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Do Los Alamos Big Band Leader Jan McDonald and Southwest Jazz Orchestra Founder Jack Manno together have a total of 100 years of experience in the music business? “Not quite,” said McDonald. “But almost,” Manno added.
The long-time collaborators will cover almost but not quite 100 years of jazz history in two sets of toe-tapping music from their two aggregations at the 2nd annual “Swing into Spring” concert at 7 p.m. April 28 at the Duane W. Smith Auditorium.
With nearly 30 top-flight New Mexico musicians at their disposal, McDonald and Manno will cover jazz tunes ranging from Dixieland to the avant-garde in their effort to keep listeners of all ages familiar with jazz.
Free tickets are available for any and all students regardless of their age or school. They can be obtained in advance from Los Alamos Public Schools music teachers or local businesses; adult tickets are just $10 dollars at the door.
“Some people call jazz ‘America’s Classical Music,’” said the trumpet-playing McDonald, “but Los Alamos Big Band focuses on the Swing Era of the 1930s and 40s when jazz was the popular music of the day and people like Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller and Count Basie were as famous as today’s rock stars.”
With more than three decades of leading music education in the Los Alamos Public Schools, “Mister Mac” McDonald was already familiar with local musicians who would fit into the 18 piece band when it was created back in the 1980s. Many were former students.
“One of the best things about last year’s concert,” McDonald said, “was the short history lessons we added in between some of the numbers so that the audience had a context for what they were hearing. We’ll do that again on April 28.”
Manno’s smaller, 10 piece Southwest Jazz Orchestra (SJO) was founded in 2004 “to bring fresh ears to jazz classics from every era,” Manno, the founder and artistic director of SJO, said. “We do play Ellington and tunes like ‘Stompin’ At The Savoy,’ but we also interpret modern jazz masters like Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Thelonious Monk.” Works by Charles Mingus and Gerry Mulligan are scheduled for SJO’s portion of the “Swing into Spring” program.
Manno’s musical experience goes back to the 1960s when he participated as a vocalist in the vibrant New York City jazz scene working as one of Perry Como‘s backup singers and developing vocal arrangements for an album on the classic Blue Note label by composer Duke Pearson. The Penn State graduate later taught music at the college level in Oklahoma, Colorado and at the College of Santa Fe while honing his skills as an instrumental arranger.
“When I moved to New Mexico in 1987, I kept hearing about this hip trumpet player who was teaching up on The Hill,” said Manno of McDonald. “When I finally heard him play, I knew we had to get together and make some music.” Their first interactions were combo gigs but when Manno formed the Southwest Jazz Orchestra, McDonald was one of the first he asked to join.
“The Los Alamos Big Band has the traditional instrumentation of four trumpets, four trombones, four saxes and rhythm,” Manno said.
“But with SJO, I wanted a smaller group that could explore the colors of sound with four reed players who switch back and forth between the various saxophones, clarinets and flutes. I only wanted one trumpet - and that was Jan,” he added.
A four piece, piano-less rhythm section with guitar and vibes plus a single trombone fills out the Southwest Jazz Orchestra instrumentation. McDonald’s LA Big Band roster includes trumpeter Joe Holland, Larry Brownisz on trombone, and 90-year-old Ed MacMann in the trumpet section. “Ed is an inspiration to us all,” McDonald said, “because of his character, musicianship and his insistence on getting better every time we play. He’s the original ‘Mister Mac.’”