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Big band would like to score more than praise

| Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010

What's a band to do when there are few places to perform, a dwindling audience and no financial remuneration?

Practice, practice, practice.

Every Tuesday night, the Tuesday Night Big Band (which also has an alter ego, the Pittsburgh Doo Wop Big Band) convenes in Oakmont for a two-hour practice session. They pore over charts written by Rick Mansfield and Joe Campus, veteran arrangers and musicians from the area. They perform versions of pop standards, such as "Come Fly With Me," "Dancing in the Streets" and "Heat Wave," and songs from the big-band catalog including "I'll Be Seeing You," "I'll Take Romance" and a Campus original, "In the Swing of Things."

Their goals are modest.

"There's a saying that if a big band can play a gig and lose less than $1,000, it's a success," says saxophonist Dr. Tom Yost, an ear, nose and throat specialist from Butler who is one of the band's co-founders.

Yost, Mansfield, drummer Deb Weible and trombone player Dick Smith all had a hand in founding the ensemble seven years ago. The musicians are a mix of professionals -- Mansfield performs with the Pittsburgh Symphony and toured with Linda Ronstadt and bands from the Motown roster; Campus was an arranger and conductor of Enzo Stuarti's band, in addition to numerous other musical gigs; others are hobbyists and amateurs. Weible is a geologist; Smith is a retired grocer; trombonist Howard Hartmann is a retired land surveyor and business owner, and Joe Schulteis, another trombone player, is an engineer. The ages span 55 years -- piano player Brian Pappal is 29, Smith is 84.

They have transformed themselves from a ragtag outfit into what Campus calls the best local band he's ever played with.

"My goal was to be the worst guy in the band," says Yost says, who plays baritone sax, "by which I mean I look to my right and I see great sax men. And the other dream of a sax player is to have a great bone (trombone) section behind him, so it's like playing in front of a beautiful choir."

The band's initial rehearsals made use of stock arrangements that could be found online or at music stores. But Mansfield, who cut his teeth playing in big bands at the defunct Holiday House in Monroeville, was solicited to write charts for the group. He began to compose arrangements of Motown, doo-wop and pop standards. Campus was enlisted to write big band and jazz charts. What had been an earnest group of music lovers became a highly competent band.

"The one thing that makes our band unique is you won't hear another band doing our charts: We are self contained," Mansfield says.

"We try to play as many original arrangements as we can, because people have come to expect that from us," Weible says.

It's finding gigs to play that's become troublesome. Since the demise of the Holiday House, the Twin Coaches in Belle Vernon and Ciro's Top of the Mall in Beaver County years ago, local big bands have been scrambling for dates. Long gone are the days, Mansfield says, when the Lettermen or Jerry Vale would come to town and hire "a full band with 12 strings on the side and a full rhythm section," he says.

The group is lucky to get one gig per month. When they do perform, the reaction is always the same: Why isn't the band better known• Where is the next gig?

Sometimes, the band has no answers.

"If it wasn't for bands like this, where else would the music get played?" Weible says. "We just wish there were more venues willing to support a big band of this size."

So it's practice, practice, practice, every Tuesday for two or more hours. If there's nowhere to go, if no one is listening, the music still gets played.

"If you love this kind of music, you have to do it," Weible says. "You have to play it. If you don't, it's like missing part of your soul."

Additional Information:

Tuesday Night Big Band/Pittsburgh Doo Wop Big Band

Presented by: The Pittsburgh Jazz Society

When: 6-9 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $19.95 (includes the restaurant buffet)

Where: Grandview Buffet Restaurant, Rivers Casino, North Shore

Details: 412-231-7777 or website

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