Arts & Entertainment

Moonlight Jazz Orchestra: Having Fun at 40

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“Outrageous” is one way to describe this lively group of musicians, who’ve been sharing a unique jazz sound for 40 years. See how the group grew from a high school class into a professional gig.

Pat of the Moonlight Jazz Orchestra lineup.

Pat of the Moonlight Jazz Orchestra lineup.

In the Rockford area and beyond, Moonlight Jazz Orchestra is synonymous with quality entertainment.

On Nov. 8, the group celebrates its 40th anniversary with an evening of dining, dancing and a signature “outrageous fun” performance at Giovanni’s Restaurant & Convention Center, 610 N. Bell School Road, Rockford. This year also marks the 20th season of appearances by Moonlight Jazz for Rockford Park District’s Music in the Park series at Sinnissippi Park. For 35 years, the band has entertained at Alpine Kiwanis Brat Days in July and at other local events and charity functions.

The band’s longevity tells the story.

It all began in 1974, when several Jefferson High School band members wanted to get away from the regimented classroom and practice sessions, and just play music for fun. Eventually, word got around about the band’s unique sound and style. People wanted to hire the band members to play at weddings and other special events.

Todd Johnson is one of the original members and is still with Moonlight Jazz.

“One of the things that really launched our career was a talent contest at North Towne Mall,” says Johnson. “We won the contest and that’s what sent us well on our way to becoming one of the area’s most popular bands. Our band director got really pumped up and strongly believed we could have a promising career if we worked at it.”

Once established, the band’s popularity grew and grew until it was a top choice for wedding receptions, festivals, concerts, private events and charitable causes. The band won five Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) awards before being inducted into the RAMI Hall of Fame in 2000.

A trombone player and leader of the section for many years, Johnson says that if it weren’t for Moonlight Jazz, he probably wouldn’t be playing today. He’s stayed with the band for the sheer enjoyment of entertaining others and making music.

“Every time I play with the band, I have a good time and am grateful for being able to be a part of it,” he says. “The enjoyment I get from the music keeps me going.”

Fun is how the group began, and it’s a top priority today. “Fun has been a big part of our success, and the audience picks up on that and has fun right along with us,” says band director Kent Ecklor. “Everyone is proficient at playing their instrument, but our main goal is to have fun, and, for that reason, what we do never feels like work.”

Moonlight Jazz has always been about providing musicians with an outlet to practice their craft and perpetuate live music, especially from the Big Band era. Everyone works a day job as a full-time musician, music teacher or business professional.

Ecklor refers to Moonlight Jazz as “a Rockford institution” and says his main goal is to perpetuate the Big Band sound for as long as possible. Big Band music originated in the United States and was most popular in the 1920s. Big Bands are associated with jazz or swing music and typically consist of percussion, brass and woodwind instruments, including saxophones, trumpets, trombones and a rhythm section of drums, bass, piano and guitar. They’re called “Big Bands” because they’re made up of 12 to 25 musicians. Moonlight Jazz usually has 18 members and one sound manager.

It was 35 years ago, in tiny Port Byron, Ill., on the Mississippi River, that Moonlight Jazz started playing some contemporary music, as well as the sound that gained it notoriety back home.

“Our goal was to be that perfect wedding band,” Ecklor says. “We go out into the audience, stand on tables and have all sorts of fun. We’re at our best when we get to let loose and just be who we are.

“We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” he adds “We dance around, talk to people, and just try to create a fun atmosphere. This band broke me out of my fear of performing. Once any musician has the ability to ‘let go’ and involve the audience, the crowd really responds to that connection.”

Kathi Edwards is a longtime fan of Moonlight Jazz. She first saw the band perform 25 years ago at a wedding reception and most recently heard them this summer at Sinnissippi Band Shell.

“They’re so much fun, have so much energy and each one of them is so talented,” says Edwards. “There aren’t that many groups that play that kind of music. They are so upbeat, genuine and energetic. They have appeal that spans generations.”

Edwards has witnessed some of the changes the band has gone through in its 40 years. Although some of the names and faces have changed, the commitment to playing good music and interacting with the audience is always the same.

“I enjoy hearing the variety of instruments, and, visually, they’re so interesting,” she says.

Band members sometimes hold up signs asking for audience participation, come out into the audience, move around the room in different directions while playing instruments, and use different props for certain songs, she says.

“They’re definitely not just standing there, but performing, moving around and making jokes. They keep the audience on its toes,” she says.

Her favorite song is “In the Mood,” and she says she’s never heard any band perform it better. In the many years Edwards has been a fan, she’s always felt that, when the band hires new members or changes directors, each person carries on the band’s tradition and there is a smooth transition.

Director Ecklor says the band’s music can be described as “anything you can dance to,” whether it’s from the 1920s or today’s Top 40.

“We really want to play songs people recognize,” he says. “In general, and especially at weddings, we don’t play a lot of Big Band tunes, but we’re open to whatever people can dance to and whatever makes them feel lively,” he says.

Today, the band’s song repertoire includes about 800 pieces, but in general, it plays from a list of about 350 popular numbers. The band performs mainly around the greater Rockford area, but has also played in Chicago, Milwaukee, Peoria and St. Louis. Performances aren’t pre-planned and the band always takes requests.

Lorna Cote, a former booking agent for the band, played lead alto saxophone and sang with the band for 22 years, until 2011. Today, she fills in as a substitute when needed.

Good showmanship and musical entertainment have been the band’s signature qualities, she says, adding that Moonlight Jazz never had to advertise for work because its success was built mainly on referrals.
“When people called to book the band, they would often say they’d heard Moonlight Jazz at a friend’s wedding or were told they were the best band to hire,” she says. “The band always got rave reviews.”

As a result, Moonlight Jazz has played in just about every venue in the Rockford area, including private backyards. In general, the ensemble requires a stage 24 feet long and 12 feet deep, and provides its own sound system, cables, lights and stands. Still, it’s been able to squeeze into some fairly small spaces, like a riverboat dining area. If there’s not enough space in a place they’re asked to play, they refer the opportunity to another local band.

Regardless of where or what they play, Moonlight Jazz pleases generations of listeners who long to be entertained.

“There’s nothing like live music,” says Cote. “People just want to get out and have a good time. The band is always careful about keeping up with the times and what music is popular, without losing the sound that made them famous.”

Cote started playing saxophone in sixth grade. She came from a musical family and always enjoyed playing music as a hobby. When the opportunity arose to be in the band, she found the frequent practice and engagements made her a better musician.

Although jazz bands typically are made up of men, Moonlight Jazz has hired its share of females, once having four women in the band at one time. Unlike other bands that hire women mainly for vocals, the local ensemble requires all members to play an instrument.

Cote believes the group has lasted so long because it runs like a democracy. Each musical section has its leader and any personal or business problems are handled within each section. The section leaders make up the Board of Directors. All band members are included in major decision-making.

Ecklor says Moonlight Jazz operates like a business, but acts like a family. No one person owns the band. Moonlight Jazz is a corporation, so shareholders all have a stake in the band’s success. Still, they enjoy each other’s company on a social level and will get together for reunions, parties and other special occasions.

“We all work together to set up, tear down, help each other,” says Ecklor. “And we operate like a healthy family. There are no prima donnas in the band. Everyone is featured in some way and is important in their own right. The band is truly a family. Once a member, always a member.”

Because of the camaraderie of the musicians, not every artist who envisions a future with the band will have one. Performers are hired for their musical talent, personal character and their ability to “fit into” the group, Ecklor says.

There’s a mix of personalities, yet it’s easy to tell if someone will work out or not, he says. The admission procedure is fairly simple: the prospective player must attend a few rehearsals so they can meet the members. Currently, there are several openings.

More than 130 people have been Moonlight Jazz members, with an average length of stay about 20 years. About a dozen people are “on call” to fill in as substitutes, when needed. Throughout the band’s history, six members have died. Only two members were asked to leave.

Cote says it’s difficult finding musicians under the age of 40, partly because they had fewer opportunities in school, and partly because of other engagements. That trend is changing, she says.

Band members today include Amy McIntyre, Eric Archer, Lynne Olson, Maurice Alberty and Tony Vecchio on saxophone; Dan Southard, Mark Nelson and Mike Dzik on trumpet; Curt Peterson and Todd Johnson on trombone; Dave Timmcke, Ed Pawelski and Rich Ross on Rhythm; and Kent Ecklor as the band’s director.
For more information or to contact the band, call (815) 636-BAND or visit moonlightjazz.com.

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