It’s become a part of Stillwater’s annual Fourth of July celebration. For a couple of hours before the fireworks, the 17 musicians (and a vocalist) of the St. Croix Jazz Orchestra (SCJO) fill Pioneer Park with music—impeccably played, sonically lush, sophisticated arrangements of music by jazz greats, with room for improvised solos by some of the best musicians in the Twin Cities.
It doesn’t happen by accident. The story of how the SCJO came to be dates back to 2002.
Longtime Stillwater resident Mark Syman studied and played trumpet through high school and college at St. John’s University, then “put it away for 20 years. Then, my son Nick decided he wanted to be a trombone player, and I started to play again,” says Syman, a teacher at Cretin-Derham Hall High School. “Then my daughter Mara picked up the alto sax.” As he met his kids’ music teachers, and started taking lessons himself, “I became amazed at the sheer quality of musicians we have in the Stillwater area,” he says.
Through a newspaper ad, Syman found a trumpet teacher, Steve Strand. “He had just come off the road with Prince and the New Power Generation. He has also toured with [pianist] Lorie Line and is one of the top, on-call lead trumpeters in town for commercial recording. I couldn’t believe a player of that caliber was teaching at Water Music in Stillwater,” he explains.
Syman says the original idea that led to the SCJO came from the kids.
“My son and his 10th-grade music buddies thought ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to put group together with half professionals and half kids?’ I ran it by Strand; he has a son the same age as mine who plays,” he says.
Syman needed to find an orchestra leader and was referred to a local “big band guru,” Larry Neumann, former jazz band director at Stillwater High School and current leader of the Century Jazz Ensemble. “Larry didn’t know who I was, but he’s one of those nice guys who will never say an outright ‘no.’ He said that ‘If it’s a good idea, it will make it; if it’s a bad idea, it will fall apart.’ When I told him who some of the players were, his ears perked up,” Syman says.
The multigenerational band played four or five songs at a Stillwater High School jazz ensemble concert. “After the concert some of the adults were sitting around saying, ‘This was kind of fun; we should do this again with just the adults.’ I laughed and said, ‘These are all professionals, they’re not going to do this for nothing,’” Syman says. The group connected with Stillwater ArtReach, whose then-director Jammi Hansen Blair helped them get a grant in 2003. With funding in hand, “I could call some of the best players in town and get together a rehearsal,” he says.
Co-founder Neumann, who has a master’s degree in music from Ithaca College in upstate N.Y., retired after 30 years as a teacher in the Stillwater public school system. He is a self-admitted “big band junkie.”
A big band like the SCVJO is a unique—and versatile—musical entity, he points out. “We have an incredibly big sound. Seventeen people playing with a like mind makes a special sound. With eight brass instruments, five saxophones and a rhythm section blowing, we can fill up a big hall without using any amplification. And, we can also play very softly; a lot of people don’t understand that,” says Neumann, who also leads the Jazz Ensemble at Century College in White Bear Lake.
He also points out that, unlike the big bands dominating American popular music in the pre-rock ’n’ roll era, the St. Croix Jazz Orchestra is not a dance band. It exists to play sophisticated arrangements of material specifically written with big-band jazz in mind.
That could include older standards popularized by Frank Sinatra and other crooners of the big band era, swing pieces by iconic bandleaders like Count Basie and Duke Ellington, arrangements of more modern rock tunes by composers like John Lennon and Paul McCartney and modern jazz compositions specifically written for improvisation by composers like Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck or any number of other jazz hall of famers.
Another interesting trait of the SCVJO is its multigenerational aspect, with musicians ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-60s.
As director, Neumann appreciates the high caliber of the SCVJO. “I feel very comfortable putting challenging music in front of them. Given their high skill level, the musicians don’t need much group rehearsal, which is good because—with professionals in the band—“rehearsal is expensive. We try to get together for a paid rehearsal at least once before every gig. If there is something tricky in the music coming up, or it’s a special piece, I will give the guys a heads up, like any other professional organization.”
The band has received grant funding from ArtReach, Andersen Windows and Cub Foods, but is always looking for new grant opportunities, Neumann says.
Given the complicated logistics of organizing a band of 17 players who are each involved in multiple musical projects, the band only plays a few times a year, making its gigs special occasions everyone looks forward to—both players and listeners.
“It’s a good group with good people, and it’s been a helluva learning experience,” Syman says.
Heather Rutledge, executive director of ArtReach St. Croix, is a fan of the band and has helped them obtain grants. “We hosted the orchestra at our mobile art gallery last summer and took them to the Rivertown Fine Art Festival, and they were a real crowd pleaser. With both the small ensembles and the full big band, the swinging jazz that comes out of those musicians is really impressive,” Rutledge says.