It's not every city where folks can experience free weekly sessions with a band that includes a former Ray Charles sideman, top local jazz musicians and the most talented performers the Air Force can recruit.
Actually, there probably aren't any cities that can make such a claim, other than Colorado Springs. On Wednesday evenings, customers of the Thirsty Parrot can catch the Springs Contemporary Jazz Big Band, whose weekly two-hour program combines challenging jazz arrangements with frequent displays of individual virtuosity.
Formed 18 years ago by trumpet player Steve Rempelos, the 17-piece ensemble has evolved into a civic treasure, one that remains undiscovered by most residents.
The band is, in a word, unique. There are no group rehearsals. Performance dress ranges from shorts and T-shirts to the occasional suit and tie worn by saxophonist Brad Eastin, when he catches a concert on his way home from Colorado State University-Pueblo (where he teaches in the music department). When they take their seats, members see the music Rempelos has selected for the first time.
All have played professionally at some point several still do but most now have day jobs ranging from computer programmer to business owner, from classroom instruction to instrument repair.
According to Rempelos, the band does receive "a very modest stipend," but most goes into an account that helps underwrite a music scholarship program for area young people, funded in partnership with The Pikes Peak Jazz and Swing Society.
To assemble a group that performs well, sometimes brilliantly, under abnormal circumstances, Rempelos has merged two area human resources: highly talented local musicians and gifted performers from the Falconaires, the jazz adjunct of the Colorado Springs-based Air Force Band of the Rockies.
"By the time we retire, most of us have made this home," says Eastin, who for 20 years was a tenor sax virtuoso for the Falconaires. "In addition to the military guys, there are an amazing number of other terrific musicians in the area.
"Maybe there's some place of comparable size that's the equal of the Springs where jazz talent is concerned, but I've never encountered it."
Welk, don't run
Rempelos puts together weekly programming from a library of more than 500 charts, none of which will bring to mind Lawrence Welk. Contemporary arrangers share the stage with earlier giants of big band jazz: Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Stan Kenton, Count Basie.
The band typically opens with an abbreviated sketch of Kenton's "Artistry in Rhythm," and closes with Basie's "April in Paris." In between, you might hear technically challenging treatments of numbers like Herman's "Reunion at Newport," Basie's "Magic Flea," Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing," and, occasionally, Eastin's stunning interpretation of "Early Autumn," which was a featured Stan Getz number while that extraordinary saxophonist was with Herman's band.
"You can't stiff your way through this material," says Rempelos. "There's a lot of sight-reading involved, which means you need highly skilled musicians to pull it off. Fortunately, we have them.
"Sometimes we throw strikes, sometimes gutterballs. But it's always challenging, which is why we show up."
A graduate of North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), which offers a nationally prominent jazz curriculum, Rempelos in earlier years led rodeo bands that appeared in venues from Madison Square Garden to the Tacoma Dome. He remains involved in rodeo through his Monument-based Starsports firm.
First assembled in 1990, his local band had a variety of homes Dublin House, Ritz Grill, Bogart's, Rum Bay before settling into its current location. Five members of the original group remain: trumpeters Rempelos and Chris Lawson, Dennis Hoshijo on tenor sax, trombonist Bill Holtz and guitarist Mike Maddux.
Besides Eastin, other former Falconaires in the band's 2008 version are trumpeter Chris Walters and trombonist Rick Crafts. A fourth, vocalist Marci Hureau, is a frequent guest soloist.
Two current Falconaires, trombonist Scott Crump and bassist Jason Crowe, join the alignment when in town, as does Scott Barbier, a drummer with the Band of the Rockies.
"With the scholarship program we support, it's a way to give back to the community," says Crump when asked why he participates despite the Falconaires' demanding musical schedule. "Plus, I love to play with quality musicians. This group is loaded with them."
Crump's is a shared opinion. Regulars, when absent, are committed to providing a quality replacement, and Barbier's is Mike Sherpa, a music instructor who makes a 200-mile round-trip from the town of Evans, near Greeley.
"With no rehearsal, it's a tough band to hold onto sometimes," says Sherpa. "But it's a gas to play with guys this good, a drummer's dream. You have to do some serious kicking."
Beyond Brother Ray
As a teenager, Bud Gordon moved directly from his Los Angeles high school to first-chair trumpet in a band backing music legend Ray Charles.
"I toured with him, later played a lot gigs around L.A." says Gordon. Yet he still is amazed by the talent of his current cohorts. "My first night with this band, I'm about three numbers in when I'm turning and asking, "Who are these guys?' You don't expect to hear that kind of sound from a group that gets together once a week."
Sam Milazzo, another graduate of North Texas State's music department and now a physics instructor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, devoted three years to preparing for a chair in the local band's sax section.
"I'd laid the horn aside, and it took me that long to get to where I felt comfortable with musicians of this caliber," Milazzo says.
Rounding out the normal complement are Butch Eversole (director of music at Lewis-Palmer High School) on alto sax, Chris Wojtecki on baritone sax, trombonist Roger Yonker and pianist Charla McGaugh, a teacher at Classical Academy. McGaugh is sister to Chris Lawson, the band's lead trumpet a major talent who continues to perform professionally at venues stretching from classical to cruise ships.
"It's a remarkable group in many ways," says Rempelos. "You come from a tense business day into an entirely different environment. Suddenly you're with people you see once a week, but they're ones you admire for exceptional ability, and loyalty to the band.
"About the third number in, you've forgotten that day's problems. You feel like a musician again. And after two hours you walk away, always thinking, "Now, that was cool.'"