FRIDAY'S "BATTLE of the Big Bands" -- the last of three free summer concerts that the Weekend section is sponsoring at the Carter Barron Amphitheatre -- is actually less all-out battle than all-out celebration of big bands, swing music and classic tunes, featuring two of Washington's top ensembles, the Tom Cunningham Orchestra and the Eric Felten Jazz Orchestra.
"When bands are as good as Eric's and ours, the concept of a 'winner' gets to be a little strained," says Cunningham, adding that "when the bands are both good, it comes out being a real positive. Both have a certain amount of electricity because obviously no band wants to be a 'loser,' so they put their best feet forward. But after a while, after exchanging sets or songs, a camaraderie develops."
At least until the joint finale, when both bands will be blasting out the Glenn Miller Orchestra classic, "In the Mood."
Cunningham's passion for swing bands began with his grandparents' 78s, but the desire to lead a swing band may well have been rooted in his studies at T.C. Williams High School with Jack Dahlinger.
"He was one of those 'Mr. Holland' kind of people and really motivated students," says Cunningham of the jazz trumpeter and educator who also directed the Alexandria school's symphonic and marching bands. "Jack Dahlinger probably put 100 people into professional music in the years he was there."
Cunningham's road to leading his own band was not that direct, it should be noted.
"Like any other middle-class kid of that boomer generation, a music career was a highly dubious undertaking, only willingly undertaken under terms of rebelling against authority," says Cunningham, who spent four years at the Virginia Military Institute pursuing an officer career track in the military. He then went to Berklee College of Music in Boston for a year before transferring to American University, where in 1976, he put together the first Tom Cunningham Orchestra with fellow students and musical pals from the Northern Virginia area.
"And I haven't done anything for a living since '76 other than music," he says. "The secret is to marry a wife who's willing to take a day job."
That would be Robin Cunningham, whom Tom met in 1983, when she was singing with the vocal trio RPM. She's now the featured vocalist in her husband's band.
In its first incarnation, the 16-piece orchestra addressed a broad spectrum of big-band music, Cunningham says, "but with time and a more clear perception of things, I focused more on the older music in the repertoire." And this was 15 years before the over-hyped swing revival of the mid-'90s.
"I had no way of knowing that was going to happen. I just loved big-band swing," Cunningham says, calling his band "a repertory ensemble masquerading as a swing band. "
He analogizes its mission to the classical world. "The National Symphony Orchestra commissions a number of new works every year, but the real heart and soul of what they love to do, and what people love to hear, is the core repertoire from the great masters of the past. And I see American jazz beginning to reshape itself into that same mold."
In fact, Cunningham prides himself on having one of the finest big-band "books."
"Not modern, glib arrangements," he notes, "but the original, hard-swingin' charts that made swing music ageless."
He gets them from any number of sources, including the Library of Congress's rich holdings and by trading with other bands around the country. "There's a wealth and treasure trove right here in Washington," says Cunningham, who takes pain to recognize the arrangers whose contributions are often overlooked.
"The secret of the big bands is that the brains behind them were often the people who scored the music, and it wasn't always the band leaders themselves," he says. "The top flight of the whole thing was Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn -- the two of them were equal, and they were just head and shoulders above the rest."
The rest would include Sy Oliver, who wrote for Tommy Dorsey and Jimmie Lunceford; Fletcher Henderson, "who lent his book and sound to the Benny Goodman band right before they broke through into America's consciousness. Glenn Miller had the best arrangers money could buy, like Billy May, Bill Finnegan and Jerry Gray."
The Tom Cunningham Orchestra's latest CD is "One O'Clock Boogie, Two O'Clock Jump," the title taken from two of its tracks: Basie's 1947 "Boogie" and Harry James's 1939 "Jump." There are some classic mid-'40s Lionel Hampton ("Beulah's Boogie," "Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop"), Dorsey ("Hawaiian War Chant"), Goodman ("Let's Dance," "Big John Special") and more Basie ("Money Is Honey," "Shout and Feel It").
"The new record was specifically dedicated to the swing dancers, and we picked out songs accordingly," says Cunningham, adding, "It's throwing Brer Rabbit in the briar patch because that's what we love to do best, to swing hard."
And if Washingtonians like to swing dance hard, Cunningham knows who to credit.
"What this community has is the promotional and enthusiastic teaching skills of Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg and the live music they insist on providing by bringing in bands on a regular basis. Those are two virtues that have made the Washington scene endure where others have devolved into little cliques and then faded away. Tom and Debra really, honestly in their hearts want to see the whole world Lindy Hop, and they communicate their excitement for dance to their students five nights a week, with the closest to a home base being the Chevy Chase Ballroom, where they teach Mondays and Fridays." (For more information, check out www.gottaswing.com.)
The Tom Cunningham Orchestra can also be heard July 16 in a USO fundraiser at Alexandria's Torpedo Factory, July 19 at the Chevy Chase Ballroom and July 24 at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom. For more information, go to www.tomcunningham.com.
ERIC FELTEN JAZZ ORCHESTRA
For Eric Felten, playing trombone and leading a swing band were notions that were probably genetically implanted. The Phoenix native studied trombone with his grandfather, Lester Felten, a veteran of swing-era big bands who'd settled in the Midwest in the '30s because of his wife's health problems. And, Felten says, "his sister, Ruth Felten, was a trombone player in Ina Rae Hutton's all-girl band [The Melo-Dears] and his brother Ellsworth played with Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians and Lester Lanin." Since Felten's father, Lester Felten Jr., a trumpeter, had also led big bands at one time, a music career seemed preordained.
But in 1989, after graduating from Arizona State University with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and getting a master's in public administration from Harvard, Felten moved to Washington to work as a journalist, something he still does as an occasional writer on the arts for the Wall Street Journal. He'd actually put together a big band in college, using his father's charts -- "I had music, which is always the first prerequisite of getting started" -- but in Washington he started out as a band member, joining Doc Scantlin's Imperial Palms Orchestra in its regular gigs at the old Joe and Mo's. When Scantlin left there in 1991, the owners called, asking if Felten could put together a band.
"I said sure and hung up the phone and tried to figure out how to get a big band together in two weeks," he recalls. "But we managed to do it and had a three-year run every Saturday night." Soon after, Felten began to expand the book, often making use of the Library of Congress ("a remarkable resource," he says of its big-band holdings).
"We worked on getting good repertoire -- the Count Basie Band of the late '30s, which is essential swing music, and great transcriptions of Ellington music." Native son Ellington is a natural favorite, and every December, the orchestra performs Ellington's "Nutcracker Suite" and other Ellingtonia at Blues Alley.
As Felten sees it, "Ellington is the pinnacle of this amazing moment in American music when the most sophisticated musicians were also the most popular musicians. Music that was artistically of the highest order was also dance music that was popular. That, to me, is the thing to strive for -- music that is popular, that is satisfying, yet at the same time artistically serious."
Though he'd made several well-received straight-ahead jazz albums -- 1993's "T-Bop" with legendary trombonist Jimmy Knepper and Harvard classmate Joshua Redman and 1994's "Gratitude," a contemporary take on Ellington's small groups in the 1930s, featuring Joe Lovano and Randy Brecker -- Felten's national profile rose significantly in 2001 thanks to a PBS concert special, "The Big Band Sound of WWII," a big-band-plus-strings extravaganza featuring vocals by Felten and Mary Cleere Haran on a set that re-created the feel of a wartime USO canteen dance.
"We didn't want to just do the greatest hits of Glenn Miller the way Glenn Miller played because Glenn Miller already did them brilliantly," Felten says. "So we put in a few of the greatest hits and then took songs that were the most important and popular from the era and did new arrangements as if we were a band in 1943 or 1944. We tried to make it consistent with the flavor and the feel of the era but still be something fresh, adding to the music rather than just re-creating it." The special, which has been released on video and as a CD, has aired numerous times on PBS stations, in some markets as many as 20 times.
Felten's key arrangers are Brent Wallarab, who resides in Indianapolis but is lead trombone and main transcriber with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, and local saxophonist Scott Silbert. Both did all-new arrangements for Felten's next album, "Eric Felten Meets the Dek-Tette," a tribute to the adventurous '50s work of Mel Torme and the Marty Paich Dek-Tette. Featuring Felten, surviving Dek-Tette members and Los Angeles studio cats, it will be released in January on VSOP.
"It was only when I had the band together that I had the opportunity to start thinking about singing as part of what I do in jazz," says Felten of the smooth Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett-style vocals that are a big part of what he does these days. "It made sense, and I had a blast doing it and I continue to be serious about it."
You can hear the wide range of approaches on last year's "Nowhere Without You," which featured Felton's quartet as well as his jazz orchestra, which comes in two sizes, a septet and the larger lineup that will be on hand Friday. That group also performs Saturday at Glen Echo's Spanish Ballroom. For more information, visit www.ericfelten.com.