Falling in Love Again

My father was a jazz fan who collected LPs in the 1940s and 50s and was known to stay up late into the night listening to his newest acquisitions. This made for difficult early mornings because his day job was a banker and loan officer.

These details were related to me by my mother, as my father died when I was three. His records were packed away on the top shelf of a closet until the house was sold forty years later.

Flash forward to present day when my skills include, but are not limited to, my ability to name a jazz standard after hearing the first few chords. I’m slowing down in the memory department, so I couldn’t really compete in a “name that tune” contest, but it doesn’t stop me from showing off to my husband, a true music lover of all genres.

I am not educated in music, play no instrument, and never took a jazz studies class. This leads me to believe that my skills were picked up in utero and before age 4.

To be fair, we had about 6 LPs that my mother played frequently, including Sing Along with Mitch, early Tony Bennett, and Rhapsody in Blue, the cover of which was fascinating.

A defining moment in my life as a jazz fan remains clear. My high school had a band director, Cal Moely, who presented an all-school assembly to introduce the concept of jazz to the entire student body. I was an avid consumer, sitting on the edge of my seat.

Imagine hearing about it for the first time, the idea of improvisation, trading fours, how to applaud after individual solos. I thought he made the whole thing up himself and could barely make eye contact the few times I saw him in the hallways. What a genius, right here in my hometown.

After high school I moved to Madison to attend the University of Wisconsin where I majored in nursing. And as happens in such an environment, I made friends with another student who introduced me to the delights of bagels, fresh tomatoes, and an older brother. He was quiet and not my type, but he did suggest that we hear a jazz trio perform at the Top of the Park, at that time quite a fancy hotel on the square. The female singer was amazing. That night I heard “What a Difference a Day Makes.” And I felt like my life was forever changed.

The closest I ever came to performing was in a dream, where I was the white understudy for Tina Turner. Sure enough, one night in Milwaukee she couldn’t go on; luckily her manager spotted me in the crowd. And yes, I did fit into her leather skirt and top.

I spent several years on the west coast, landing in Portland, Oregon in the late seventies, where a lively jazz scene existed. As a single gal, alone in the city, I made it my mission to get out of the house after work. I did not own a TV, chosing instead to explore the city. Attending musical venues alone allowed me to meet other jazz enthusiasts and, of course, musicians.

Did I regularly fall in love with musicians? It was not my fault and I take no responsibility for a routinely shattered heart. Listen, fall, cry, rinse, repeat. Gives depth to the eternal question: “Is you is, or is you anin’t my baby?”

Musicians may not fully understand this, but the magic they make transforms people like a drug. It’s especially intense for someone who cannot even read music. We who are not musicians want to be them, and if we can’t do that, we want to be near them.

I’ve been living back in my hometown for many years and have fallen in love again, this time with an entire band. I became a fan of the Lighthouse Big Band back in 2007. Full disclosure: I’m friends with one of the founding members, Dick Wehner, who facilitated a mentoring opportunity for my son when he was in the jazz band at Fond du Lac High. My husband and I initially came to hear our son perform with the Big Band and have followed the group ever since, through their nomadic journey from a variety of locations including Luckys and Juke Box Charlie’s.

They have now found a home as the resident ensemble at Thelma Sadoff Center for the Arts, where they perform twice a month on Tuesday nights. Members hail from all over the Fox River Valley and I understand there’s a steady flow of musicians who want to sit in. Because many of the band members are band directors at area schools or have other day jobs, the band’s performances also serve as their practices.

This takes nothing away from their presentation of traditional big bands and dance bands of the of the 30’s and 40’s, including the music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Latin Jazz, contemporary big bands as well as big band versions of rock/fusion music.

Part of the charm for me has been recognizing some of the members. Nicole Kowalski seemed to be a fresh-faced teenager in 2007, but she’d already been with the band a while before I discovered it. (Turns out the band was established in 2003 by the afore mentioned Dick Wehner and the late Jim Arnold.) Nicole recently performed a solo during the band’s regular Tuesday night gig that brought the audience to our feet. She was playing a 1958 Selmer Mark VI alto sax, borrowed from another long-time band member, Gerry Scudella. The instrument has a deep, mellow tone that seemed to sing Quincy Jones’ The Midnight Sun Never Sets.

I first heard trumpeter Kurt Shipe when he performed in high school with my son and it’s always inspiring and amazing to hear him perform. Kurt is ubiquitous in the jazz scene in the Fox River Valley and known to be a generous musician.

Turns out I’m a classmate of the current director, Brad Curran, who most likely performed in the school assembly that got me hooked. A quick look at my yearbook confirms that Brad was a senior during my junior year and was performing in every possible music venue available to a high school student at the time.

Area ball room dancers have also taken notice, and audience members can expect to be entertained with their skills on the dance floor when the band performs at Thelma’s Fountain City Jazz and Dance Club. My favorite events may be when singers perform with the band. Then I can see and hear my alter-ego up close.

Performances are free and tips encouraged. The band promotes learning opportunities by having young musicians attend sessions where the basics of jazz performance are modeled and discussed.

The Lighthouse Big Band’s passion for the music and performance is truly a gift to the Fond du Lac community, a chance for the rest of us to fall in love.

Paula Sergi