One of the toughest challenges for any band is playing in unison. If one band member gets out of sync, it will throw off the entire performance. It’s not that easy to accomplish this basic stagecraft, with all the distractions like crowd noise, clinking glasses, maybe a drummer with a hangover.
If you go to a Route 66 Jazz Orchestra performance, you’re unlikely to hear a single glitch. That’s because this group, which specializes in big band, swing and jazz, puts a high premium on practice.
The Route 66 Jazz Orchestra performs eight times a year, but the nonprofit group rehearses once a week in Mehlville, from August thru June. The band spends a lot of time trying to get the songs just right; hence, the dutiful focus on practice. Their effort pays off, because the band consistently nails challenging arrangements.
They certainly don’t do it for the money, unless you consider a $46 Christmas “bonus” adequate compensation. That’s roughly the amount of the checks the orchestra’s members receive from director Bob Boedges at year-end.
“It’s to reimburse them for their gas,” Boedges said, laughing. “They give up one night a week to practice, and they need to because this music is so darn difficult.”
The Route 66 Jazz Orchestra has 22 members, including Boedges and three top notch vocalists. Many have day jobs unrelated to music, while others work as professionals in the industry, but they all have a passion for jazz. They range in age from 20 to 84.
How the band came into being is a story that began in 1969. Dr. Ron Stillwell started a house band at Meramec Community College. It was known as the Meramec Jazz Lab Band and consisted of both students and volunteer members of the community.
In 2012, the St. Louis Community College lost funding for music programs and dropped the band—on very short notice. That meant no pay for the director, no rehearsal space and no access to the college’s music library.
By this time, the band was under the direction of Boedges, who took over from previous director Bob Waggoner in 2005. The band re-formed as an independent not-for-profit organization and has emerged as one of the top big bands in the region.
Usually, at the end of a Route 66 Jazz Orchestra show, Boedges thanks the audience for coming and the orchestra for playing. He’ll say: “We do this because we love it and nobody gets paid.”
The sentiment is true but it’s a rehearsed shtick. The orchestra members hear these words and feign surprise and disgust, saying “WHAT—no pay!?!?” “We’re not going to play for nothing!!”
But, except for carfare, they do and the St. Louis music scene is richer for it.
The next performance of the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra is at 7 p.m. on Saturday, August 26 at the Kirkwood Park Amphitheater as part of their Summer Concert Series.
For more information visit route66jazz.com.