The Houston Jazz Orchestra is a big-band time machine
It doesn’t mean anything if he doesn’t have that swing. These words from the late and great Ella Fitzgerald (via Duke Ellington and lyricist Irving Mills) might as well describe the Houston Jazz Orchestra. At least once a month, the 18-piece ensemble plays dynamic big band music – swing, funk, fusion – to an audience of amazed students, fellow musicians, hungry jazz fans and curious people don’t know Woody. Herman by Woody Harrelson.
Newcomers surprised to find themselves digging into an HJO performance really shouldn’t be, says president and trombone player Jim McLaughlin.
“Things are moving,” he said. “There is something about the battery, the energy and the positive vibe. Count Basie probably put it best in an interview with 60 minutes. Morley Safer or someone like that said, “Can you describe your music? And he said, ‘Kick your foot.’ “
Houston Jazz Orchestra dates back about 30 years; its current iteration has been going on for about four years, when House of Blues gave the group an uncovered monthly residency at their restaurant. Members’ ages range from mid-twenties to mid-70s.
Hearings are only on personal recommendation. A five-member player committee settles all squad-related matters, from the repertoire to the staff. McLaughlin, 63, who works in the construction industry, believes he may be the only current member with a ‘day job in the company’.
Many more are educators, including TSU and Sam Houston State jazz program leaders and Warren Sneed, jazz studies program director at Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston. But everyone is a “premier, premier independent musician,” says McLaughlin. “There are no amateurs in this group.”
As a nonprofit, HJO spends a large portion of its operating budget on the periodic, often broken down by instrument, educational clinics that it runs at high schools in the Houston area. Jazz may be relatively obscure in today’s pop mainstream, but its power to dazzle aspiring musicians remains intact.
“When we played the first note of the first song, I looked in the audience and saw 100 children and their parents. Their mouths went open, ”says McLaughlin, recalling a post-clinic concert. “You could drive a car into their mouths.”
In addition to the HOB residence, HJO occasionally gives concerts out of town, such as the Lamar Jazz Festival de Beaumont, which will take place in April. The day McLaughlin spoke with Houstonia, the ensemble had just completed three services at Lone Star Cowboy Church in Montgomery County.
Rude Wranglers guys grooving to Maynard Ferguson and Stan Kenton tunes may be an unusual image, but “we’ve been doing it for the last four years and they love it,” McLaughlin says. “They can’t have enough.”
The Houston Jazz Orchestra the next performance, which is part of a monthly residency at House of Blues, will take place on February 25 at 8. To free. 1204 Caroline Street 888-402-5837.