© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
For some musicians, big bands are a way of life.
For others, they are a way to waste time, tantamount to “sitting in a section, counting measures and listening to a few guys take solos.”
But for those musicians who have been bitten by the big band bug, sometimes, when they can’t find a big band to play in, they create their own.
In many cases, such groups are little more than local rehearsal bands that meet on a regular basis. In other cases they evolve into institutions such as the Thad Jones - Mel Lewis Big Band which played Monday nights at the NYC Village Vanguard for years and has evolved into its current form - the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra under the direction of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is the exception to the rule with its $50 million endowment and an international performance schedule that keeps its musicians on the payroll year around.
Most of the other regional bands based in big cities throughout the world are labors of love with the musicians accepting union scale wages just for the privilege of being able to play in them. They in effect subsidize the existence of the big band because they want to experience the pleasure of making music in this format.
These days young musicians who want the opportunity of experiencing big band Jazz are fortunate to find them on many college and university campuses that offer a Jazz studies program.
Dedicated big band devotees like Bob Curnow at www.sierramusicstore.com, Rob and Doug DuBoff at www.ejazzlines.com and Michelle and Michael Pratt and Cheryl Scott at www.bigbandcharts.net perform the amazing service of providing published big band arrangements at reasonable fees so that the difficult task of finding interesting and exciting charts to play is easily remedied through online shopping.
Of course, many of these bands are formed as “arranger’s bands” which allow musicians who are adept at writing big band arrangements to have a platform for them to be heard. Notes on paper are one thing; how they sound coming through a horn in combination with other horns is quite another.
Repertoire big bands are sometimes formed by musicians who are enamored with a particular style of music as played by some of the legendary bands of yesteryear. These include Glenn Miller, or Woody Herman and Stan Kenton or more often as not Count Basie.
Basie is a particular favorite because his big band music is blues based, usually arranged in a fairly straight forward manner [ie. - not that complicated] and generally swings like crazy.
The sonorities of Duke Ellington’s music, the complexities of Kenton’s or the beautiful tight sections of Glenn Miller’s lovely refrains are all well and good, but there’s nothing quite like the Basie Boogie Train coming down the tracks for out-an-out toe-tapping joy while sitting in a big band playing Basie-oriented charts.
[Is my bias showing here?].
One such band that fits the Basie model “to a T” is the Capp Pierce Juggernaut.
Formed in 1975 with drummer Frankie Capp and pianist Nat Pierce as co-leaders and using Pierce’s Basie-style charts, the band was a great success; they began to perform more and eventually were heard by writer Leonard Feather, who headlined his newspaper article: ‘A Juggernaut On Basie Street’.
Naming their band as the Capp and Pierce Juggernaut, they made records for the Concord label, the first of which sold well, and continued to work whenever and wherever they could, concentrating on Basie-style material played with enormous zest and enthusiasm, but also displaying great versatility when the occasion demanded. The precision and accuracy of the musicians playing these charts is the envy of all who hear them and I’m guessing that The Count himself would like to return from the Pearly Gates to front such a powerful band made up of these monsters players.
Unfortunately, the initial, collective personnel made it a band far too expensive ever to tour. Among the personnel have been Bill Berry, Bobby Shew, Marshal Royal, Blue Mitchell, Herb Ellis, Chuck Berghofer and Richie Kamuca, while the singers who have worked and sometimes recorded with the band have been Ernie Andrews, Joe Williams, Ernestine Anderson and Nancy Wilson.
In later years the band would include tenor sax battles between Rickey Woodward and Pete Christlieb, trombones “chases” with the like of Andy Martin, Thurman Green and Alan Kaplan and trumpet duels between Conte Candoli and Bob Summers. Hearing these in person at Jazz festivals in the greater Los Angeles area literally took your breath away.
Still led by Capp, the Juggernaut proved sufficiently well founded to survive Pierce’s death in 1992 and continues to appear on occasion to this day.
From 1977 to 1997, the band made nine  recordings for Carl Jefferson’s Concord label. Here are some excerpts from a few of them to better describe the special qualities of the band and why big band formats are so endearing to my Jazz musicians
Let’s begin with Leonard Feather’s notes to The Frank Capp/Nat Pierce Juggernaut Featuring Ernestine Anderson - Live at The Alley Cat [CJ-336, 1987]:
From the Los Angeles Times, February 24. 1976: "King Arthur's in Canoga Park might of well have changed its name to Basie Street on a couple of recent nights when Frankie Capp and Nat Pierce took over the bandstand with their 16 man juggernaut."
Note that juggernaut is spelled with a small j; however. reading the headline on my review. ("A Juggernaut on Basle Street"). Capp and Pierce decided that this might be a good name for the orchestra, which they had inherited bo accident when Ned Hefti decided on short notice that he didn't want to lead a band [circa 1975].
It was at King Arthur's (a long gone San Fernando Valley dub) that the band made its first LP that year, 1977, on Concord CJ-40. A live date at the Century Plaza (CJ-72) the following year, and a studio session In 1981 (C -183) further enhanced the reputation of this exceptionally powerful team of Los Angeles based musicians.
Ernestine Anderson, o Concord Jazz pride and joy for more than a decade, is the third vocalist to guest star (two previous albums featured Ernie Andrews and CJ-72 hod Joe Williams).
The Alley Cat Bistro in Culver City, an important cynosure In the fast-growing Los Angeles Jazz dub scene, provided the ideal ambience for the band's two night gig. and for the taping that took place on the second evening.
Originally tied to a strong identification with the Count Basie repertoire, the band has moved significantly toward Its own identity. "You'll notice," Frank Capp points out, "that except for Queer Street, nothing in this album was taken from the Basle library. Also, over the years we've kept the personnel pretty consistent, which helps us to establish our personal image."
Seven men heard here (Berry. Brown, the two Coopers. Green, Roy Pohlman and Berghofer) were on the original album; Szabo was on the second LP and Snooky Young on the '81 date Marshal Royal, though replaced here on lead alto by Dave 6dwards, still plays with the band from time to time. …
Everything seemed to go right at this session: the recording quality, as well as the band's performance, the level of the solos, and the interaction between Ernestine and the ensemble. All that seems to be called for now is a joint concert tour reuniting this brilliant band and Its irresistible guest vocalist. New York, Nice, Copenhagen, Tokyo -what are you waiting for?”
Herb Wong contributed the following notes to The Capp/Pierce Juggernaut Featuring Joe Williams: Live at The Century Plaza Hotel.
Fasten your seat belts! This inspired band will bolt you straight out of your seat and send you flying on a joyous swing ride!
Thank God there are still bands playing in the tradition of timeless classic big hand swing without the shackles of formulated inflexibility The validity of ihe Capp/Pierce Juggernaut is faultlessly clear Predicated on the essence of swing, it is anything but a band that dwells on nostalgia ad nauseum or on rubber-stamped replications. As Frankie Capp said, "Basie's band, our band, the old Woody band … the secret is happy music, no anger or hostility or any cross overstuff."
Frankie Capp and Nat Pierce created this splendid hand by virtue of a quirk, 3 years ago at the now dissolved King Arthur's in Canoga Park As Neal Hefti could not fulfill an assignment at the jazz bistro. Frank and Nat contemplated on the numerous charts they had collected since the I950's in NYC. They decided to launch their own band as co leaders. Thus, in brief, the C/P Juggernaut was born in 1975 loaded with sharp professionals and dyed-in the-wool jazz musicians. The tag 'juggernaut' was derived from a reference by Leonard Feather in a review of the band.
The sum of Frank and Nat's combined credentials would cram a booklet printed in small type. Frank is one of the most prominent and hotly pursued and. therefore, extremely busy percussionists in ihe Hollywood studios. He first came on the jazz scene with Stan Kenton's band as Shelly Manne's' replacement, leaving Boston University before graduation. His impressive credits have been piling up for welt over 25 years. He is easily one of the idiom’s premium drummers although his immersion in studio work has not reflected the long earned recognition he amply deserves. The music of C/P Juggernaut should, however, promptly refill the cups of praise. Frankie is just one helluva drummer!
Nat Pierce’s status in Jazz has been secured cumulatively for decades with his Basie-ish piano and his substantial compositions and arrangements for his own bands and for many other bands, notably Basie's and Woody Herman's. His playing career has inked a lengthy roll call of many of Ihe greatest jazz musicians in history- instrumentalists and vocalists. The logic of his multiple roles in the Capp/Pierce Juggernaut is transparent. It is needless to elaborate. Nat is a helluva complete musician!
Favorable circumstances prefaced the making of this 'in person' band performance Firstly, the debut Capp/Pierce LP last year (Concord. CJ-40) has lit torches of enthusiasm wherever it has been accessible. It’s common reception stretches from top ratings in Japanese jazz journals to cresting the jazz charts for many months in England. Next, the new music penned or resurrected from obscurity by Nat fired up the hand for another record. Lastly, a gig at the Westside Room of the Century Plaza Hotel was the right time and place to capture the sounds au natural. The room holds about 400 people and il was packed during both sets on the evening of this recording session. It was one of the hottest over 100 degree days in recent history in the Los Angeles area. And so was the hot C/P hand, adding its own brand of heat to the equation. The word was out and hordes of musicians and others in the music industry attended. High anticipation was matched by the marvelous music of the band and Joe Williams. The record at hand is a healthy portion of the night's most mellow and throbbing moments. The luxuriously appointed 'joint' was really jumpin'!”
Comedian and television celebrity Steve Allen penned these thoughts for the premier Capp/Pierce Juggernaut LP which appeared on Concord [CJ-40] in 1977.
“I think the swing-lover who will most enjoy this album is Bill Basie himself, so faithfully does the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut Orchestra reproduce not only the general Basie sound, but more importantly the right swinging feel, not too loose and not too tight.
Having so many talented sidemen who themselves are products of the swing-band era participating in this session at “King Arthur’s,” the popular jazz club in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, gives much vitality to this record.”
And Stanley Dance penned these thoughts in his liner notes to The Capp/Pierce Orchestra Featuring Ernie Andrews - Juggernaut Strikes Again!
The music played by the Capp Pierce Orchestra is neither a sentimental attempt to revive the glories of the past nor a matter of providing imitations for the nostalgic There has been plenty of that during the past three decades, not to mention a great many vainglorious ventures in search of the strange and gimmicked. But Frankie Capp and Nat Pierce are concerned with the spirit that animated the big band tradition, and it is this they seek to perpetuate in performance.
"We pay homage to three godfathers." Frankie Capp once said. "Count Basie. Woody Herman and Charlie Barnet Each of them has heard, helped and encouraged us "
The inspiration of Duke Ellington is never far away either." Nat Pierre added thoughtfully
This, their third album, is the first they have made together in a recording studio, among the advantages of which is the fact that alternative takes are possible. An exciting live performance sometimes occurs in a charged atmosphere, but to experienced musicians such as these the studio atmosphere is by no means inhibiting. It may even be warmer and more comfortable, with fewer dlstractions. As it happened, in several cases the takes used in this album were the first recorded, thus confirming Ellington's theory that the original take is usually the best in terms of freshness, vitality and invention Repeated takes may bring improved ensembles, but if the feeling of spontaneity deteriorates, then by jazz standards the gain is decidedly questionable
Besides their overall guidance, the co leaders of this band make important rhythmic contributions on their instruments Nat Pierce ably fulfills a role played in the past by some of the great pianist-bandleaders in jazz history, such as Count Basie. Duke Ellington. Farl Mines. Fletcher Henderson. Jay McShann and Claude Hopkins Variously gifted as soloists, they all knew how to submerge self in the interest of the band, just as Pierce invariably does But no band can get far without a good drummer;and Basie. for one. has often expressed the opinion that the drummer is the boss. Frankie Capp, like the pianist, puts the band first, and the studio recording does more justice to his capability and taste than the live recording of the two preceding albums. ...
Arrangements are sometimes subjected to profound technical analysis, but unless they are suited to the players they do not bring forth the surging vitality that is the essence of big band jazz Everyone is swinging together here with a gathering impetus that is infectious to listeners and musicians alike.”
A couple years after Nat Pierce’s death in 1992, Frank Capp took the Juggernaut into the recording studio to record a series of Neal Hefti arrangement for the Basie Band. Nearly 20 years after Frank and Nat took over a band that Neal decided not to lead, Frank and Neal returned with In A Hefti Bag [Concord CCD-4655].
Mark Ralston wrote these introductory notes for the recording:
A decade after the end of the Swing Era, the partnership of composer/arranger Neal Hefti and Count Basie and his Orchestra set the tone for what big hand jazz would sound like for years to come, and virtually ensured the ongoing popularity of big bands during a period of tumultuous shifts in musical business and public taste.
Through the singular creativity of Hefti, the Basie band prospered and the big band movement adopted a fresh, contemporary personality that allowed it to weather the storm of rock and roll and an ever expanding array of traditional and modern jazz styles. Indeed, it’s unnerving to imagine where the big band tradition might be today if it had not been for the fortuitous pairing of Hefti and Basie four decades ago.
And that’s precisely why drummer and big band leader Frank Capp, long an admirer of Hefti’s writing and arranging, decided it was time to point his juggernaut in the direction ol a full-blown Heft program. In A Hefti Bag ,the band s fifth Concord Jazz album (the first since former co- leader and pianist Nat Pierce passed away three years ago) is a lovingly crafted reminder of the timeless qualities that make the Hefti library so rewarding for both listeners and musicians.
"People often ask me why I play these old arrangements" Capp observes, "and my answer is why does the New York Philharmonic still play Beethoven and Tchaikovsky? Because it's great music and it demands to be replayed." he states with more than a little conviction. "Just because Heft’s music was recorded by Basie’s band doesn't mean that had to be the end of it. These songs are classic arrangements. They’re like perennials. They desene lo be heard again."
And as Scott Yanow points out in his AllMusic Review of In A Hefti Bag, there are many new faces to help keep the band vibrant and full of energy.
The Frank Capp Juggernaut's interpretations of 16 Neal Hefti compositions (which were originally written and arranged for the 1950s-era Count Basie Orchestra) bring new life to the highly appealing music without directly copying the earlier recordings. Capp and his 16-piece orchestra are in typically swinging form on obvious classics such as "Cute," "Whirlybird," and "Li'l Darlin'"; several songs whose ensembles are more familiar than their titles (such as "Flight of the Foo Birds," "Scoot," and "Bag-A-Bones"); and some high-quality obscurities. Many soloists are featured, including the late altoist Marshall Royal (who takes his last recorded solo on "It's Awf'lly Nice to Be with You"); tenors Rickey Woodard and Pete Christlieb; altoist Lanny Morgan; trumpeters Conte Candoli, Bob Summers, and Snooky Young; and trombonists Thurman Green, Alan Kaplan, and Andy Martin. Special mention should be made of the work of Gerry Wiggins, who is former co-leader Nat Pierce's permanent replacement and fits right into the Count Basie chair with enthusiasm and obvious skill. As for Frank Capp, he gets his share of drum breaks (including on "Cute" and "Whirlybird") while thoroughly enjoying himself driving the ensembles. Fans of swinging big bands cannot do much better than picking up this highly recommended release.