Big band a big hit with dancers, charities

       The opening song - “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” - has scarcely started before the dancers hit the floor. ABOVE: New Century Big Band 
members put down their
instruments briefly for a group photo. Sitting at left are
singers Randy and Michelle Rodriguez. Standing with
trombone is band leader Bill Emery.
Westside Pioneer photo
       It's Sunday in the Shrine Club's main hall with the New Century Big Band. The 17-piece group - 5 saxophones, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, drums, piano, bass and one or two vocals on some songs - belts out tuneful numbers back through the years. The 50 or so audience members do not get overly excited, but applaud every song, and on the dance floor can be seen plenty of grins along with some pretty footwork.
       The dancers, like the musicians, are generally "seasoned citizens," with few under the age of 50. Band leader Bill Emery said half the band is over 70. "They go way back," he said. "It adds flavor to the group. The average experience is 40 years."
       Through an agreement with the Shriners, the Big Band plays a 2 ½-hour show at the club, 6 S. 33rd St., on the fourth Sunday of the month. Feb. 19 was the 13th in the series.
       The group is a carry-over from the original Vern Rice Community Orchestra that had started during World War II. After moving to Colorado Springs in 1968, Rice put together a community band called the Widefield Serenaders (in honor of his involvement with Widefield High School), and worked with his son, Larry, at the former Rice Music (which operated from 1984 to 2001). Vern Rice died in 1989. The band carried on after him (using his name again), but lost its momentum in the late '90s.
       Emery, a trombonist originally from Texas, had been on the road with a big band in his 20s. Now 49, he said, "I had this drive inside me to play again." He never met Vern Rice but got to meet Larry Rice about five years ago, as well as some members of the old orchestra. He wound up with the OK to use Vern's charts for 150 songs, plus "we had the core of a band (two saxes, two trumpets and Emery's trombone)."
       After some auditioning, New Century filled out to full size, and has stayed together (except for occasional personnel changes) ever since. Many of the members have played previously in bands. In addition to the Shrine Club, the group performs at weddings, private parties, special occasions (such as the annual senior citizen dance at Coronado High School) and community-support events.
       Community involvement is integral to the band. Proceeds from every Shrine Club show go the Vern Rice Memorial Scholarship Fund (at Widefield High School). In addition, the group supports the Colorado Springs Senior Resource Council and the Teller County Senior Coalition.
       The band's benevolence will step up a notch starting in March. At the club's monthly Shrine Club dances in March, April, May and June, people can get discounted tickets by bringing perishable food for the Care and Share Food Bank (or making cash donations).
       On Saturday night, April 22, New Century will play a special Shrine Club gig, with the majority of the gate going to Care and Share.
       "It's a way to give some thing back," Emery said, "and to give some entertainment too."
       The band also donates to the Shrine Club - which supports charities of its own - for the use of the hall, according to club member Earl Fields. As a result, the cost of $10 per person for the Sunday events "just pays the band's overhead," Fields said.
       The pairing of the band with the club was based on pragmatic features as well. The club's main hall is easily able to hold more than 100 people, and the floor is made of hardwood maple, which is popular with dancers, Fields noted.
       According to Emery, New Century is styled after the classic brass bands led by such 1940s legends as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. "We do classics from the big band era, plus more contemporary things," he said. "I enjoy getting people out dancing."
       It's also encouraging to Emery that big band music, and its corresponding era of partner-style dancing, is experiencing a bit of a resurgence. The popular new TV show, "Dancing with the Stars," is attracting young people to the genre, he said.
       The two Westsiders in New Century are Ed Texel on trumpet and Bob Kent on drums. "I'm one of the oldies," said Texel, a retired mechanical engineer who lives in Pleasant Valley. Having played in "a lot of traveling bands" over the years, he had a simple reason for agreeing to come into the New Century Big Band. "I like to play. I don't do it for money, obviously, but it's a lot of fun."
       Kent is a retired doctor who's played drums since he was a teenager. His background includes backing the Air Force Falconaires and, in 1963, playing in a band with nationally known Colorado Springs guitarist Johnny Smith. The catch was that in that band - named the "Gutbucket 7" - Smith played trumpet, Kent recalled.
       By the year 2000, Kent hadn't drummed seriously for about 10 years. So when Joe Cahalan, a sax-playing friend, asked if he wanted to try out for the then-forming New Century band, he had to think about it. "I took a big gulp and said yes," Kent recalled.
       Now he's glad he auditioned. "It's fun," he said. "I'm getting my chops back and reading (sheet music) better."

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