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The Big Band: A 50-year musical journey

St Kilda Road’s Wesley College Big Band celebrates its 50th Anniversary this year. Jack Howard reflects on the musical journey of the band formed by the legendary John Lee in 1971.

The Big Band ‘had the allure of a rock’n’roll band’ for students like Jack Howard

My time at Wesley began in 1973 as a raw suburban third former. I had almost nothing in common with the sophisticated private school scene there, but I did have athletics and music and quickly found a place to fit in. I started playing in the Big Band in Year 11 and absolutely loved it - I thrived in its exciting and slightly loose environment. It wasn’t the same as playing your parts in Symphonic Band or Orchestra. It had the allure of a rock’n’roll band, full of energy and humour and improvisation. You felt special, part of an elite group. One of Australia’s great musicians, Paul Grabowsky, was the band’s leader in 1975 and he was one of many, many Big Band alumni who went on to make a significant contribution to the country’s musical landscape. In 1976, I played lead trumpet in the band. I do remember playing a solo at the school’s music festival and impressing a couple of Lauriston girls. Hmm, I thought - this is the ticket!

John Lee’s combination of passionate jazz man, crazed joker and his cackle and girth made him a unique figure at the school and he continued as the Big Band conductor right through to 2000, when a stroke finally diminished his energy. My journey had taken me beyond the secure confines of the school into a music degree and an unexpected left turn into the band, Hunters & Collectors. I think that it was here that the benefits of those years in the Big Band and the Wesley music department, those years immersed in a glorious wash of rhythm and horns, stood me in good stead as the Hunnas’ horn arranger and trumpeter. I came back to teach at the school during 1984-86 and found that the music department had grown and flourished and that John (and my great trumpet teacher Ted Joyner) was still throwing his considerable self into the band.

Big Band has pushed generations of students beyond their comfort zones to great effect

The rest of the country’s music departments were finally catching up to Wesley’s early Big Band trendsetting and the Mt. Gambier Generations In Jazz event had become the centrepiece for the country’s young jazz players and for exceptional music schools such as Blackburn High, Marryatville and Eltham. When I came back to the school again in 1998, I found the band to be an incredibly musical and sophisticated outfit. It felt like the students were playing music far beyond the degree of difficulty that I’d experienced in the seventies. In 1999, the band won the competition with a brilliant line up that featured Ollie McGill (soon to star on keyboards in The Cat Empire) and a host of sensational young players. I still vividly remember the band’s performance of the set piece, All Of Me. John Lee stood on the podium counting the band in and had a small stumble - it would be fair to say that there was a certain degree of uncertainty as to when to start. A few of the players hesitantly came in and stopped. Oh no, a disaster! John calmly turned to the audience and the judges and cackled, ‘Must have been that McDonald’s I had on the way!’ He then counted the band in again and they played the chart superbly - you could feel the crowd’s appreciation.

I had an unusual place in the band around this time as a kind of second in charge as John became ill and then the band’s next great conductor, Peter Foley, took over the reins. Pete and I had been old pals in and out of Wesley; as well as working together closely in the brass department, I often sang with the band at a variety of functions over the years. I became very involved with the school’s burgeoning jazz program. I ran the Jazz Ensemble and the Jazz and Stage Bands over the years, and I got to see first-hand the band’s stunning and continued development under Pete. One of the things that has always set the Wesley Big Bands apart has been their commitment to the music and the groove, not just the notes on the page! Pete continued the band’s great tradition and built upon it with his own brand of passion and great musical smarts. We won the Generations In Jazz competition four times from 2002. A succession of aspiring young musicians stepped into the inspiring big band environment and rose to its challenge in both ability and musical maturity.

John Lee was a ‘passionate jazz man’ and longtime conductor of Big Band

Since Pete’s departure, the Big Band has continued its journey with the Mt. Gambier competition as the primary focus. Stage Band conductor and sax teacher, Ben Marsland, took over before he was appointed Head of Clunes and brought his own brand of hard swing to the band. One of the school’s most dedicated music teachers, Dave Mowat, runs the band these days with a similar mix of fun and terrific musical pedagogy, leaving no stone unturned in his desire to educate and inspire the band. The students love the challenge of these high-end ensemble experiences. They get pushed beyond their comfort zones and take a journey of musical discovery that becomes a transformative event for them.

The College now sports a myriad of ensembles and opportunities for our students, from choirs to orchestras and to jazz and symphonic bands; and of course, the brilliant musical productions. At Glen Waverley Campus, we’ve seen the emergence of a strong musical culture that has included the development of their own successful big band, the Show Band.

The Big Band continues to hold a kind of rock’n’roll allure for our best horn and rhythm section players; and the band and its directors continue to push the musical envelope.

Jack Howard is a long-time member of iconic Australian band Hunters & Collectors, who will be touring again early next year. He is the only trumpeter in the ARIA Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. For the last 15 years he has also been releasing his own highly regarded albums. Visit jackhoward.bandcamp.com to find out more. He teaches Music at Wesley’s St Kilda Road Campus.

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