Big-band era finally closing for longtime Sacramento devotees

04/29/2013 12:00 AM

04/29/2013 8:49 AM

This was the music that accompanied 16.1 million members of the "Greatest Generation" as they marched off to war, the music that lifted spirits on the home front, the music that welcomed the soldiers home.

The big bands of that long-ago era – led by musical icons such as Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman – provided the jazzy, upbeat soundtrack for tough times during the Depression and even tougher times during World War II.

And devotees like retired Sacramento broadcaster Lou Coppola, 85 and executive director of the Nor Cal Big Bands Preservation Society, kept the sound alive long after ensuing generations of young people turned to other forms of popular music.

His group has hosted 110 dances since its founding in 2001. In the early years, said Coppola, up to 700 people would attend the Sunday afternoon events, quickstepping and fox- trotting at Elks Lodge No. 6 on Riverside Boulevard south of downtown Sacramento.

But with bandleaders, musicians and dance participants growing more fragile with advanced age – and with show attendance dwindling to an average of 125 – the society hosts its farewell dance on May 19.

"In December, we knew we couldn't do many more," said Coppola, "but then a few dances early this year produced some enthusiasm. Finally, I promised my wife, 'This is the end.' "

"Lou is getting a little too frail," said his wife, Betty, 77. "It's becoming too much for him. He can't do it. That's the bottom line."

Of the three Sacramento-area bandleaders who helped found the society, two remain: Buddy Harpham, 91, and Fred Morgan, 87. Bill Rase, the other founder, died at age 79 in 2006.

Another bandleader who regularly played at the dances, 88-year-old George Bruno, retired two years ago.

"We're getting older, and all our musicians are getting older," said Morgan, who owns Fred's Musical Repairs in Rocklin. "You might say it's a sign of the times. Those of us who are left, we can't jitterbug now."

And so an era in Sacramento comes to an end with the society's upcoming last dance.

But when the musicians and dancers were still young, with the decades still ahead of them, big-band music helped define their world.

"This music has a special place in American culture because of the intensity of the war experience, which was the defining experience of that generation and the century," said California State University, Sacramento, music professor Mike McMullen.

"I'll Be Seeing You," written in 1938, became a soldier's wartime promise, full of hope and melancholy, as did the 1943 classic "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

Big bands were, above all, big: big in sound because they were big in size, with four or five trumpets, an equal number of trombones, five saxophones, a rhythm section and, perhaps, a singer.

Their era in popular music began with the jazz of the 1920s, grew with the rise of radio, soared during the war, then faded rather abruptly in the 1950s with the advent of television, Elvis Presley and a new generation.

"Big-band music was the dance music of its era," said William Adair, a Vanderbilt University music lecturer who directs the school's big-band program. "It was sort of what hip-hop is now.

"Melodically, it's more interesting music. Harmonically, it's more interesting. Lyrically, it's definitely more interesting. Put up a Johnny Mercer lyric vs. Public Enemy. Listen to Mr. Mercer's ability to write a lyric. And I don't think that's just me being an old fart."

On Saturday evenings in mid-1940s Sacramento, Donna Craig and her friends flocked to Memorial Auditorium, where they danced for hours to the big bands that came through every weekend.

Craig – 84 and a retired secretary who lives in east Sacramento – was a fresh-faced girl just out of high school.

"It was a nice atmosphere," she said. "The music was pretty. The people were dressed like you see now in old movies. And people were nice to one another. We had a good time, and we loved it."

She began attending the Nor Cal Big Bands Preservation Society dances a dozen years ago. But she can't dance much now because of her sciatica. Sometimes, she still makes it to the monthly dances; sometimes not.

"I used to really look forward to those dances," she said. "But I had four fellows I'd known my entire life who were good dance partners, and they've passed away.

"We're in those years, you know."

When Coppola was a kid growing up in Concord in the 1930s, the crackle of the radio connected him with the sophistication and excitement of big bands playing Chicago's Aragon Ballroom and the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles.

Later, as a young man serving in Korea, he broadcast big-band shows and song requests from home on Armed Forces Radio.

For him, the musical eras never really changed.

"Not for us," he said. "No, not for us.

"There were local big bands that kept going in the 1960s. They were still active, maybe not as much as in the '30s or '40s, but they played maybe once a week."

Now, with age, he's grown frail. At a dance in June, Coppola tumbled backward off the stage as he took publicity photos. Clad in his tuxedo, he fell 4 feet, hitting his head and briefly ending up in the emergency room.

In his Land Park home, he moves stiffly and carefully, bracing himself as he lowers himself into a living room chair.

"Sometimes, you've got to say farewell," he said. "So I'm calling this last dance our farewell ball." BIG-BAND FAREWELL

What: The Nor Cal Big Bands Preservation Society's final dance.

When: May 19. Doors open at 1 p.m. for a youth dance band performance, followed by dance music from 2 to 5 p.m. by the Swing Masters Big Band, led by Bob Fry.

Where: Elks Lodge No. 6, 6446 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento.

Cost: $12 general admission; $11 per person for groups of 10.

Information: (916) 444-6138

Call The Bee's Anita Creamer, (916) 321-1136.

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