A long time ago, jazz big bands traveled throughout the land; many of their sidemen were as notorious as movie stars, and the leaders were treated as nobility. The days of peripatetic musical Dukes and Counts are over, and economy of size rules the land. But a few good big bands can still be found in a few cities, mostly on Monday nights, when most clubs are shut and musicians available. Ann Arbor's Monday-night big band, the Paul Keller Orchestra, has finally grown up: it will celebrate its eighteenth birthday this month.
The fifteen-strong unit started out at the now defunct Bird of Paradise on Ashley Street. When the club closed and moved to Main Street, the band followed, but it eventually wound up back in its old location when Susan Chastain opened the Firefly Club in the location vacated by the Bird. Name changes accompanied these moves, but the group is now known as the Paul Keller Orchestra, and the leader also runs a CD label named PKO.
The band's repertoire is extremely eclectic, ranging from the 1920s through today, and it seems to grow by the week, as members either compose new materials or bring in transcriptions of old recordings; indeed, Keller estimates that even after some pruning, the group still has almost 1,000 active charts. Some weeks it seems as if the performances are open rehearsals, as the orchestra tries out completely new material. None of this gets in the way of audience enjoyment, as the stand is filled with experienced musicians who can sight-read anything at the first try. A third of them have been with the PKO since the beginning, and have many years of experience with the top bands in the area; indeed, many are bandleaders themselves. The sections blend exquisitely, but many of the men are first-rate soloists, especially trumpeters Paul Finkbeiner and Brandon Cooper, trombonist Chris Smith, and pianists Jim Dapogny and Duncan McMillan, as well as the saxophonists — Andrew Bishop, Keith Kaminski, Mark Kieme, and Paul Klinger. Their efforts would never succeed without the hard-driving rhythm section headed by master drummer Pete Siers. The saucy vocalist is none other than Firefly owner Susan Chastain. All of this is kept together by the expressive personality and foundational bass work of the leader, Paul Keller.
This year the PKO and the Firefly have teamed up with area high school jazz programs to offer their Jazz Student Outreach Program. Once, twice, or even three times a month, the band hosts a night with student musicians, their teachers, and their parents. The evening opens with an hour set by the PKO, followed by half an hour by the visiting band, and then an hour of fun and games as some of the students sit in with the grown-ups. Keller and friends have found an effective way of supporting high school jazz programs and of assuring that new generations of jazz musicians will be there in the future to keep the orchestra going for years to come.
In addition to its regular Monday night gig, the PKO celebrates its eighteenth anniversary at the Firefly on Friday, January 26.
[Review published January 2007]