When Harry Boesch worked for the Kellogg Co. in the 1960s and went to New York City on business, he made sure to arrive on a Sunday afternoon or Monday morning. That ensured he could nab a seat on Monday night at Village Vanguard, a famous, now-80-year-old jazz club in Greenwich Village. Boesch recalls an insightful moment that happened at the club many years ago. After the first set, he complimented Roland Hanna — a major jazz artist and solo pianist — on his band.
“Man, this ain’t no band,” Hanna replied. “This is a team.”
All these years later, Boesch gets it.
In 2005, Boesch put together the Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra, a contemporary 18-piece jazz orchestra that has since released a CD, Timeless, and fills the house when it performs at The Union Cabaret & Grille, on the Kalamazoo Mall. It also plays at other locales, including Bronson Park for the Concerts in the Park summer series.
“I now know what Roland was talking about,” says Boesch, who plays trombone. “We are playing as a team, listening and interacting with each other. The more you play, the more in tune you become with each other. That’s what I attribute most of our current success to.”
Since the group has retained most of its members for the past five years, the members have learned to pick up on each other’s cues. “It’s the continuity of people and playing together that has been as instrumental as anything in improving our performance quality,” Boesch says.
Another element that greatly contributes to the band’s success is its wealth of talent. Notable professional jazz musicians who have played and toured with legendary musicians worldwide make up its roster, including trumpeter Danny Barber, who played with The Tommy Dorsey Band and Maynard Ferguson; bassist Denis Shebukhov, who has performed at The Gilmore International Keyboard Festival and Detroit International Jazz Festival; trombonist Earlie Braggs, who performed with Cab Calloway and Cat Anderson; saxophonist Gary McCourry, who served as a military musician at West Point for 23 years and now plays with several area groups, including the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra and Kalamazoo and West Michigan symphony orchestras; and vocalist Edye Evans Hyde, who has performed around the world for more than 30 years and shared the stage with world-renowned singers such as Ray Charles.
In addition, the Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra features faculty members from Western Michigan University’s School of Music, including trumpeter Scott Cowan, associate professor of jazz and director of the WMU Jazz Orchestra, whose own CD, Jack’s Place, has been highlighted on more than 50 U.S. radio stations.
When Boesch put together the jazz orchestra, he was playing in small groups and dance bands. “When you are in a dance band, you play stuff over and over,” he says. “You like playing but get bored and complacent.”
Wanting to play more-sophisticated music, Boesch approached other musicians and found his cohorts expressed similar feelings. “They said, ‘We’d be glad to join the band, provided you are not going to play dance music,’” Boesch says. “They wanted to play more-contemporary things with more of a jazz feel. That was the basis on which I started the band, and then I refined it.”
But something else also propelled Boesch to form the jazz orchestra — the area’s lack of a place to listen to a live, big-band orchestra. Boesch, who has played trombone since the fourth grade, says he is a self-professed “big-band junkie.” He became hooked during high school in the 1950s, the heyday of the large jazz orchestra.
“Now we come to today, and it has become difficult to hear good, professional big-band music anymore,” he says. “There’s as many as ever recording, but you can’t go hear them. Nothing can duplicate a live performance. The power, performance and beauty don’t translate to recording.”
Classifying their group as a contemporary jazz orchestra, the members of the Gull Lake Jazz Orchestra play compositions and arrangements by current arrangers. The group does, however, perform some of the music created in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I still like to hear melody,” Boesch says. “I don’t like a lot of dissonance. I’d rather play a jazz arrangement of ‘My Funny Valentine’ that people understand. I guess I’m still traditional in that approach.”
The jazz orchestra’s opening tune, “Time After Time,” was updated by artist Don Schamber. “People can hear that melody and relate to it,” Boesch says. “And it still fills our need to play good, solid arrangements (with which) musicians can be as creative as they want to be.”