This must have been what Les Brown had in mind in the 1940s.
Outside was chilling on the first Friday night in February. Inside the Missoula Manor, a 21st century incarnation of Brown’s Band of Renown was taking residents on a sentimental journey, by way of Tuxedo Junction and Paris, where for a few minutes it was April.
“Some of it takes me back to when I was roller skating,” Dwayne Ellis, 70, said dreamily.
Indeed, the big band notes that danced out of trombones, trumpets, saxophones, piano and the all-important bass were sure to remind longtime locals of the tunes they skated to at the Roller Fun rink on South Higgins: Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Sammy Kate, the Dorsey brothers and Fats Waller.
“In the Mood” took John Rehder back to a time when appreciative dishes and dreamboats said, "Beat me, daddy, eight to the bar."
With help from his walker, and despite the oxygen tank strapped to it, Rehder just had to get up from a corner table and boogie to Glenn Miller’s 1940 chart-topper.
“I learned to dance to that tune when I was in fifth grade,” Rehder said. “Willa Lester, who was the wife of John Lester, the professor of music at the university – their daughter and I went to Cold Springs School together and we learned to dance to that. That was in, what, 1950?”
For a few weeks in January and February, Gary Gillett and his Missoula Big Band are swinging around town and cranking out memories.
They had an even bigger audience clapping and swinging Sunday in a pre-Super Bowl concert at the Village Senior Residence on South Avenue. By then Candy Johnson, retired Hellgate Elementary School administrator, had shaken a head cold enough to sing the likes of Sinatra's “Let’s Get Away From It All.”
All things concerned, her timing was perfect.
“I got a thank-you letter from a gal at Clark Fork Riverside,” Gillett recounted with a smile. “She said, ‘I never thought it would happen, but I’m an 80-year-old groupie.’ ”
Gillett, part stand-up comedian and all musician, is in his first year of retirement after nearly 30 years of conducting bands at Sentinel High School. He took the reins of the Missoula City Band almost a quarter of a century ago, and he's deep into researching and writing a history of the band.
He also plays in and takes his turn directing the Missoula Community Concert Band, which takes a break from December to February. That opened a winter window this year for a big band to come tootling through.
“For a number of years I’ve tried subtly and not so subtly to suggest to Gary that we need a big band opportunity for rank amateurs like myself,” said Dan Dixson, baritone sax. “When I heard that he was forming the Community Big Band, I was all over it.”
Dixson is soon to turn 62. By day he’s a hospice chaplain and bereavement specialist. He’s played in the city band for the past few summers on a borrowed saxophone.
“Most people don’t own their own,” Gillett noted. “They’re big-time expensive.”
But Dixson couldn't find a baritone sax to borrow or rent. He splurged to buy a used one that's been restored.
“At this stage of my life I didn’t know how many more opportunities I might have or who besides someone as crazy as Gary would offer me that opportunity,” he said.
That’s the draw of a community big band, said Amanda Tish, alto sax.
“Once you leave school it’s hard to find as many adult opportunities to play big band music,” said Tish, a 34-year-old accountant, who played in Gillett’s school bands and serves as the community band’s administrative assistant. “Some of us just needed an outlet to play in. That’s why we tried to persuade Gary to do this.”
If you know the “Jersey Bounce,” Benny Goodman’s version or maybe Ella Fitzgerald’s, now is as good a time as any to start playing it on the jukebox of your mind.
They call it that Jersey Bounce
A rhythm that really counts
The temperature always mounts
Wherever they play, the funny rhythm they play ...
With practiced ease, Gillett fronts the band, swings it into the first few bars, and wanders the activity room at Missoula Manor to chat quietly with the audience. He returns to bring the tune in for a landing, an airport runway marshal waving a ghost wand.
There’s some Friday night attrition in the band.
“If you think it’s loud now, half our trumpet players aren’t here tonight,” Gillett announces. “We usually have eight.”
Among his other gigs, Gillett plays trombone and MCs for Missoula’s venerable Ed Norton Big Band.
Professional big bands typically have 17 pieces. One of the joys of this one, he says, is that he doesn’t have to cut anyone. When everyone’s there Gillett will have two dozen women and men – 16 trumpeters and saxophonists, along with trombonists Luke Schelvan, Don Gisselbeck and Rob Ball; Johnson on vocals; bassist Ron Wilcott, and Bill Haffey on guitar.
The drummer is Gillett’s new recruit and old student Tyson Peissig. On piano is Dr. Meg Carnegie, a family practitioner.
Gillett tells the Missoula Manor audience Carnegie missed a recent rehearsal.
“I came and told the band why she couldn’t be there,” he says. “She was at the hospital saving someone’s life.”
It’s not all '40s swing music.
Occasionally the Missoula Big Band be-bops into the late '50s and '60s for the likes of Henry Mancini’s “Peter Gunn.”
Gillett introduced it as “an old TV fave,” and his audience nodded in recognition as the driving guitar-piano ostinato began. They were still with him when it was over and Gillett started talking the building next door. Where a television studio stands today was once the Carousel Lounge, he said, a venue for lots of live music.
“And about 30 years before that there was this little shack, right back over here (at a corner of South Avenue and Stephens) …”
“Casa Loma,” someone volunteered.
“Yeah! Casa Loma! That was the last roadhouse in Missoula, back when the airport was right there at Sentinel,” Gillett said. “Traveling men would come there to play.”
When he was teaching at Sentinel, friend and fellow musician Hal Herbig took Gillett inside the white frame building and showed him the bandstand.
“He had some great stories,” Gillett said. “Now it’s just full of leftover school equipment.”
These big band trips to yesteryear surround him with joy.
“We go to these different venues, wondering what it will be like, and these folks are just absolutely enthralled with it all,” Gillett said. “You say a title and they go, 'Ooh!' They’ll sit there and dance with their feet, tapping along or playing drums.”
The players in the band never stop smiling.
"They're loving the opportunity to play swing music – and me in the middle of it all," said Gillett. "It’s just so much fun to be a part of.”
Johnson, the singer, leads the local chapter of the Sweet Adelines.
"Big band and barbershop. I'm into B and B," she said with a laugh.
Johnson taught music at Hellgate Elementary for 25 years before she became principal, and has made music with Gillett for decades.
“He's just got such a great way of working with people,” she said. “You watch him with the people in these retirement homes and you know he just loves being here. He puts a sparkle in your eye – and he’s that way all the time.”
That sparkle in the eye transferred to Ken McCann’s feet.
While most concertgoers at the Missoula Manor were content to chair dance, the 68-year-old McCann was up the whole time in the back of the room, swinging, clapping and air conducting. He coerced an occasional dance partner but most often cut a rug on his own in the back of the room.
“I like music, all kinds of music, and I’ll dance to anything,” McCann said.
His mother was a ballroom dancer in Detroit, and he learned the finer points from her.
“You dance from the hips down,” he instructed.
The Missoula Big Band has one gig left, at The Springs in northwest Missoula on Valentine’s Day.
Gillett and most of his band began rehearsals Monday for the Community Concert Band’s spring season, but the swing band will get together that one more time at least.
“The further we’ve gotten along, the more I hear from people in the band and outside the band saying, ‘Hey, what’s next?’ ” Gillett said.
He’s retired and making no commitments, but he’s not discounting anything either.
Maybe there’ll be a big band gig at Bonner Park one Wednesday in the summer. Perhaps they’ll all be back for another tour next winter, when the weather grows cold, the nights get long and, for a certain segment of the population, swing music is a cure for what ails.
“Good night and thank you all,” Gillett told the Missoula Manor crowd at the end. “I bet you feel better now than you did when you walked in here.”