"I want to hear the brasses -- one, two, three, four," commanded Tom Cunningham.
The trumpets and trombones tried the riff again, only to be cut off by a shout from the conductor: "No! Faster! Brrr-op-pa-pa-pa-pa-bah! Again -- one, two, three, four!"
And so it went for another hour or so while a visitor, nearly hidden behind the furnace in the basement of a Falls Church home, observed the Tom Cunningham WRC Orchestra in rehearsal on a recent Monday evening.
"Oh, he works 'em, he gets what he wants," said vocalist Robin Sheridan over the telephone several days later. "But they all seem to respect him and I've heard from musicians who've played in other bands that Tom's band is more like a family than any other band."
Sheridan knows something about musical families. Her father Glenn Smith, who now raises strawberries in Arkansas, led big bands and small combos in the Washington, D.C., area from the 1940s to the '60s. Jam sessions often took place at home, Sheridan recalls. "I liked just sitting on the stairs and listening."
Cunningham, a native Alexandrian and graduate of T.C. Williams High School, was introduced to big band sounds via his parents' record collection. As a student trumpeter at the Virginia Military Institute in the early '70s, he led the school's dance band. Then, seized by a passion for big band jazz, he transferred to Boston's Berklee College of Music from which he graduated in 1976. The same year he returned to the D.C. area and formed his 17-member orchestra. The organization was eventually augmented by a vocal trio, the Satin Dolls, and a male vocalist, Rod Willoughby. The orchestra performs for dancing this Friday at the Holiday Inn, Fair Oaks, 9 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday at Sebastian's, Rockville, 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
"I feel we're ministering to something that people need," said Cunningham. "I have a sense that people's souls are starved for what real live, good substantial music can give to their spirits."
And it's not just those who grew up during the big band era who are packing the area ballrooms and eateries where the Cunningham band and 15 or 20 other Washington-area big bands nightly re-create the sounds of yesteryear.
"The younger people listening to us, their minds are wide open," Cunningham says. "They don't have any preconceived notions of what it's supposed to be. They just know they're getting gratification they didn't even know they could get from music."
While all but a handful of the Cunningham orchestra's members earn their livings in nonmusical ways -- as lawyers, engineers, government workers and entrepreneurs -- virtually every one of the 17 musicians and four vocalists has spent years as a performing musician.
Typical of the spirit that holds the band together is trumpeter Steve Hood's tribute to the band's professionalism:
"I've seen a lot of guys pass through a lot of chairs here," says Hood, "but the one thing this band has always had is camaraderie. And how you can get so many guys with different musical personalities and individual solo flavors and different timbres to their instruments to hold together and play in section work -- I think that is very challenging."
The jury is still out on whether the current renewal of interest in the big band sounds of Ellington, Basie, Goodman, the Dorsey brothers and others is simply another musical flash in the pan like the boogie-woogie craze of the 1940s and the ragtime revival of the '70s. But if Tom Cunningham has anything to say about it, big band jazz will be around for a spell.
"Jazz is America's major contribution to world culture and big band is a part of that," says Cunningham. "It needs to be preserved in a repertory way as the music of other cultures has been preserved.