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February 10, 2013

Transcending Generations: Fabulous ’40s Band keeps genre alive; Sweetheart Dance to showcase big-band sound

TERRE HAUTE — Buzz Burgess heard the music when it was fresh, new.

In the wake of World War II, he played tackle for the Clinton High School football team and then hung out at Dreamland Hall after the games on Friday nights.

“I learned to jitterbug to all those tunes there,” he recalled. It was the “big band era” — combos comprised of purring saxophones, crisp trumpets and mellow trombones, mixing jazz and swing, and blending melodies and counter melodies over the rhythms of piano, bass and drums. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman held household-name fame. Local big bands kept busy, too, in dance halls like Dreamland.

And when they struck the opening notes of “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” the floor filled up.

“You can’t beat that to dance to,” Burgess said.

More than a half-century later, Ersel “Buzz” Burgess — now 75 years of age — helps keep the big-band musical genre alive, alongside younger fellow musicians. He plays trombone in the 17-piece Fabulous ’40s Band, which formed in the mid-1980s in Terre Haute.

The theme for their next gig fits big-band music like tailor-made white tie and tails. They’ll play the Sweetheart Dance at 8 p.m. Saturday — Valentine’s Day weekend — in Krietenstein American Legion Post 104 on Terre Haute’s north side.

The sound is sentimental but not sad, an important distinction, Burgess emphasized.

“It’s a music that’s lively. It’s full of life, full of vitality,” he said. “The music that we play, it’s vibrations. It’s [from] an exciting time.”

Other members of the Fabulous ’40s Band don’t have his firsthand recollections, but share his fondness for the music. Big-band survives decades after its 1930s and ’40s heyday because of its stylish atmosphere, said Jenny Applegate, the band’s 26-year-old baritone sax player. Organizers of wedding and graduation parties often seek a big band for the entertainment, even though those guests of honor are often teenagers or twentysomethings.

“There’s nothing classier than that,” Applegate said.

The appeal endures, while the reach of big-band has diminished with time, said Norman Hanson, the Fabulous ’40s Band’s leader and lead trombonist. People who danced to Miller and Ellington during the Great Depression and World War II are now in their 80s and 90s. Subsequent generations encountered big-band in niche venues in the shadows of rock ’n’ roll, which exploded on the radio airwaves and dominated sales of vinyl records from the 1950s forward.

“We grew up with this music, too,” said Jim Chesterson, the 67-year-old trumpeter, manager and charter member of the Fabulous ’40s who learned the instrument as a grade-schooler in the 1950s and continued playing through college at Indiana State and during an Air Force career.

Since the genre’s inception, big-band has continued to win new fans, even as its legion of original admirers has inevitably dwindled.

“Admittedly, the crowds that are already into this type of music are getting smaller and smaller,” Hanson said.

Nonetheless, big-band will not fade away, he insisted.

“I won’t let it die,” Hanson said with determination, rather than bravado.

The richness of the music itself serves as its best asset for survival, he explained. “Personally, I think it’s a music that transcends generations.”

Hanson was born in 1961. Yet, “this is my music,” the 51-year-old asserts. “I think I was born 50 years too late.”

His connection came naturally. Hanson’s dad was a college music professor and active in the Chicago music scene, and Norman would often go along. Later, Hanson studied at Northwestern University from 1979 to ’83 when disco and punk rock were hot. He stuck to his roots. “I’ve just always been a jazz guy,” Hanson said.

He’s found outlets for that passion ever since. Hanson teaches music and directs the band at North Central High School in Farmersburg, conducts the jazz ensemble at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and plays trombone for Men of Note and Claudia, the Terre Haute Community Band, the Brazil Concert Band, and the Terre Haute Symphony. In 2008, Hanson and Chesterson sat in with the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods jazz ensemble, which included Applegate. At 21, she caught the big-band bug, and soon joined their Fabulous ’40s Band.

“It was just too much fun,” she said.

The fun takes the group, which sometimes features a singer, to performances from Robinson, Ill., to Indianapolis. One particularly memorable show in 2009 toasted the 101st birthday of Terre Haute-born composer, arranger and big-band leader Claude Thornhill. Harmony Hall, a historic theater in Terre Haute’s 12 Points district, served as the venue. The band revisited well-known standards such as “Stardust” and “Someone to Watch Over Me” as well as numbers from Thornhill’s songbook.

The show sold out. Standing room only. The place was hot, literally.

“There were people dancing in the aisles,” Hanson said.

Dancing and Fabulous ’40s Band concerts go hand in hand, pun unavoidable.

“We have a lot of ballads, so people can actually hold onto each other and dance,” Chesterson said. “The music has hummable melodies. We don’t scream at our audience or curse at them. The music is gentle and fun, the kind that dancers like.”

Classics such as “Pennsylvania 6-5000” lure them like a magnet. “When we start to play that,” Burgess said, “I can see the ‘grayhairs’ stick their hands out for their girl.”

Their ages seem to melt away. At a wedding, as the young sit listening, it’s the folks of an older vintage who break the ice by hitting the dance floor.

“They’re just a hoot,” Applegate said. “They get so excited. We love it when the dancers get up.”

Burgess remembers being among those rug-cutters, spinning and swaying with his wife, Dottie. “To put your arm around the girl, and put your left hand out for hers, that’s a good thing,” he said. “When you get a special girl, she follows you. I liked to be a leader, and I liked to have Dottie in my arms.” She passed away four years ago.

Now, from his spot in the Fabulous ’40s trombone section, Burgess does his best to give other dancers those reminiscent sounds. With each song, the opening notes are crucial. They stir the gumption to leave a seat and dance. Hanson always handles that countdown. “That really makes you liven up,” Burgess said.

Finishing strong matters, as well.

“The last part, that’s important,” Burgess said. “That’s what a guy’s going to take his sweetheart home to, and say, ‘We had a good time.’”

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