as the culprit that killed big-band jazz. The former trumpet player understood artists like Miles Davis, musically and melodically, but he just didn’t care for the style. When big-band jazz left the radio, “Europe took our music and ran with it,” Condon said. “Jazz wasn’t appreciated here, but they welcomed it with open arms.”
Happily for jazz buffs, an oasis appeared in the desert of pop music when FitzGerald’s conjured its Sunday swing sessions in 1983. Still, the jazz society founders feared their music was on the verge of extinction.
“There used to be hundreds of dance clubs like the Willowbrook,” Novak said. “Now there are two left in the U.S. There’s only about 75 live music venues left in the whole Chicago area.
Rather than cursing the silence, the duo decided to light a fire. In 2010 they launched their Chicagoland Big Band Jazz Society, with 120 members so far, subscribing to their quarterly newsletter. Their goal is to raise the membership to 1,000. After they secure their non-profit status, they plan to hold fundraisers for their scholarship program.
So far, booking bands has not been a problem. “We have more bands than dates,” Novak said. “I didn’t know so many bands existed. They’re coming to us.” They’re also getting requests from other venues seeking the big-band sound.
For those who would like to support the society, or subscribe to its newsletter, their website is chicagolandbigbandsociety.org. Patrons can also write to them at P.O. Box 404, Riverside, Ill. 60546, or call the Jazz Doc at 708-447-8696.
But enthusiasts can also get behind the society simply by coming to FitzGerald’s on Sunday evenings. The foot-stomping starts at 6 p.m.