Junius Courtney Big Band: Spirited in the right ways

The Junius Courtney Big Band

When an ensemble keeps performing after the death of its namesake leader, it’s known as a ghost band. Though descriptive rather than pejorative, the term often carries a whiff of the dismissive, as if a musical legacy should be interred with its creator (things work differently in the world of dance, where no one seems interested in tossing dirt on the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater).

The Junius Courtney Big Band might be a ghost orchestra, but it’s spirited in all the right ways. Rather than coasting on the affection and respect earned by the late New Orleans-born, Berkeley trumpeter and founder, the JCBB continues to thrive with an expanding book of sophisticated arrangements. An East Bay institution since the mid-1960s, the band presents its latest project, a celebration of seminal jazz pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, Saturday at Freight & Salvage.

With Junius’s son, drummer Nat Courtney, leading the 18-piece orchestra and lyrical trumpeter George Spencer serving as music director, the JCBB features a bevy of veteran improvisers with longstanding ties to the ensemble. Bassist Terry Hilliard, a Bay Area jazz hero who provided the clave pulse on Cal Tjader’s Latin jazz classic “Soul Sauce,” propels the orchestra with a buoyant groove. Trumpeter Frank Fisher and pianist Roberta Mandel both started performing with Junius Courtney in the 1960s.

The addition of stylish San Francisco vocalist Denise Perrier, who joins the JCBB at the Freight, has also energized the band. A Louisiana native who grew up in Albany, Perrier has spent much of her five-decade career performing internationally since Louis Armstrong discovered her as a teenager in the 1950s. She’s a polished song stylist who can deliver the blues with authority and interpret standards with knowing wit, and she never sounds better than when accompanied by a dynamic orchestra.

Tammy Hall-Hawkins ably handles the piano chair. Best known as a consummate accompanist for vocalists like Perrier, Kim Nalley, Pamela Rose, Rhonda Benin, Linda Tillery, Frankye Kelly and Veronica Klaus, she’s a dynamo who can dig into Hines’s patented horn-like approach to the piano.

The tribute to Hines couldn’t be more appropriate. A jazz giant who made first his mark in the mid 1920s through a series of classic encounters with Louis Armstrong (their 1928 duet “Weatherbird” ranks among the five most important jazz recordings ever), Hines led an influential big band in Chicago’s mobbed up Grand Terrace Ballroom throughout the 1930s. During the war years he took his band on the road, and it served as an essential bebop incubator, boasting a cast of brilliant young innovators such as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine and Wardell Gray. Though he toured with his old friend in the Louis Armstrong All-Stars from 1948-51, Hines reputation was fading as the jazz scene changed.

By the end of the 1950s, he was living in Oakland, largely underappreciated as one of jazz’s most powerful and influential improvisers. Jazz writer Stanley Dance helped engineer his resurgence with a series of solo recitals in New York City in 1964, and Hines started recording prolifically. His reputation restored, he was hailed by his fellow piano greats such as Horace Silver, Count Basie and Errol Garner as the jazz’s foremost piano patriarch.

Based in the East Bay until his death in 1983, Hines was dedicated to music education. A UC Berkeley Regents Lecturer in 1979, he left part of his estate to support aspiring students in Cal’s Young Musicians Program, which provides free conservatory training to youngsters from low-income families. Hines’ musical archive has become the crown jewel of the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library’s Archive of African American Music.

Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report.

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