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The Band Played On

The unrelenting glare of the hottest June on record pours through the clubhouse door framing the cloudless blue sky. It's still only morning, yet the temperature outside is nearly 90 degrees. So it's with irony that the somewhat unruly 19-piece big band crowding the stage offers the opening bars of Hoagy Carmichael's wee-hours classic "Stardust."

Wearing short sleeves and Bermuda shorts, vocalist John Lolli takes the microphone and slips smoothly into a song he's performed hundreds of times. Closing his eyes, he cocks his head to one side and sings: "Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of the sun/The melody haunts my reverie and I am once again with you...."

To some degree melody and reverie haunt the members of the Township Big Band, a collective of mostly retired players who are old enough to remember the great big bands and their leaders: Ellington, Basie, Shaw, Henderson, Dorsey. For many of the musicians, the lush sound of big-band jazz triggers memories of youth. But when they gather Saturday mornings in the clubhouse of the Township residential community in Coconut Creek, they get to relive a part of that youth.

As good as its ears may be, the band must be colorblind. In the front row, a handful of saxophonists and clarinetists wear mismatched golf shirts that don't do much to cover some of their prominent bellies. Their legs are pale, their shorts bright, their socks stretched over bony shins. Reading glasses magnify eyes that scan the sheet music. In the rows behind the reed instruments, brass and silver horns gleam below lined faces. The drummer sits in the back, and stage left is band leader Arnie Miller, who directs from behind his bulky standup bass.

The public is welcome to come and listen, even dance. But today there are only a few audience members, mostly because it's summertime, the off-season for snowbirds. One fan, Sylvio Ranuro, is here to see his brother Frank play drums. "The guys in the group change," Sylvio says, "but the music is always good."

"They put their heart into it," Arnie Miller, age 61, said before the rehearsal. "The great majority of the musicians here live on the Township grounds, and [the band] was originally established primarily for the residents that like to play. So we fill in with others [who live outside the community] so that we complete our sections. While most of the musicians are professional, there are several people here that are not. They just like to play."

Miller, a New York City native, began studying violin at the age of eight, but he switched to bass in his teens so that he could play jazz. He made his living as a biology teacher but always played music on the side. It wasn't until he retired and moved to South Florida that he was able to dedicate himself to music full-time.

"When I retired two years ago, one of the things I always wanted to do was play the music I wanted to play, the music that I loved," Miller said. "Ninety-nine percent of these guys did other things before music. Now that they've retired, they can get together and do what they want to do. Florida gives you the opportunity to pursue your dreams. For a band that's been together only eight months, I think that it's beginning to jell."

The band was formed late last year by Milton Peckman, an attorney who wanted to return to the trumpet he'd learned to play in high school. He began by recruiting in the Township, where he discovered many fine musicians who shared his dream of putting together a band. He soon formed a core group that included wisecracking tenor saxophonist Stan Levine (who bears a striking resemblance to Larry "Bud" Melman), tenor/alto saxman Ben Friedman, and impish baritone saxophonist Jack Christianson. The Township clubhouse was the ideal site for rehearsals, and soon curious spectators began to show up. The band has played actual gigs at condo developments and dances, but the rehearsals enable pro and amateur musicians alike to get together informally and work through the old big-band tunes.

"Most of these guys have always done this. This is what they do, whether it was in style or not," said drummer Frank Ranuro, age 70. "Most of the tunes are up here [he tapped his temple] -- 900 of 'em."

Ranuro's not exaggerating. He knows exactly when to swing during a song and when to accent. Raised in Brooklyn, he was the son of an amateur drummer whose childhood bout with polio rendered his left leg weak and underdeveloped. "But he was still a great dancer," Ranuro said. "We were poor, so at first I only had sticks. I would play on the couch, on the windowsills, until my father finally got me a drum set for $15. I did my first gig when I was about 19, in Brooklyn in the early '40s. I've never stopped playing professionally since."

He also learned a lot by watching others.
"I got the chance to see the best in my time: Gene Krupa with Tommy Dorsey, Buddy Rich, Lester Young at the Village Vanguard makin' 40 bucks a week and blowin' his brains out back in '38.... If you don't love it, you might as well stay the hell home," Ranuro said.

Vocalist Graci Ragsdale came to the music somewhat late in life. As a child of the '50s, she wasn't around for big band's golden age, but she understands the music's hold on a generation.

"It brings back such wonderful memories to the people of that era," Ragsdale said. "Part of it is the nostalgia, the romance of the whole thing. They're transported to the best moments of their lives. They remember the jitterbug, waltzes, the two-step. There's a lot of interest in this music down here in Florida because of the older population. The music's influence lives on. I'm sure the people involved with the music at that time had no idea the impact the music would have in the future."

The impact, at the moment, is something of a trend. The movie Swingers, the "cocktail" scenes in some of the country's major cities, and the success of horn outfits like Squirrel Nut Zippers and Cherry Poppin' Daddies have spurred a nouveau-swing revolution. Frank Sinatra's death only intensified the trend, sending a handful of his decades-old recordings into the Top 40.

Miller noted the importance of having the older generation help to maintain the swing tradition. "These guys are getting older. Once they pass on, who's going to keep this music alive? They're living links to the past," he said.

Miller is a substitute teacher in Broward County and gives bass lessons at Sam Ash music store in Margate. While he's noticed the growing interest in big-band music among high-school students, he pointed out that technical ability only goes so far.

"Every high school has its own jazz band in the style of the big bands these days," he said. "I've invited students to experience the way these guys play, and some have come out. But very few students can really play it right. It's very artificial. Maybe by listening to these experienced guys they can learn how to play it from the heart."

Then, referring to his fellow band members, he added: "Though sometimes they can act like students, too."

The older musicians can't help but carry on -- that's what rehearsals are for. While working through "Miami Beach Rumba," for example, the mischievous Christianson wandered off the stage and shook his head in dismay. He traced a square in midair with his fingers and sat down at the side of the stage, refusing to play until the shaky brass section tightened up.

During these Saturday rehearsals, mistakes are greeted mostly with hoots and howls, reflections of the youthful enthusiasm that keeps these folks coming back week after week. They joke with each other, but they are serious about the music.

"In this music the interplay of each section with the others is very important. It's very exciting to listen to because it really shows off the expertise of the musicians," Miller said.

That experience is evident as vocalist Lolli navigates the tricky twists and turns of "Stardust," his expression dreamy. Lolli continues: "The melody haunts my memory/And I am once again with you/When our love was true and each kiss an inspiration/But that was long ago/Now my consolation is in the stardust of a song...."

For a moment everyone in the room forgets the bright sunlight flooding in through the door. To them it's midnight, there's a dance floor full of couples, and the only thing that matters is the melody that floats like bubbles through the air.

The Township Big Band rehearses in the community clubhouse every Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to noon. Listeners and dancers are welcome. The Township is located at Copans and Lyons roads, Coconut Creek. For more information contact Arnie Miller at 954-917-9061.

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Manuel Pila

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