More than four years ago a big band was born in Grantham – and it has gone from strength to strength ever since.
One of the highlights of Grantham Big Band’s (GRAB) story so far was a recent sell-out show at the Guildhall Arts Centre. Peter Storey has been musical director of the band since its began and here talks about its success so far.
How did GRAB come about and what was your involvement?
The concept of a Grantham-based big band had existed before, but had become inactive. Then I was playing a show in Grantham with Stuart Robinson and we had the idea of forming a new band. We needed a musical director and I think my exact words at the time were, “Well, I don’t mind waving my arms about at the front for a bit.” So on the 19th September, 2012, we held our first rehearsal at the Conservative Club (which has generously accommodated us ever since) and a handful of players turned up. I remember we had a few pieces of music and played our way through these and thought, “that wasn’t bad, let’s keep this up”.
What level of musicianship were you looking for and what kind of people got involved?
This is actually a very important aspect of this band. The opportunity to play jazz in an ensemble was lacking in Grantham; adult music making existed for classical, concert band players or operatic for example, but there was nothing I knew of for jazz. I decided that we were looking for accomplished amateur musicians who could read music to an intermediate standard and most importantly, wanted to play big band jazz. We also needed a few people who were comfortable improvising solos (or ‘busking’ as we call it) as this is fundamental to the big band style. From when we started, we attracted new players and I was amazed by how quickly we ended up with a full big band – five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, bass and drums. Craig Martini joined us as our first vocalist and he was shortly followed by Helen Spede to take girl vocals. The band is successful because of the sheer enthusiasm and talent of the variety of people who make it up. Indeed, John Toogood who regularly reviews the band, remarked to me how encouraging it was that so many younger players were ensuring that the big band tradition lives on. Some of those younger players are Emily-Jane Wilds on lead trumpet, Sam Shelton on trombone and my daughter, Laura, on double bass. And our most senior member is longstanding local guitarist John Hedworth.
The band has been a great success. How do you feel about that and are you surprised?
Two words, immense pride, spring to mind when I think about how far we have come. We had enough of a repertoire to do our first gig in the Conservative Club in May 2013 and we played to a full house. The audience reaction was amazing! I knew then that we really had something and the band has worked hard since – there are tunes we play now, like Buddy Rich’s Big Swing Face, that would have been far too difficult then. It’s a mark of how well the band has developed that we can tackle really quite challenging ‘charts’ as they are known. Am I surprised? A little I guess, because I had no idea how far we could take this project.
How big a milestone was the Guildhall gig for you and how would you describe the reaction you got?
We have played many gigs over the last four years, small venues and big venues, and often to a full house it seems. And we had played the Guildhall before by invitation to be part of shows. But this was different – Stuart took the plunge and hired the theatre because we had a hunch we could fill it. It was a bit of a financial risk for us but we needn’t have worried as the gig sold out some six weeks before the event. There was even a waiting list for returns! When it came to the big night, we started the first number, Strike up the Band, as the curtains opened and you could just feel the warmth from the audience – everyone was there to have a great time. They even politely laughed at my terrible jokes. We received a standing ovation at the end and the next day, our Facebook page filled up with lovely complements from people who had been there.
What does the future hold for the band now?
Well, the phone is ringing, the date book is filling up for 2017 and we will be back at the Guildhall, as well a little further afield. We will work on some new tunes and continue to expand the repertoire. I think it’s clear that we play a style of music people want to hear, and we try to keep that quite varied, but always anchored in the big band style.
But as we look back on 2016, it contained a period of sadness. After a short illness, we lost our friend and fellow GRAB musician, Pete Clark, who played alto sax. He loved playing in GRAB and I like to think that we provided a friendly and rewarding experience for him in his final years. Success of the band is fantastic of course, but the musical community we have created is also so very important.