EDITOR’S NOTE: With a performance at Admiral Congregational Church this Sunday, the West Seattle Big Band celebrates 15 years on the local music scene. One of its mainstays, Jim Edwards, writes the story here of its history, and invites you to the concert.
(WSBB promotional video)
By Jim Edwards
Special to West Seattle Blog
The West Seattle Big Band celebrates 15 years.
In 1996, the Admiral neighborhood surrounding West Seattle High School decided to put together a fundraising event in cooperation with the music department at the high school, and the West Seattle High School Alumni Association<. It was to be a black tie affair with talented alumni returning to their alma mater, displaying their musical skills, and helping to raise funds to get the Foundation for the performing arts off the ground. Some members of the alumni association also mentioned that one of their class reps had put together an alumni band, and that it should be included in the concert.
That class rep was Jim Edwards from the class of 1979, and he had put the word out about forming an alumni band, in the alumni edition of the Chinook newspaper two years prior, only to have it cut by the editor. So no band had ever been formed. Now with 10 weeks to go he finds the band has been scheduled to play at this concert. After 3 weeks of phone calls, including a call to his former West Seattle high school band director, Donn Weaver, the band met for a rehearsal.
The original idea of an alumni band was a marching band that would meet a few weeks a year just before the West Seattle Parade. Similar bands have seen great success in other cities such as Portland. But given the time frame and the concert format, it was decided by Jim and the then current West Seattle band director Charles Holley (Jim’s former junior high band director from Madison), to put together a big band format of 17 pieces.
On May 26, 1996 a group of alumni converged on West Seattle High School for the first annual Graduates Concert. These alumni were all professional musicians. To kick off that concert, another group of 17 alumni gathered in front of the stage to play some big band favorites. In that group were alumni classes ranging from the early ’90’s all the way back to 1945. The make-up of the band ranged from lawyers to IT techs, a fireman, a mechanic, a school teacher, a politician, an auction caller and a farrier, and everything in between.
Among the numbers they played that night was a Steve Allen composition “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big.” The song had a different meaning that night as they thought this was the beginning of a Foundation for the Performing Arts at West Seattle High School. But a couple weeks later, it looked like the ending of “Mr Holland’s Opus.” The principal of the school had laid off the band director, and all but shut down the music program. In the wake of this the foundation never formed, and the thousands of dollars raised that night have never been accounted for by the school administration.
For the 17 alumni who worked so hard to put together the big band, the alumni association asked them to come play at the annual all-class reunion in June. In July another opportunity came about as the band played warm-up for the Jay Thomas Big Band at the 2nd annual Hi-Yu Concert in the Park. After that final commitment, a good portion of the band said “Thanks, that was fun” and they went back to their everyday lives. The rest said “This is fun, let’s keep doing it.”
Early on in the program they decided if they ever make money doing this, they would not take any pay. Instead they would continue to support public school music programs in the West Seattle area. They gained many new members of the band who are not alumni, and many have been members of the group in excess of 10 years. They all have agreed with the mission of the band.
That original concert in 1996 raised $5,000. In 15 years they have given $20,000 to programs in and around West Seattle, the most recent being $2000 to the West Seattle Community Orchestras. In addition to that through joint concerts and events, they have helped raise over $50,000 for school music programs in the Seattle area, much of that in West Seattle. In 2008 they received the Cornerstone Award from the West Seattle High School Foundation. It was handed over to the band by an original member of the group, Dow Constantine.
The band continues under the musical direction of former West Seattle High School band director Donn Weaver. They added an 18th piece to the band in the form of a vocalist, Stephanie Cortes.
(WSB video from July 2008, featuring Stephanie Cortes with WSBB)
Stephanie performs many favorites from the Swing Era from artists like Peggy Lee, Natalie Cole and Julie London. More recently, one of their trumpet players, Jeff Carter, has stepped up front to sing favorites from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Michael Buble.
The band continues to perform every year at the Hi-Yu Concert in The Park at Hiawatha, taking on much of the production of the event. They also assisted in an advisory capacity and performed at the Admiral Neighborhood Association‘s Summer Concerts at Hiawatha series, which in some ways brought the band full circle, as it was the predecessor of the ANA that produced the original concert at West Seattle HS in 1996. The band performs throughout the Seattle region on average about 14 times a year.
On May 1st Sunday night, the band will be performing in a concert setting at the Admiral UCC Church at 4321 Hill St. at the corner of California Ave and Hill St. A reception will precede the concert at 6:00PM. The concert will go from 7:00 to 9:00PM.