NORTH TAMPA — When 87-year-old Vance Jennings moved into the John Knox Village retirement community, he brought his 17-piece band with him.
"How lucky can we get here?'' says resident Mary Herndon, 88, waiting in the cavernous dining room for the Blue Notes to strike up such classics as The More I See You, Route 66 and What's New?
"And we don't have to pay. It's great — it's unbelievable.''
Actually, Jennings — clarinetist, saxophonist and former chairman of the University of South Florida music department — is the only resident band member, having moved in a little over three years ago. The others drive from far-flung bay area burgs to rehearse every Tuesday night.
Rehearsal, essentially, is a free two-hour concert with almost no interruptions mid-tune. Rows of saxophones, trombones and trumpets create a powerful wall of sound, set to the rhythm of drums, piano and bass guitar. About 50 to 80 people, some from the surrounding community, gather each Tuesday night to tap feet, sway in their seats or dance to tunes many danced to in their youth. Occasionally, trumpet players Ken Easton or Cynthony Palmer step up front to sing.
Sy Adel parks his Jazzy scooter close. The Blue Notes rehearsals are a main reason he moved into John Knox Village. "I grew up with this,'' says the 89-year-old New York native. He applauds solo riffs and pretends to lead the band, something he has been doing since he was a kid watching the Sammy Kaye and Kay Kyser orchestras at the Paramount Theatre.
Jennings, front-row center in the column of saxophones, bends into the microphone to announce each song. "We're going to slow things down a little bit with a beautiful ballad called Misty,'' he'll say, or, "Here we go with Moonlight in Vermont.''
He stands at half-turn, raises a hand and launches the tune with a "one-two-three-four,'' joining in on sax or clarinet.
It has been a while since the last rehearsal. Jennings gave the band two weeks off so musicians who work with other groups could take bookings over the holidays. Jennings didn't have a booking this past New Year's Eve, which for a professional musician, he wryly suggests, is "kind of pathetic.''
Jennings started playing clarinet as a 9-year-old growing up in Oklahoma. Eager to learn, he found the lessons fun. "I loved it.''
Always drawn more to symphonic music, he performed as a charter member of the Florida Gulf Coast Symphony, the forerunner to the Florida Orchestra. He quit to work on his doctorate in music.
Having performed side gigs throughout his career, Jennings joined Shades of Blue, forerunner to the Blue Notes, after retiring from USF in 1990. That band rehearsed at a senior center in West Tampa until the leader decided to disband the group. Those who wanted to keep performing formed the Blue Notes under Jennings' direction, but they needed a place to rehearse.
Jennings, who had moved into John Knox Village in late 2009, got clearance for the group to play in the dining hall. In turn, the residents got free concerts. The Blue Notes, who performed at the opening of downtown Tampa's Floridan Palace Hotel last summer, works for pay about every couple of months, says bass guitarist Ward Cook, who handles the bookings. They'll perform at the Tampa Yacht Club and Canterbury retirement center in the coming months, he says.
The band likely has a few hundred years of combined experience, with its rhythmic septuagenarians and octogenarians. One much younger saxophonist and two female brass players are part of the group.
Palmer, 59, who sings The Glory of Love' for the crowd, has her own group, Cynthony & Company. But she has been a member of the big band for 15 years. She tries never to miss a rehearsal at John Knox.
"I love the dancers and the audience and the guys in the band.''
Cook, 66, a Tampa area musician for more than four decades, loves the powerful sound a big band creates. And it's a better experience with an appreciative crowd.
"It's so much fun seeing them having so much fun,'' he says.
It's a ''cheering section like you wouldn't believe,'' says drummer Lenny Vidal, 88. He notes that it's also a knowledgeable crowd.
"Like every other band, sometimes we'' — he stops, searching for the proper words. "We don't have train wrecks, but the intensity is not there. And they notice it.''
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.