It took awhile for the intersection of Golfside and Washtenaw to recover from the loss in 2011 of Ypsilanti’s only bowling alley and its towering neon beacon. Those who miss the old-school retro charm of Ypsi-Arbor Lanes can still experience it at Scio Township’s Bel-Mark Lanes. Established in 1976, the Jackson Rd. landmark was acronymically named for members of the family who ran it for more than thirty years: Bonnie, Earl, Larry, and Mark. The current owners have set aside the last Sunday of each month for David Swain and the II-V-I Orchestra to play big-band jazz in the bar there.

Swain, who anchors the orchestra’s reed section with his baritone sax, is one of Ann Arbor’s great homegrown characters. His archive of “useful music” includes a medley of vintage cigarette jingles, familiar to anyone old enough to have heard them before such advertising was banned.

The II-V-I’s central mission is to combine big-band favorites with what Swain calls the “secret music” of Sun Ra, Tadd Dameron, and Billy Strayhorn. Bassist Jerry Brabenec teases him for running a big band as an excuse to pursue his true passion–curating his library of big-band scores. (He paid for one crop of obscure and seldom-heard arrangements by foraging for pawpaws and selling the fruit to local markets.)

“I’m a pretty good customer for band charts” admits Swain, “but sometimes have to whip stuff up with smoke and mirrors.” Brabenec speaks glowingly of the dynamic interplay between coordinated ensemble work and the spontaneous freedom of improvisation.

Pre-pandemic, as the orchestra filled the lounge with endorphin-rush-inducing music by Duke Ellington, I tucked into a large tray of meatless nachos, washing down chips, cheese, and diced jalapenos with hot coffee. Seated at a table nearby, two seventh graders shared a pizza while playing cards and nodding their heads to the music. II-V-I trumpeter Peggy Caveney’s son, Clark Madden, asked to celebrate his thirteenth birthday in this way with his best friend Porter Bone. Both are aspiring jazz musicians.

“Someday,” says Swain’s steadfast clarinet and tenor sax man Peter Klaver, “musicians will figure out that it’s not such a good practice to name your band with an inside joke. Until then, we will be explaining to people what

II-V-I means.”

Music theory is an exacting science, coordinated with mathematically precise terminology. The numbers II-V-I refer to a common type of chord progression that is a staple of pop, rock, R&B, country, and jazz. Because the II-V-I formula is generally used to round off the final strain of a melody, Swain describes it as a secular version of “amen.”

The II-V-I Orchestra plays at Bel-Mark Lanes the last Sunday of every month.

Note: Originally intended for the April 2020 issue of the Observer, this review was pulled at the last minute when the Covid pandemic shut everything down in our town.