by Len Lear
The Venetian Club of Chestnut Hill, 8030 Germantown Ave., has just partnered with the Monday Blues Jazz Orchestra (MBJO), a renowned musical ensemble that performs regularly at many venues in the Delaware Valley, to bring big band jazz to Chestnut Hill on the third Friday evening of every month.
(Founded in 1924 by fine craftsmen from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy who migrated to Philadelphia, the Venetian Social Club is a non-profit social organization whose main function is fun, friendship and fellowship. The club features pool, shuffleboard and bowling facilities as well as a full-service bar for members only. It also features the largest rental facility in the Chestnut Hill area.)
The first performance of MBJO will be Friday, Feb. 20, 8 to 10:30 p.m. The band will feature one or two of its five singers each month; occasional special guests will join the band, which will consist of 19 or 20 musicians, including five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, etc.
Following are some questions we put to Jerry Zucker, a spokesman for the band, and his replies:
Q: How long has the band been together?
A: The Monday Blues Jazz Orchestra has been in continuous existence since its formation in the late 1960s by engineers at RCA’s aerospace facility in West Windsor, NJ. (Literally, the band was started by rocket scientists.)
Are any members of the band from Northwest Philly or the nearby suburbs? If so, what are their names, what instruments do they play, and where do they live?
Some of our members are from Bucks and Montgomery Counties and Philadelphia. Jeannie Brooks and Kevin Valentine, both singers, are from Philly, and both sing in Chestnut Hill regularly. Brian Pastor, one of our trombone players, runs his own big band in Northeast Philly. Mark Amentt, our bass player, lives in Fort Washington. I play alto and soprano saxophone, clarinet and flute, and live just up Route 309.
How did this arrangement with the Venetian Club come about?
We actually met some of the folks from the Venetian Club at a monthly event we put on at Cannstatter in Northeast Philly, mostly for dancers. We were hired by the club to perform for their 90th Anniversary celebration last November, and that began the discussions about how we might be able to bring an ongoing event to Chestnut Hill in partnership with the club.
Has the success of Paris Bistro’s jazz nights had anything to do with this decision?
Not directly, but it certainly has not hurt. The fact that there are a few clubs making a success of jazz in the Chestnut Hill/Germantown/Mt. Airy area did play a part in our decision to play jazz for the Venetian Club. We’ve been putting on regular monthly events in PA and NJ for over five years now, and we’ve been looking for an opportunity to get into Philly playing jazz. A couple of our singers do sing regularly in the Chestnut Hill area at Rollers, Paris Bistro and La Rose.
Will your music be pretty much the Big Band standards from the 1930s and ’40s? Can you mention some of the songs you will be playing?
No, absolutely not! This has been one of the hardest things for us, breaking the stereotype of what a big band is! For our “dance” events, we bring all five of our singers and don’t play anything that would be considered “‘30s and ‘40s big band” in the literal sense. While all of the music we play for these events is songs that people know and love, our arrangements are all contemporary. We play music in all styles — rock, disco, Latin, etc. — and feature arrangements of music by Harry Connick Jr., Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Norah Jones, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, etc.
This is somewhat personal, but since you have so many musicians playing in a relatively small venue, the payment for each one must be quite small. How can you all afford to do it?
Big Band music is special for those of us who play it. No one ever decides to play in a big band for the money. We do it for the love of the music and the experience of performing in a group whose unique qualities are unequalled in any other performance situation … For us to get out and perform monthly in front of nice-sized crowds and make a few bucks is a lot of fun. While we’d never work one-time for what we make at our monthly events (we do beat the minimum wage, though), having 12 steady gigs at a single venue and the other work that comes from those makes the effort worthwhile … Fortunately, most of us are not reliant upon our income from performing as a means to make a living.
For more information, call 215-247-9858 or visit www.venetianclub.org.