NEW PORT RICHEY
Every week like clockwork they gather to practice the music they love, crafting great American standards in preparation for their next show, their next audience.
But Pasco's Serenaders Big Band members are the first to say they are no spring chickens, and finding people to listen to their catalog of rich classics is getting harder as their community gets younger.
"Not bad for a bunch of old guys," said pianist Joe Walsh between songs during a recent rehearsal.
Walsh, 84, has conducted or played in big bands for decades, including a 35-piece group in upstate New York. He has been the backbone of the Serenaders for years, succeeding Al Garnich, who died in 2002 at age 87.
Garnich founded the Serenaders in the Beacon Woods neighborhood in the 1980s and built it to 16 musicians specializing in the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. Their songs once dominated the American musical landscape of the Big Band era from the early 1930s until the late 1940s, and community big bands cropped up in nearly every city, Walsh said. But such bands are few and far between now, and those that remain, such as the Serenaders, are disappearing.
Music has changed and so have the demographics in places like west Pasco, where retirees in neighborhoods like Beacon Woods are being replaced by younger families.
"We are a dying breed," Walsh said of his band.
Recently the band lost its longtime rehearsal space at the Beacon Woods Civic Center amid rising insurance costs. And crowds have gotten so small in the civic center that a performance on Friday in Beacon Woods likely will be the band's last in that venue.
That show may not even happen unless enough $7 tickets are sold to pay insurance costs for one night. In a building where the group used to get 200 people for a performance, now only 35 come to listen, said band member Ed Carper.
"If the show happens,'' Carper said, "I guess it will be a fond farewell to a legacy."
Playing for local civic associations used to be the band's bread and butter, but rarely do they hear from neighborhood groups anymore. It does better with the fraternal groups like the Eagles and Elks, Carper said.
Even with frustrating roadblocks, the band has no plans to call it quits. When they lost the Beacon Woods center for rehearsals, a local church stepped up with a room.
Each Tuesday, the band gathers and plays with an energy that proves they are still eager for an audience and will continue to seek gigs.
British drummer Johnnie Russell, 75, has been playing in big bands for much of his life in both England and the United States. "It's about the money," he said with a grin.
Of course, the Serenaders don't do it for money; there really is none to be made more than to cover operating costs. It's about playing hard for as long as they can.
"The trouble is at our age it's slipping away. Who knows how long it's going to last?" Carper said.
One thing is for sure, the band still has a wealth of talent.
Take the group's singer, Don Bailey, who has been singing in front of a crowd since age 7. He began singing for a Michigan vaudeville theater owner during the Great Depression, and at times made more money than his father — $9 a week.
Bailey, who is the group's elder at 87, sang with bands in New York City, including the legendary Jimmy Dorsey band.
When the Serenaders kick into Bart Howard's Fly Me to the Moon, later made most famous by Frank Sinatra, Bailey croons with a velvet voice that would make "Old Blue Eyes" proud.
"I love it,'' he said. "I'll always love it."