Discovering Big Band Music in Vancouver

Photo credit: Fred Dunn | Flickr

Photo credit: Fred Dunn | Flickr

Did you know Vancouver has a big band?

In fact, the Metro area is home to multiple jazz ensembles specializing in big band music – the kind of horn-heavy, danceable tunes popularized back in the day by famous acts like Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Dal Richards Orchestra – helmed by none other than 96-year-old local legend Dal Richards – is probably the best known of the local big band acts.  But pop into the right bar or pub on any given weekend and you might just be blasted by a wall of saxophones, trumpets and trombones pumping out some serious swing music.

That’s what happened to me when I stopped in Pat’s Pub on Hastings Street recently.  For the uninitiated, Pat’s is one of the best – and most underrated – music venues in the city. Housed in the Patricia Hotel on an otherwise downtrodden stretch of Hastings, the pub opened back in 1914 as a jazz club.

Over the years big name acts from around the world have graced its stage (including Jelly Roll Morton, inventor of jazz piano).  You can feel the history in the room’s exposed brick walls, worn wood floors and creased and cracked leather chairs.

Pat’s Pub remains one of the best places in the city to see live jazz music, as was evident on Saturday night.  I walked from a grim, rainy Vancouver night outside into a jumping jazz joint inside.  On stage was the South Van Big Band, a 17-piece ensemble with an eclectic cast of trumpet, trombone and sax players of all ages – from old timers to kids too young to grow a beard.  But they could all swing. (Here’s a clip to prove it.)

For a bargain cover of $10, I caught the band’s second set, which included everything from funk and swing jazz numbers to covers of Steely Dan and even interpretations of classic Beatles tunes like She’s Leaving Home.  I’ll confess to knowing next to nothing about big bands or big band music.  But it’s hard not to get swept up in the sound and excitement.

True to most big bands (or so Wikipedia tells me), the South Van players had 5 saxophones, 4 trombones and 4 trumpets and a rhythm section consisting of bass, guitar, drums and piano, not to mention a snappily dressed band leader.  Melodies traded back and forth between the different horn sections, while the rest of the band filled in the harmonies and the rhythm section kept tunes chugging along.

Every so often, a saxophone player or a trumpet player would stand up and tear into a solo, which – in true jazz style – was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the crowd.  I wouldn’t say it was a packed house, but there were probably about 50 music lovers inside, seated at tables scattered around the atmospheric old room and soaking up the music. Another perk of Pat’s: They have a very decent craft beer selection (including their home-brewed Pat’s Lager) and also have one of the best cheap bar menus in town. (In fact, I challenge you to find a better $8 burger and fries at a pub in the city.)

By the end of the night, the band was in fine form, with players ripping through one hot solo after another. Vancouver’s live music scene is sometimes dismissed as a shadow of Seattle’s or Portland’s (or even the city’s own music scene 10 or 20 years ago). Scratch the surface, however, and you never know what you’ll find – like an entire brass orchestra grooving away inside an unassuming old dive on Hastings Street.

Anyone seen the South Van Big Band or other big band acts in Vancouver? What did you think? Let us know below. 

Follow me on Twitter @RemyScalza for more on Vancouver … and beyond.  

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7 Responses to Discovering Big Band Music in Vancouver

  1. Nice post. Vancouver also has a non-profit group devoted to preserving and promoting big band music – The Arokis Centre of Music Society. The Society runs a couple of big bands (Impressions and Urbana) with professional directors. Anyone looking to play in or listen to big bands should check us out: http://www.arokismusic.org.

  2. There are some amazing big bands around Vancouver right now! Swing Aggregation plays the 1st/3rd Sunday at the weekly event Jump & Swing Sunday, which is currently held at the Lux Lounge (118o Howe) and the Rugcutter Jazz Band has shows around town (they will also be at an upcoming Jump & Swing in April).

    For more information on these events check out Atomic Radio’s website: http://www.atomicradioproductions.com

    Or for more on Swing Aggregation, their website is:
    http://www.swingaggregation.com

  3. Thanks very much for your mention of the band! Yes, there are a number of big bands and other ensembles in town, either community-based like ours, or professional. Vancouver has a great music scene, if you can find it! Pat’s Pub was a great host and we hope to play there again soon. Check out great jazz there every week!

    • The trumpet soloist on that clip is Dr. David Esner, an emergency room doctor in Vancouver. We are very fortunate to have Dave in the band. He is one of the very best jazz trumpet players in Canada as you can imagine.

      • Thanks for sending the article Gerry and congratulations on such a nice article on the band. Many thanks to the whole band for keeping the spirit alive in Vancouver and I hope to be able to see the band sometime.
        Cheers, Paul

  4. grant

    Well, just to name a couple more fine big bands that I’ve been out to see; The Deep Cove Big Band and The Mighty Fraser Big Band

  5. If you’re interested in big band music, you’ll definitely want to attend this concert featuring two big bands – Impressions and Urbana, performing new material and old favorites from the big band jazz tradition. The event is also a fundraiser for the Arokis Centre of Music Society, helping it preserve and promote big band music in Vancouver.

    http://arokismusic.org/big-band-big-bang-april-27th-columbia-theatre-new-westminster/

    Sunday, April 27 7 PM
    Columbia Theatre
    530 Columbia Street
    New Westminster, BC V3L 1B1
    604-522-4500

    Tickets: $15 General, $10 Students/Seniors
    Available online at northerntickets.com
    Also available from band members, or at the door.