It is customary to write about a successful large jazz ensemble by asking the rhetorical question “Who says the big bands are dead?” But the sad truth is that the steadily touring big bands are indeed gone forever. When Thad Jones and Mel Lewis began working with a 16-man band on Monday nights at New York’s Village Vanguard Club in 1966, they established a new tradition that goes on to this day. Twenty-three years later bassists Paul Keller and Ron Brooks decided to emulate the concept of a big band playing on an otherwise gig-less night at the Bird of Paradise club in Ann Arbor. It quickly became Keller’s band, and has thrived in various venues ever since: at the Bird and then at the two different locales occupied by the Firefly Club. When the Firefly folded, Keller and his crew moved to Ypsilanti’s Keystone Martini Bar–but when that place also closed, they returned to their original hometown, and are now firmly settled at the Zal Gaz Grotto Club on Stadium Boulevard.
On opening night the room was filled with regulars. For those of us who remembered its first Monday performance ages ago, it seemed amazing not only that the Paul Keller Orchestra (PKO) has survived, but that so many of the original musicians are still with the band. Indeed, the core that has kept it all together musically is the rhythm duo of Keller on bass and Pete Siers on drums. After twenty-two years together, the band has a cohesion that is difficult to find anywhere outside of the Village Vanguard. The active band book consists of over seven hundred arrangements, some of them classics, others written by PKO members past and present. There are close to a thousand more charts in the leader’s home office. Although the main focus is on the modern jazz mainstream, Keller and his cohorts often reach back into the earlier decades of jazz history as well.
Repertoire aside, much of the appeal of this group comes from the idiomatic precision of the sections, fuelled by enthusiasm and a simple love for playing. Keller surrounds himself with the best players in the area, and the years of playing together on a regular basis have resulted in camaraderie and musical cohesion that are evident in each performance. On the opening night in their new home, Keller led them through a first-time reading of a complex new arrangement by saxophone band member Bobby Streng, and everyone sight-read it with ease.
The new place may not be as funky as the older jazz clubs, but it is comfortable and has a good stage for the band, complete with grand piano salvaged at auction by friends of the band from the Firefly. If it feels a bit like an older social club, that is because it actually is one, run for good fellowship by Freemasons, complete with a rudimentary food menu and a bar. In Vienna, the Masons were good to Mozart. In Ann Arbor, they have now given a home to Paul Keller and his orchestra.