This band's got a solution for jumpy feet
By Dwana Bain
On one night a month, the Cupertino Senior Center becomes a ballroom. While the multipurpose room is perhaps not as grand as the dance halls of the '30s and '40s, the enthusiasm of the dancers is not diminished. The full, live sound of an authentic big band seems all the inspiration they need.
The first Monday of every month is open rehearsal night for The Swing Solution, a Cupertino-based band that has been capturing the hearts of swing fans all over the Bay Area. For many of the group's fans, the music brings back smiles and memories.
This is the best music that I've heard in many, many years. Ann Rhodes, a follower of band, said. "They play our music - no bebop, no heavy metal." I love it," Rhodes' friend Betty Merslich agreed. "It takes me back to my teens. If I'm feeling down, I come and listen to music, and it lifts my spirits.
Many of the band's followers remember the days when the Bay Area was filled with dance halls and bands played live dance music. Most of the swing-era ballrooms are now gone, as are most professional swing bands.
Although college swing bands have remained popular, professional swing bands began to taper off with the invention of amplification, said The Swing Solution arranger Bill Autry.
But Autry believes there is still nothing like the real thing. There's an excitement that comes from the sound of a big band that no small group can ever furnish," he said.
The Swing Solution started in 1990 as the Cupertino Swing Band. The group is a full-blown, 18-piece big band whose song list includes the works of Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Count Basic and Duke Ellington.
They also play other types of big band jazz music, which trumpet player Dave Satre describes as "not danceable."
The Swing Solution also performs the works of lesser-known band leaders and even an occasional original piece. The music ranges from soft, slow and sweet to swanky to bouncy, fast and fun.
Although all of The Swing Solution musicians are gifted, they bring to the band different musical backgrounds, all of which shape the group's style. Musical director Rolland Coe, for example, has an extensive jazz background and favors fast, upbeat pieces. Autry played with Lawrence Welk. Singer Joyce McCulloch sang rock & roll and Top 40 before she learned swing. Pianist Dave Miller had a brief stint playing swing in college, but rediscovered his affection for the music when he joined the band five years ago. A number of the musicians are classically trained, and most play more than one instrument.
The musicians run the gamut of day jobs, also. Members include a private investigator, a retired airline pilot and a college student. "You'd be surprised how many techies are musicians," said Satre, a technical writer by day.
Although the band's groupies are mostly seniors, swing music is enjoying renewed popularity particularly among young people, Satre said. "I have two kids in their early 20s, and all of a sudden I'm cool because I'm in a swing band."
Musical director Coe likes to cater the music to the crowd. For the younger dancers, he has the band play a lot of jump tunes and "hot jazz," the kind of "swing-the-girl-over-your knee" stuff Coe said younger people like to dance to.
Coe is not surprised that swing is so enduringly popular. "It's a simple kind of music that is upbeat and uplifting."
There is a cheerful camaraderie among the band members, even when disagreeing on the interpretation of a piece. Coe said that in contrast to the original big bands, the soloists in Swing Solution have leeway when choosing the tempo of their songs. Coe often chooses pieces to highlight the group's special talents.
Swing fans Rhodes and Merslich echo Satre's statement about the music's popularity among young people.' They told the story of a young man who showed up at one of the open rehearsals, asked Merslich to dance and surprised her with his gracefulness. "He was like Fred Astaire," Merslich said.
Merslich brought her 11-year-old granddaughter, Elizabeth, to join in the fun. It seems even Elizabeth caught swing fever - she was still dancing after the music stopped.
Fran and Phil Ziff are host and hostess of the monthly open rehearsals. "It's so great to have a place to dance in your own area," Fran Ziff said. Although she graciously volunteers her husband to dance with the ladies, Ziff added that she'd like more men to come to the dance.
McCulloch, the band's vocalist, attracts a lot of attention from the dancers. "Not many people these days can sing in that style," Ward said.
McCulloch said crooning for a big band isn't like singing rock & roll, which doesn't require as much finesse. "People listen to your voice [in a big band]. You have to be somewhat of a good singer."
Although the band does paying gigs, the members are clearly not in it for the money. Any pay the band receives is divided 18 ways.
Coe believes the band's popularity stems not only from its talent but from its enthusiasm. "We have that spark; we play upbeat stuff. We don't just play the notes; we get into the music."
Band members agree that the music provides something for them as well as for the audience. "It's a spiritual thing. God has blessed me with the desire to do it," Miller said.
For Autry, the good feeling he gets playing music is the best thing about being in The Swing Solution. "It gives you a tingle down your back like nothing else," Autry said.
The Swing Solution holds open rehearsals on the first Monday of every month from 7:15 to about 8:45 p.m. Refreshments are served. The donation is $1 for Cupertino Senior Center members, all seniors and their guests, and $3 for others. For more information, call 777-3150.
Dec. 10, 1997