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Our Own Buena Vista Social Club
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Features column: An all-star big band of veteran jazz musicians plays a weekly gig to a packed house of admirers


Where is Ry Cooder when you need him?

When the musician and producer went to Cuba a few years ago, he rounded up, recorded and reintroduced a group of long-forgotten traditional musicians to the world.

Right here, right now in Los Angeles, we have our own version of the Buena Vista Social Club: The Alumni Association, an all-star collection of veteran musicians -- approximate average age, 70 -- who gather once a week at Leon's Steak House in North Hollywood to rehearse their 20-piece big band in front of a packed, overjoyed crowd of mostly like-aged admirers.

The conductor/arranger of the group and the man with his name on the bandstand is Randy Van Horne. He and trombonist/arranger George Kenney put the orchestra together three years ago, calling upon old friends and colleagues to play in the six saxophone, four trombone, five trumpet, piano, bass, drums and guitar band.

Van Horne and Kenney have known each other since 1949, or '51, depending on which one you ask. They played together in the Billy May big band, and Kenney worked jingle sessions with Van Horne when the latter wrote advertisement tunes for companies such as Dodge and Wells Fargo.

"George had been after me for 20 years," Van Horne relates before a recent Alumni Association practice. "He'd always said, 'let's start a band.' Finally, I got mad enough to do it."

Kenney says his own motivation was far more friendly than financial. "Let's get together and even if we never get paid a dime, at least we're having fun," he recalls saying.

Alumni Association members have played for many of the biggest names of the big band era: Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Woody Herman, Henry Mancini, Nelson Riddle, Elmer Bernstein, Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Gene Krupa -- the list goes on and on.

All of that experience makes them a very formidable jazz unit.

"I can't believe it -- they play it like they've been together their whole lives," Van Horne says.

"It's a fun band, they listen all the time," Kenney says. "It's effortless to conduct them; you just give them a downbeat. They don't miss a thing."

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Leon's Steak House is the kind of joint that has a metal bottle opener mounted on a wall. Its dark carpet can disguise almost any stain. There are neon beer signs and a bar. There are dark, fake wood-paneled walls with high flourishes of pink trim. The ceiling is split by dark-stained wood beams. There is no elevated stage; the band sits in three rows of chairs and plays at floor level.

The capacity crowds start arriving at Leon's at 9:30 on Wednesday mornings. The restaurant does a brisk breakfast business among the mainly elderly fans who come out to hear the songs of their youth. By 10:30 a.m. -- showtime -- all the seats are taken and promoter and host J.C. Curtiss is forced to shoo people out of the fire aisles. Even as the pop culture version of swing music continues its decade-long revival, people who lived through the original incarnation are starved for the real thing.

"There's a lot more enthusiasm here," Kenney says. "They haven't heard the music in 20 years. "Lots of old folks come up and say this is therapy," he adds. "This is the way it used to sound."

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Drummer Johnny Vana is a percussive powerhouse, receiving a standing ovation after one solo and keeping time better than most Swiss watches. The rest of the band members are aces too, especially saxmen Ira Schulman and John Setar. Members of The Alumni Association may not all have their original teeth, but they've still got chops.

They change tempos faster than a NASCAR pit crew does tires. They sight-read new arrangements and nail them the first time George Kenney puts 'em in front of them. They are tighter than a fat man in vinyl pants. More of a crack unit than an anti-narcotics squad.

During two sets that run until 1 p.m., they play standards such as "Honeysuckle Rose," "Sentimental Journey," "Swing Low, Swing Chariot," and even, albeit cheekily, "Just a Gigolo."

One recent week, the group kicked off a set with "Pennsylvania 6-5000" and the crowd shouted the chorus, unprompted.

A few weeks later, special guest vocalist Herb Jeffries, looking dapper in a white sport coat with matching black shirt, handkerchief and immaculately creased tie came up and crooned the Duke Ellington-penned hit, "Satin Doll." The crowd, even in the extreme heat on a 100-degree day, was exuberant. "My body is 89," Jeffries told the crowd. "But I only feel 51."

Other performers and band members make age-appropriate jokes about Florida, prostates and memory loss. But if you close your eyes and listen, it's easy to imagine these musicians some years back, on the nation's biggest stages, wearing tuxedos, looking suave, breaking hearts.

And, as is the case with Cuba's Buena Vista group, it's easy to picture our guys doing it still.

"At one of our jobs, we were introduced as one of the finest bands in the country," Van Horne says. "I said, 'What do you mean, ONE of them?'"