Reports of the death of big-band jazz have been greatly exaggerated.
The issue was brought to the fore again when Doc Severinsen's "The Tonight Show" band ended a 30-year reign at Johnny Carson's retirement on May 22. This was the last widely public big-band forum, beamed out to millions nightly.
Yes, big-band jazz is an endangered species, but there remains a stubborn lifeline of fascination that keeps it alive in the face of adversity and thorny logistics. Musicians will travel far and wide and accept low pay to play the stuff. Audiences will brave sleet and snow, and forgo the lure of a good TV show to come out and hear and/or dance to the stuff.
In the past few months, Ventura County has had its own weekly contribution to the perpetuation of the big-band genre. Every Tuesday night at Mullarkey's in the Radisson Suite Hotel in Oxnard, the irrepressible Joe Vento strikes up a big band composed of fine players who come from Ventura County, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and as far away as Indio.
There Vento stands at the helm in his iridescent, psychedelic coat of many colors. Well, he doesn't exactly stand on the job. He works the room. He runs over to the piano to plunk out a few parts when the pianist doesn't show up. He eggs on the soloists, bellowing their names in the microphone during and after a solo.
It's not for nothing that Vento has the band play the classic and now-retired "The Tonight Show" theme song written by Paul Anka. As you may have heard, there is a "Tonight" connection here.
The 66-year-old Vento, whose long, rambling career began when he joined the popular group the Three Sons starting in 1950, played on "The Tonight Show" many times when it was based in New York. He has accrued a mighty list of musician contacts to draw from.
Drummer Chuck Flores is a well-known L. A. player who often subbed for "Tonight" regular Ed Shaughnessy.
Alto saxophonist John Bambridge spent years in the band that Doc led, writing many of the arrangements. His son, trumpeter John Bambridge Jr., also has played in the "Tonight" band.
On a recent Tuesday night, the elder Bambridge brought in a new chart for the band to run down, a rock-pulsed tune called "Go." "You better be careful with that chart," Vento said to the band, grinning, "the ink's still wet."
The next day, Bambridge would be off with the old "Tonight" band for a three-week tour that culminates in two shows at the Gainey Vineyard in Santa Ynez on July 31 and Aug. 1.
Meanwhile, back in Oxnard, we find some local luminaries on the stand. Ventura trombonist Craig Woods, who has played with various big bands and in other contexts--including, locally, in the R & B Bombers--delivers the goods.
Tim Taylor, a young musician from Newbury Park who teaches high school in the Conejo Valley, is a force to be reckoned with on tenor saxophone.
On- and offstage, big-band jazz is a rare realm that cuts across ages. Woods sits next to trombonist Barney Leidell, who spent years in Lawrence Welk's band.
Older patrons remember the swing era, when this music was America's popular music and stoked the fires of various dance crazes. Younger listeners and jazz fans appreciate the intricacies of the organism, the subtle textures and rhythmic layers within the format.
Vento is keenly aware of the specialized nature of his Tuesday night project. "This is music of the upper echelon," he confided to the crowd. "You have to be intelligent to appreciate this music. You can't be an idiot."
A couple of days later, Vento was giving this reporter a tour of his congenially cluttered house in Simi Valley, where he has lived for the past three years. "You should see Jerry Lewis' house," Vento shrugged. "It's worse than this." Restless, creative minds are rarely tidy.
Musical implements are strewn through the house, including a grand piano and a Musical Instrument Digital Interface-equipped accordion, and a central command post with synthesizers linked to a computer. Of late, he has been overdubbing one-man digital band arrangements, to be released as demo albums for the MIDI accordion.
"People say, 'At 66, what are you doing studying computers?' " said Vento. "I say, 'If I get to be a thousand and they have something new coming out, I'm going to have to be among the first to look into it.' They used to call me Mr. Curiosity." He has also studied optometry and psychiatry.
A few of Vento's many albums are stacked in the house's entryway, including the campy-looking record "The Many Moods of Joe Vento." On the jacket art, a woman in go-go boots gazes dreamily at the keyboardist.
In his music room, the walls are a composite portrait of a life in the industry, lined with signed glossies from show biz folks that Vento has worked with. There's Ann-Margret ("Oh, she liked me," he said, grinning), Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, Liberace, Charlton Heston, Debbie Reynolds, Janet Leigh, Dean Martin, Joan Collins and on and on.
One panel is devoted to a stripper named Monique Murray, seen in various stages of undress. "She was nice, a Wisconsin farm girl."
Vento is not shy. He has firm opinions about music outside his spectrum of tastes, including what he calls the "low mentality" realm of country-Western, rock 'n' roll, and even some 20th-Century classical music.
"You have people like Schoenberg or even Bartok--a lot of cacophony and discordant tones. Well, Bartok had emotional problems and things were off," he said, pointing to his temple. "He had a mental disorder. The music reflected it."
What of rock 'n' roll? "Maybe it's just a step above when you're little and you sing 'Mary had a little lamb . . . ' or 'patty-cake . . . ' That's all right for two or three years, but are you going to go through life just one cut above that--instead of going into more complex structured music? The world is becoming more and more complex and music should reflect that."
For now, every Tuesday night, Vento's big-band passion is our gain. In August, he plans to take the band to Maxim's in Las Vegas, and it also will play at the Rocket Bowl in Chatsworth, where Sammy Davis Jr. once played 35 years ago.
It's the sort of place the Three Sons would have fit right into. Joe Vento has come full circle.
WHERE AND WHEN
Joe Vento's Big Band, Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. at Mullarkey's, in the Radisson Suite Hotel, 2101 Vineyard Ave. in Oxnard.