Meramec Lab Jazz Band Plays at Black Cat Tonight
The 20-piece big band has musicians of all ages from all over the region and will play at Black Cat Theatre on Tuesday.
The Meramec Lab Jazz Band is not a continuation of the school band experience for 20-somethings attending junior college. Instead, it involves 22 talented, seasoned musicians who pay $25 a semester for the opportunity to play big band jazz.
For the last seven years, the band has been under the direction of Bob Boedges. The band has existed in one form or another since the 1970s.
Currently, the band has six trumpets, four trombones, five saxophones, a stand-up bass, piano, drums, guitar and a percussionist, not to mention two vocalists. This group has a big sound. It also has a favorite venue for performing, and that is in Maplewood at the Black Cat Theatre.
The oldest member of the band is 83-year-old Bob Probst, a graduate of the old St. Louis Music Institute in Clayton. Playing the baritone saxophone, Probst's first professional musician job was for the United States Navy at the end of World War II, playing on the USS Albany and later on the USS Missouri.
Probst re-entered the Navy during the Korean War again as a musician. Between the two wars, he attended the St. Louis Music Institute in Clayton and later Washington University. During the summer, he was a musician with two nationally known big band orchestras that toured the country, the Sonny Dunham Big Band and the Alvino Rey Big Band Orchestra. Probst was a big band musician. Now that he has retired from operating an auto repair shop at Meramec and Louisiana streets in South St. Louis, he is a big band musician again.
"I have played with this band for two years, and, in that time, it has immeasurably improved," said Probst, who likes the Black Cat because of its acoustics.
In the first chair of the saxophone section is Colleen Templemeier, who has been playing saxophone for 15 years. By day, she is the manager of the Walgreens in Wildwood on Highway 100 and Highway 109. At night, she plays in three other groups, the St. Louis Wind Symphony, the Generation Gap and the Meramec Jazz Band.
"Since I have joined this band three years ago, I have watched it get better and better," Templemeier said. "I get my classical fix with the wind symphony, my Motown fix with Generation Gap and my big band fix here. This is far more of a mental exercise than the others," she said.
The second-chair alto sax is Mary Wiley, who teaches music at Kirkwood High School and both middle schools in Kirkwood.
Bill Simpson plays with three professional bands in town and is also the first-chair trumpet for the Meramec Lab Jazz Band.
Fred Middlekauff is an insurance agent who has been playing trumpet since he was in the seventh grade. He has been in well known local bands, including Phoenix and the Bob Kuban Band.
"There are not a whole lot of gigs around for bands right now. My wife suggested that I call about this band," said Middlekauff, who was added as a sixth trumpet. "This is a chance to play with some seasoned players. When are you going to get to do that?" he asked.
With the band for five years, on the bass is Julia Clemens, who is a classically trained cello player. Clemens' husband builds violins, and she repairs stringed instruments. She joined the Lab Jazz Band at the suggestion of Boedges.
"I was only playing cello classically, and Bob asked if I wanted to play the bass again," said Clemens. "It is so exciting to play in a group like this," she said.
One of the four trombone players is Doug Bert, who runs the Brass Exchange out of his house in Glendale. Bert rehabs trombones to sell. He also teaches trombone lessons to youth at his studio, located in his former garage.
"The reason for playing in a jazz big band like this is the desire to be in an ensemble with other musicians playing some perfect arrangements," he said.
Perhaps the one thing that has pushed the band to a higher level is the addition of Valerie Tichacek as the group's primary vocalist. In the past, the band had singers who looked more like big band singers than sounded like them. That is all gone with the arrival of Tichacek.
Tichacek's father was a jazz organist and her mother was a pianist, sax player and organist. Valerie was playing the piano at age 5, later added the alto sax, and majored in flute and vocal Studies at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. She has been attracted to the big band sound all of her life.
The singer takes charge when on the stage in several ways. She has a styling that can put you in the mind of Peggy Lee. She can go from a Latin beat to a straight ahead big band number and back to a ballad from the American Songbook. She owns the audience with both her voice and her facial expressions that include an arched eyebrow, a smirk, a smile and a wink. The sound is always perfect for her, because she writes the arrangements for her vocals.
"Since I was 4 years old I wanted to sing with the Harry James Band," she said during an intermission at a recent Lab Jazz Band performance. "I love big bands. It is what I really want to do the most," said Tichacek. She sang previously with the Knights of Swing and now performs with a group called Wack-a-Doo.
"This is the best band I have ever been in front of," Boedges said. "I don't say directed because there is not a lot of that needed. The band continues to grow in depth of talent."
"It is a great collaboration," said Edie Avioli of the nonprofit Black Cat Theatre. "We provide the location and they provide the music. It is a great opportunity to hear some great jazz," she said.
The Black Cat was originally a Bettendorf-Rapp grocery store. It has a lot of open space, so the sound doesn't bounce back and forth. Chairs around tables fill seating area giving it a large nightclub look.
The next performance of the lab Jazz Band is at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night. The cover charge of $10 pays for operation costs of the theater. The musicians play for free because of their love of big band jazz music.
|WHAT||Meramec Lab Jazz Band performance
|WHEN||8-10 p.m. on Tuesday
|WHERE||Black Cat Theatre