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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