Sentimental Journey Orchestra marks 34 years - and counting

Although it was more than three decades ago, Hector "Butch" Bourg Jr. well remembers the very first performance of the Sentimental Journey Orchestra.

"I've been with the band since day one, and our first official gig was on Dec. 12, 1975, at the Old English Inn, just outside (Interstate 285)," said Bourg, who is one of four charter members still performing with the orchestra and currently serves as the band's president. "We've just started our 34th year - it's been a lot of fun."

Interestingly enough, the Old English Inn, located on Glenwood Road in south DeKalb County, was a location for Burt Reynolds' 1981 movie "Cannonball Run," and was razed not long after he drove a car through the front door. So it could be said that where the Old English Inn is concerned, the SJO tore it up and Reynolds tore it down.

The SJO, which will perform Feb. 9 in a fundraiser for Rockdale County Senior Services, has a longstanding commitment to keeping the music of the big-band era alive, and Bourg said he's often surprised at the audience demographic at the 19-piece ensemble's concerts.

"In the beginning, (our audience) was mostly people who had grown up in the 1940s and 1950s," he said. "But as the years progressed, we found our audience to be folks in their 30s and 40s. Ten or 12 years ago, there were a couple of popular movies that featured swing music in their scores and the young people really got into it, starting what I like to call the 'nouveau swing movement.'

"I remember one night at the VFW near Piedmont Park, where at one time we were playing regularly, a whole bunch of 18-year-old students from a nearby dance school came out in period costumes and did the jitterbug and all that stuff. And at the same time, on the same dance floor, there was a World War I veteran doing his thing. That just blew me away."

And while the legion of fans that enjoyed the big-band artistry of the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman, Les Brown, Glenn Miller and Artie Shaw in its infancy is slowly fading away, Bourg is adamant that the music will always be timeless.

"The big-band sound isn't making a comeback because it never went away," he said. "I read somewhere recently that there are more big bands out there now than there ever were during the big-band era. There are probably 15 big bands in the Atlanta area alone. And it is beloved all over the world, especially in Japan. It's a universal form that remains amazing in its appeal."

A native of Mississippi who moved to Atlanta 42 years ago, Bourg has been playing the trombone for almost 58 years. He owns and operates a graphic arts business in DeKalb County and said that while the group (which includes Rockdale County resident Dan Turner on piano) rehearses once a week, it limits its engagements to about 25 a year.

"Any more than that and it seems like a job," he chuckled. "We don't want to take the fun out of it."

And make no mistake about it - an SJO performance is a guaranteed evening of fun. Bourg said the classic tunes and arrangements of Goodman, Shaw and the Dorseys are well represented in an SJO concert, and he adds that the band - which also includes a male and female vocalist - is also well-versed in new songs from contemporary swingers Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble.

"We play songs from each decade," he said. "We're bound to plunk a memory chord from just about anyone in the audience, and that's by design. We have 19 musicians on stage and it's been that way since the beginning - we try to recreate the sounds and excitement of the big-band era, regardless of the generation of our audience."

As a trombone player, Bourg assented that he particularly enjoyed playing tunes from the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, but he added that the SJO was formed with the late Les Brown (and his Band of Renown) in mind.

"When we started, Les Brown was a favorite," said Bourg of the bandleader who accompanied Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bob Hope and a host of others. "His theme song, 'I'm Getting Sentimental Over You,' gave rise to the name of our band. We loved that name so much, we've kept it all these years."

For more information on the Sentimental Journey Orchestra, visit www.thesjo.com.

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