Swing into Christmas with the Georgia Big Band

Although the 18-piece Georgia Big Band generally has plenty of holiday performance dates on its schedule, this year's dance card includes only one engagement - on Saturday, Dec. 15 at the Rockdale Auditorium in Olde Town Conyers.

But there's a good reason for that.

"I do just about all of the band's bookings, but since I'm still in the military, I was deployed for three months to the desert," said trombonist and band director John Cornacchione. "The time I was overseas is usually the time I'm booking jobs for us, but this year, I was in a hot, sandy place and by the time I got back home, it was too late."

A resident of the town of Kathleen in middle Georgia, Cornacchione has more than 25 years of Air Force service and was dispatched to the Middle East this summer to coordinate the touring schedules of three bands, including the Air Force Reserve Command Band (from Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins) and a pair of Air National Guard bands from Illinois and Texas, that entertained U.S. troops in eight different countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

"I was with the Reserve Command Band for 60 days straight, hitting as many locations as possible," the Maryland native said.

Even though the ensemble - whose members hail from Kathleen, Macon, Dublin, Perry, Warner Robins, Forsyth and Fort Valley - won't play but one Christmas gig this year, it should be a performance to remember as Cornacchione said the band has been holding extra rehearsals for its east metro performance, which is hosted by the Conyers Rockdale Council for the Arts.

"We've been hitting it pretty hard to get the music ready," he said. "Some of the music is pretty tough stuff. But this is a professional band with a lot of top-quality players. We've come a long way."

In addition to playing many Christmas favorites, last year's performance in Conyers highlighted the work of Glenn Miller. Cornacchione said that this year's concert would again be played out in two sections, with the first half showcasing a bevy of big-band standards and the second half focusing on the tunes of the season.

Tunes in the first set will include "Sweet Georgia Brown" (as performed by Louie Bellson), "Every Day I Have the Blues" (Count Basie), "St. Louie Blues" and "Mack the Knife" (Louis Armstrong), "Satin Doll" (Duke Ellington) and "Woodchopper's Ball" (Woody Herman).

Second-set selections, all receiving the big-band treatment, include "Jolly Old St. Nick," "Feliz Navidad," "The Little Drummer Boy," "Home for the Holidays," "Noel," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and a "Nutcracker" medley originally arranged by the Les Brown's Band of Renown in the 1940s.

The edition of the band visiting Conyers will include five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones, a pianist, drummer and bassist, and male and female vocalists.

Originally established in 1988 as the Dublin Jazz Band, the group eventually changed its name to reflect its more regional membership. Cornacchione - who said several other players in the band have recently returned from overseas duty - joined in 1998 and said the ensemble averages nine or 10 dates a year.

"We do a lot of ballroom dancing events," he said. "Nine concerts doesn't sound like a lot but for a big band located in middle Georgia, that's actually pretty good. We rehearse at the Perry Arts Center, which used to be an old armory. In exchange for letting us practice there, we play a concert there every year."

Due to his military obligations, Cornacchione was unable to perform in last year's "Glenn Miller Christmas" concert. But he said he received plenty of feedback, all of it positive, on the show.

"I was told it was one of our best performances," he said. "The hall was great and the reception we got was great, the best we've ever had. People really like a Christmas concert played big-band style."

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens, Ga. If you have a feature story idea, contact Karen Rohr at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: If You Go

What: The Georgia Big Band performs a "Swinging Christmas Concert," presented by the Conyers Rockdale Council for the Arts

When: 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 15

Where: Rockdale Auditorium, 903 S. Main St. in Olde Town Conyers

Cost: Tickets are $10 and can be purchased by calling 770-922-3143 or by visiting www.conyersarts.org.