OKC Jazz Orchestra
7 p.m. Tuesday
The Petroleum Club
Chase Building, 100 N. Broadway
$15 adults, $5 students
Oklahoma City had been without a big band jazz orchestra since the 1980s, when local musicians Kirk Palmer, Eric Leonard, Chris Hicks and Michael Anderson started dreaming of founding such a performance group.
“We all love playing concert big band music, but rarely have an outlet to do it. After several years of ideating and dreaming, we finally put it on paper and got it rolling. All that planning really paid off when putting together our first season this year,” Anderson said.
When it came time to assemble a group of musicians, the four made a master list of their top picks for each position. No one turned them down. The resulting lineup includes players of varied ages and backgrounds, members of the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, and music professors from nearly every local university.
“Our initial goal was to gather the best jazz players in the region and put on our own concert series in a beautiful location, and attract hundreds of people to listen and experience fine jazz. We have definitely accomplished that goal with our very first concert of the season,” Anderson said.
Not to be confused with a smaller jazz ensembles, the 20-member OKC Jazz Orchestra was formed to stage full-scale, concert-style big band and jazz arrangements, which Anderson said covers a diverse array of music, including the more “rock-oriented” tunes by the likes of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Anderson said that the concerts include the latest contemporary jazz ensemble music alongside some of the older standards in the repertoire, and that the group hopes to commission originals works in the future.
For Tuesday’s performance, he said the group’s musical director, Kent Kidwell, has planned a special concert.
“He has assembled a full concert of great charts for the band to play that will feature soloists in every section of the band. One of the trumpet players in the band, Jay Wilkenson, will sing again this time and we hope to also feature our Dixieland combo as well,” Anderson said.
He noted that one of the biggest challenges in getting the orchestra off its feet was finding the right venue. From the start, the musicians knew they wanted to make their home in downtown and wanted to have cabaret-style seating that would allow patrons to eat and drink before and during the concert.
“We looked at every possible venue and consulted with Eddie Walker, the executive director of the Philharmonic,” Anderson said.
Walker suggested The Petroleum Club, and with the help of one of Andersons’ colleagues at Oklahoma City University, Steve Agee, also the president of the Philharmonic Board, the orchestra struck a deal. The club agreed to donate the space in exchange for the food and bar receipts, allowing the OKC Jazz Orchestra to keep its ticket prices affordable and play jazz in an atmosphere that can’t be matched in metro: with a 34th-floor skyline view from a private club.
Anderson said The Petroleum Club provides a perfect environment for the orchestra’s shows.
“They weren’t used to running events like this, but things have gone very smoothly and we are loving it. Our patrons seem to really like the atmosphere and our crowds have been great,” he said.
With three concerts a season, including previous shows being filled to capacity, metro audiences have a limited number of chances to see the OKC Jazz Orchestra perform.
“It is very difficult to get 20 of the top jazz players together on a regular basis. We keep the number of concerts low so that we can get all the best players to commit to it,” Anderson said. “We want each and every concert to be a special event that jazz fans look forward to.”
The performances so far have been a great success, but Anderson said that there’s still a lot of work to be done. A startup grant from the Kirkpatrick Foundation has helped cover the expenses of the orchestra’s first season while the group pursues grants and fundraising to be able to pay the staff and musicians next season, in addition to seeking nonprofit status.
The group also plans to bring in well-known guest artists, hold clinics and start an educational component that includes organizing an all-star high school jazz ensemble comprised of the best young musicians in the area.
“Our crowds have proven that the people in Oklahoma really want to hear this kind of music live,” Anderson said. “We didn’t know if that would be that case, and we are thrilled to find out it is.”