Swing Shift

San Jose Mercury News


Leigh Weimers

Think big bands. Think big cities.

Think big times in the '20s, '30s and '40s,

now revived for the '90s.

Think Cupertino?

It'S NOT the first place that pops into mind when you see that Gap commercial with the khaki-clad jitterbugs. But almost a decade ago, it was in that small city that a group of former musicians and fans got together to form a band that has become one of the mainstays of the Bay Area swing revival.

"You probably don't realize how many swing bands there are," says trumpeter Dave Satre of the Swing Solution big band. "There are probably more swing bands in this area than any place else in the world. The new swing movement started here. I started a list about four years ago and came up with about 50. That's a lot of big bands."

It was a lot of musicians who helped restart swing, capturing the imaginations of a younger dancing public in the process. In Cupertino's case, says current Swing Solution bandleadertrumpeter Joe Maemone, "a bunch of guys got together - former professional musicians and others - who wanted to play swing again. We ended up getting sponsored by the recreation department of the city of Cupertino."

Eldred Clark, who'd tried to keep big band music going by starting The Serenaders in the late 1960s, founded and directed what was then known as the Cupertino Swing Band in February 1990. Maemone became the leader in 1994, expanding the repertoire from the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw to include later works by Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, Count Basie and others. The band was renamed Swing Solution in 1995.

"The band is unique in that it is a cooperative," the group's brochure explains. "The many tasks that are required to keep the band operating are shared by members of the band. There aren't many bands where you will see one person selecting the charts to be played, another counting off the tempos to get the band started and another person cutting the band off at the end of the piece. It's unusual, but the spirit of communication in this band makes it work."

As befits a band from Silicon Valley, that focus on communication also extends to the Internet. Swing Solution's Web site (swingband.netgate.net) contains not only photos and profiles of the players but also appearance schedules, a history of the band and of swing, and even sound clips to download. As the profiles show, the band includes musicians from grizzled veterans to relative newcomers, from teachers and small-business owners to a high-tech CEO.

"There's quite a range of experience in the band," Satre agrees. "A lot of the guys have been playing for more than 50 years, and then there are a couple of relatively young ones. It's nice because you have that wealth of experience and the new musicians carrying on."

Interviews with band members and a perusal of the Internet site offer this snapshot of the 17-piece band's principal members:

Satre, for example, taught instrumental music in local schools for years but now makes his living through technical writing. He also plays with other area groups, including Elby Coy's band and Vernon Brooks'Latin big band.

New Yorker Maemone, another longtime musician, once played with the Ralph Flanagan band but has put food on the table more regularly by operating a transmission-repair shop and selling insurance. "It's tough to make a living in music," he acknowledges.

Tenor saxophonist Scott Switzer has been with the band from the start and also plays with the Mike Sloan big band. In his day job, he's an application-specific integrated circuit designer and president and CEO of SmartSand Inc.

Alto saxophonist Jon Hassan is a featured soloist and plays with a number of other area bands when he's not paying the bills as a machinist.

Mike Elliott has been playing the bass for over 45 years, the last five-plus with the Swing Solution. By day, he's a management consultant.

Pianist David Schultz, the band's newest member, holds bachelor's and master's degrees and is a Hewlett-Packard electronics engineer.

Drummer Dave Shaffer has played with such big band greats as Claude Thornhill, Ralph Flanagan, Ray Eberle, Art Mooney and Charlie Spivak. Also a veteran of the computer software business, he's currently a private investigator.

Another software engineer, Jason Loveman specializes in object-oriented networking and Internet applications for Microsoft Windows. And trombone.

Real estate agent Roger Fleming formerly worked for GTE Government Systems. A baritone saxophonist, he's also one of the band's charter members.

Tenor saxophonist Don Olivet has played with Louie Bellson, Johnny Griffin and Sonny Stitt, led his own jazz quartet on European tours and also doubles as a Sinatra-style vocalist. He's the owner of Acme Saw Sales and Service.

Joyce McCulloch holds down the spot of the band's "girl singer." She also works in the county public defender's office.

It's an obviously varied ensemble, and one that continues to evolve.

"We constantly try to upgrade the band talent-wise," Maemone says. "Someone will retire and a new player will move up.

We don't kick people out, but new players should contact us anyway (his number is 408-268-4781) because we need subs. We'll break 'em in, try 'em out at rehearsals to see if they can cut it and then give I 'em a call if we need someone to fill in. "They can work up through the chairs."

There's plenty of work, Satre adds. "We play art and wine festivals, summer concerts in the parks. We also played for the opening of Highway 85 and when they opened the Ainsley House in Campbell, events like that. We're probably one of the most community-oriented bands around. I think we do more community concerts than most. And even outdoors, people will dance. They just get out there on the concrete, you know?"

But what really gets the band pumped is playing for younger audiences, the dancers leading the swing revival. "We've been fortunate in recent years to do a lot of the Stanford dances," Maemone says.

"They really like us," Satre agrees. "It's so much fun! One time, there were 1,000 kids - the best dancers I've ever seen, and they're getting even better. They're throwing the girls over their shoulders -- all that stuff. And they don't stop! They want to dance all night

"A couple of months ago, we played at a high school concert band festival at Jack London Square, and they just loved us. The festival director asked us to play nothing but swing, to wear the kids out so they'd go to sleep rather than carouse, but they still got really hyper. They were really getting worked into a frenzy toward 11 o'clock. They were just a lot of fun."

Neither Maemone nor Satre foresees the swing revival getting big enough to bring big bands back into full flower, however.

"The economics are rough," Satre explains. "The Brian Setzer Band is on the road, playing six nights out of seven. If he misses a night, it costs him about $160,000; he has a payroll to meet, transportation, lodging, all of that. It's a very expensive proposition. That's what killed the big bands in the first place."

It's also hard to find places with room enough for a big band or with a dance floor large enough for swing dancing. "We've played The Usual, The Back Beat, and we can barely squeeze the band in. We're 17 pieces, and they're built for rock bands," Maemone notes.

"But a lot of smaller combos are playing swing stuff," Satre adds. "There's a whole circuit developing. It's like the old rhythm and blues bands that also are playing swing."

"It's just good music," Maemone says, with feeling, "the music that our parents danced to and grew up with. Glenn Miller in particular. You pick'em, we play'em -- Duke Ellington, Billy May, Les Elgart. We have almost 800 arrangements now we can draw from, compared to the couple hundred we had at the start. We can play a long time." Miller tunes are the most requested.

"And it's not just the kids who are catching on but older people, too," Satre adds, "people who didn't know about the music before. I think the big part of it is the dancing. A couple of generations have gone past with rock dancing, and people never close-danced at all. Now they've caught on to the idea of actually doing something with another person. It's still the best excuse in the world to get your arms around a girl."

And a good excuse to play the music, at the band's weekly practices and at the many gigs. Not that the musicians need any excuse.

"We're just thankful we're able to play, "Maemone says earnestly. "that's enough.,,

Contact Leigh Weimers at lweimers@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5547. The fax number is (408) 271-3786.