Jazzing it up at the holidays
CRCA brings Etowah Jazz Society to town for Christmas program

Because it's such a rare occurrence these days, one of the best ways to hear Christmas music is to hear it as realized by a big band in the Glen Miller and Dorsey Brothers style.

If the big-band sound is your cup of nog, Christmas will come a little early this year as the Conyers Rockdale Council for the Arts welcomes the Etowah Jazz Society to the Rockdale Auditorium in Olde Town on Saturday, Dec. 20.

The 18-piece ensemble - made up of players from the Cartersville area - will present a concert consisting of big-band standards and arrangements of time-honored holiday fare.

Saunders Jones, who plays saxophone and clarinet for the group when he's not teaching anatomy and physiology classes at Kennesaw State University, said the EJS generally utilizes the arrangements of the legendary Dave Wolpe for its Christmas programs.

"He's a great big-band arranger," said Jones of Wolpe, who has penned numerous arrangements for the Glenn Miller Orchestra and was co-arranger for the platinum CD "In the Christmas Mood." "He's done more Christmas tunes than anybody. We'll be playing eight of his arrangements."

Jones said that in addition to vocal chestnuts like "I'll be Home for Christmas" and "White Christmas," the EJS will perform arrangements of "Nutcracker Suite Rock" (a tongue-in-cheek look at Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker") and an interesting medley of yuletide favorites.

"It's called 'Big Band Christmas' and it's all of the Christmas classics in one tune," said Jones, a retired orthopedic surgeon. "Sometimes, when you've heard one Christmas tune, they all sound the same. So we like to keep things spiced up and keep everybody on their toes."

The EJS, a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization, was formed in 2002 by a group of Northwest Georgia musicians who wanted to keep the music of the big band era alive and well. Jones said the ages of the musicians range from the 40s to the 60s ("You've probably got to be that age to appreciate this music enough to play it," said Jones).

"In 2000, there were a bunch of guys who played in different churches that wanted to start a community band, but we never could get it off the ground," said Jones. "Then we decided to put together a jazz band and ended up with a big band. We officially began in 2002 and decided to go the nonprofit route. So nobody's getting paid and everybody has a day job. This is our fun, like bowling or softball."

The ensemble, which has seven charter members still on the bandstand (besides Jones, there's Leslie Bronson and Bob Frink on alto saxes, EJS President Jack Howell and Barry Jones on trumpets, Kim Lloyd on drums, Jerry Ingram on baritone saxophone and guitarist Jim Pohl), generally has one performance a month, appearing at concerts, festivals, church events, fundraisers and swing dances, which they've held at Kennesaw State and Rheinhardt College.

"Anytime people want music and they want that big-band sound, or if they have an event and want to dance, we're the band that gets called," said Jones, who added that most of the musicians - which include vocalists Sarah Harbin and Marjie Meder - hail from Cartersville, Calhoun, Marietta, Acworth and Canton.

With the money it earns for its concerts, the EJS funds music scholarships for students in the Bartow County School System and purchases notated jazz charts for the schools' band programs.

The group spent time in a recording studio this summer and recently released the 16-song "Headwaters," which includes the players' takes on selections like "(It's Only a) Paper Moon," "Summer Wind," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Georgia on My Mind." The CD will be available for sale at the EJS' local show.

"The guys are all really tight," said Jones. "For an all-volunteer group, it's amazing that we have such quality players. We've got band directors, folks who've been to music school and people with extensive training. There are a lot of good players in this group."

When asked if the EJS will include any sing-alongs - a staple for just about any Christmas show - in its concert, Jones laughed and said, "You just never know. We're not sure how it's going to go, but it will be fun. The audience will be able to sing and dance. The songs are just awesome."

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

SideBar: If you go

What: The Etowah Jazz Society Christmas concert presented by the Conyers Rockdale Council for the Art

When: 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 20

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

Cost: Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for senior citizens and $10 for students and can be obtained by calling the Council for the Arts at 770-922-3143 or by visiting www.conyersarts.org.