BLOOMINGTON — Want to hear some “cha-cha” outside Bloomington’s Old Courthouse?
The Heartland Jazz Orchestra will perform a pop-up concert Friday night on Center Street, just outside the McLean County History Museum in downtown Bloomington. Wednesday noon, the weather announced for Friday was sunny, so the songs should swing.
The nonprofit HJO Foundation has been putting top-notch musicians on Twin City stages for decades, spanning arrangements from modern to early jazz eras. Lead trumpeter Myles Singleton of Normal said some of his bandmates have performed all over the world.
This includes band leader David Hoffman, who continues to recover at home after a months-long stay in hospital. He was previously part of the Ray Charles Orchestra and plans to attend the Friday show.
Although 2020 was a failure for the 20-member band, Singleton said they have started to get back together and add new dates to the band’s schedule. Their most recent gig was on August 21 at Westminster Village in Bloomington. Before that, they performed live at the Normal Theater last November.
Singleton pointed out that they will have a regular rotation of pop-up concerts, which are sponsored by the Prairies of Illinois Community Foundation and its Mirza Arts & Culture grants. He added that these shows are “just a way of saying thank you to the community by giving back free concerts and giving more visibility to jazz”.
Grants have also helped the group bring in guest artists from near and far, such as: Cuban pianist Chuchito Valdés, a five-time Grammy winner who joined HJO in 2013, 2011 and 2007; Chip McNeill, University of Illinois jazz professor, saxophonist and pianist who has also performed with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dizzy Gillespie; and trumpeter Rob Parton, who has held positions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
Other guest trumpeters have included Todd Kelly and Orbert Davis; other pianists include John Campbell, Reginald Thomas, and Illinois State University assistant music professor Kevin Hart, who also plays vibraphone. Guest saxophonists have included Mark Colby and Jim Boitos, a former ISU professor.
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Vocalist Barrington Coleman is another U of I teacher who accepted an invitation from HJO in 2001. The following year, fellow jazz singer Kurt Elling was a guest at HJO. McNeill and Kelly are still listed as guests who occasionally join the group for feature films.
HJO performed tracks such as Louie Armstrong’s “Hotter Than That”, Arturo Sandoval’s “Funky Cha-Cha” and several written by Hoffman himself.
Singleton said, “We always end with an arrangement of music by Hoffman titled ‘I Want You’.”
Singleton said the orchestra is always recruiting additional musicians, adding that they are moving them around the band. They are also looking for a certain level of skill.
“You don’t have to lower your horn after high school or college,” he said, adding that there are some very talented jazz bands out there. Singleton said they might not travel the world, but they still maintain that high level of quality.
“(HJO) is one of those bands for you. You can keep playing after college and keep developing your talent,” he said.
The lead trumpet player also said HJO served as a launch pad for its members: Singleton joined in 2004 after filling in the previous year.
Since then, he said he has traveled to many places across the country to perform, thanks to the skills he learned with HJO. Singleton said he wanted to extend this opportunity to other musicians.
One of his successful bandmates is Dan Burke, who plays alto, tenor and baritone saxophone. Although he’s not a professional musician, Singleton said, he can perform as well as one.
“It’s amazing what he does,” he said, noting that Burke can nail Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” by playing it as fast as he can, earning him a standing ovation.
The majority of their members are based in Bloomington-Normal, he said, and they draw others from Peoria and Urbana-Champaign. Singleton said Hoffman connected the members to gigs such as Broadway-level musicals at Peoria Civic Center, jazz festivals, and The Temptations 2009 show in Galesburg.
He said they were also working with area schools that were developing their jazz programs, stepping in to frame their classes and take them through the whole history of jazz music.
While HJO focuses on big band styles, Singleton said it’s good that they heavily emphasize solos.
“You can start with a heavy sound, but it comes down to a small combo band,” he said.
Singleton said he appreciated that the group could feature each member. He said they did a lot of showmanship in their performances, changing the style and adding variety.
“It keeps the engagement higher,” he said.
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Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison