Junius Courtney Big Band: 50 years of swinging

Junius Courtney Big Band Photo playing at the Freight Saturday. Photo: James Knox

The Junius Courtney Big Band was born in Berkeley, and it’s entirely fitting that the irrepressibly swinging 19-piece ensemble kicks off a series of events celebrating its 50th anniversary with a dance party Friday at Freight & Salvage, a venue that has hosted the band regularly for the past decade.

While the band’s namesake founder, an ebullient trumpeter and vocalist, passed away in 2003, his son, drummer Nat Courtney, has kept the JCBB rolling, the most visible legacy of a family with deep Berkeley ties. Propelled by the dogged efforts of trombonist Pat Mullan, who spent many years working as a librarian in downtown branch of the Berkeley Public Library, the orchestra is built around a core of long-time members, including trumpeter and music director George Spencer and bassist Terry Hilliard, a Bay Area jazz stalwart who provided the clave groove on Cal Tjader’s Latin jazz classic “Soul Sauce.” Trumpeter Frank Fisher and pianist Roberta Mandel both started performing with Junius Courtney in the 1960s.

Denise Perrier. Photo: James Knox

But the band’s story starts in the closing year of World War II, when a young trumpeter from New Orleans moved his family out to Richmond. Like thousands of other African-Americans who headed west looking for more opportunity, Junius Courtney found work in the shipyards. By 1952, the Courtneys had settled on Acton Street in North Berkeley, and for better or worse the family has been deeply enmeshed with the city ever since (one Courtney son, also named Junius, was killed by a drunk driver near University Avenue in 1959).

While holding down a day job at an auto dealership, pere Junius Courtney became an essential catalyst on the East Bay scene leading a 10 to 12 piece dance combo at nightclubs and social events (including at several country clubs in Contra Costa and Alameda Counties where broke the color line as the first African-American artist on stage).

Nat Courtney started sitting in with the band as a teenager, and by the time he finished high school he was working widely with his father. The band played regularly at the Shattuck Hotel, and the Shalimar Club on Sacramento Street, playing blues-inflected swing music ideal for dancing.

“We had no charts,” Nat Courtney recalls. “It was like the early Count Basie Band, where everything was based upon riffs created on the bandstand. We played the same at a jazz joint or a society gig. They’d make up riffs on the spot.”

In 1962, Courtney launched a rehearsal band that attracted some of the regions finest players to his Acton Street house. In 1964, the family relocated to El Cerrito when the block was claimed by eminent domain to build the North Berkeley BART station. Despite an ever-expanding book of well crafted charts by arrangers like Frank Fisher, Memphis Horn baritone saxophonist James Mitchell, and Courtney himself, the rehearsal band stayed under wraps until the mid-1970s, when hotel gigs made it economically feasible for a 17 or 18 piece orchestra to hire itself out.

Junius Courtney. Photo: Pat Mullan

A courtly and affable bandleader who could deliver a vocal with panache and a trumpet solo with pithy eloquence, Courtney performed with the orchestra until weeks before his death. In the decade since, the band has continued to seek out new musical challenges, regularly playing thematic concerts devoted to music by jazz giants like Billy Strayhorn, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Quincy Jones, and at its next Yoshi’s gig on June 26, Ray Charles.

Vocalist Denise Perrier has been an invaluable addition to the fold, and she’ll be on hand at the Freight. Like Courtney, she was born in New Orleans and moved to the East Bay as a child in the 1940s. She didn’t know him back in the day, but as an avid dancer she recalls attending several gigs featuring his band. She started performing with the orchestra in Courtney’s last years.

“He was from the old school,” Perrier says. “He had that magic thing on the bandstand, a certain sense of swing and dignity that seems to not be around much these days. The guys had so much respect for him, and I respected the way he ran the band. Whether there’s a gig or not, he had a rehearsal every week, rain or shine. That discipline continues today. If you wait till you have a gig, it can be hard to pull it together.”

The Junius Courtney Big Band has been swinging together for five decades now, and that’s plenty of reason to celebrate.

Visit the Freight & Salvage website for performance details.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, visit Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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