On Sunday, Sept. 8, the Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra again brought the house down at Paulie Gee’s Hampden at Chestnut Avenue in Baltimore.
The 12-piece big band specializes in early jazz and dance tunes from 1920 to 1935 and features a Morgan State University graduate student, the music chair at a Baltimore County middle school and a retired Vietnam veteran. Overall, the band prides itself on diversity.
The band’s founder and conductor, Lynn Summerall, says a shared bond between the group is their love of performing songs written before the better-known 1940s swing era.
“I am proud that our early jazz repertoire includes songs composed by 15 or so great well-known African-American composers,” Summerall said.
A few of these include Jelly Roll Morton, Fletcher Henderson, Fats Waller, Andy Razaf, James P. Johnson, a very young Duke Ellington, Kid Ory, W. C. Handy and Cab Calloway.
“Many of our songs come from popular Broadway shows or early talking pictures of the day,” said Summerall, a former NPR jazz and classical announcer who spent much of his career in theater management at Center Stage, Radio City Music Hall and other renowned venues.
“The style and look of the Hotel Paradise Orchestra is unique to Baltimore big bands and authentic to the period, thanks to the inclusion of a tuba, banjo and a violin section,” Summerall said. “Our music is bright, sweet, jazzy, fun, old-fashioned and danceable.
“These excellent jazz and classical musicians look sharp in our white or black tuxedos,” he said. We’ve got our act together.”
Violinist and retired Baltimore City Schools teacher Rodney Allen says it has been a treat to be a part of the band.
“Having this type of band brings back the old style of music which is missed in today’s society,” Allen said. “Also, having diversity in the band brings a more current picture of today’s society than back in 1910. We are all very talented musicians and have a love for making music. Playing the concerts gives us a strong family bond.”
Saxophonist Chris Warren says being in the band allows for the continued sharing of music for past, present and future generations.
“The responses from the audiences has been warm and great,” Warren said.
While he has never considered the racial makeup of the band, Warren says he has always been more interested in the generational and gender diversity.
“The diversity of the ages within the group allows for us to share musical experiences with each other and great history lessons about the style, music and composers of the particular era,” Warren said. “The gender diversity also shows that, just because we are playing music from the 1920s and 1930s, it doesn’t mean we are adopting every aspect of that decade or the decades before. Whether you enjoy listening, dancing or playing, this style of music has brought us all together.”
The big band business has never been easy and only gets harder, according to Summerall.
“Of course, audiences tend to be older, but not ancient,” Summerall said. “A 20-something jitterbug who danced to Benny Goodman or Glenn Miller in 1940 would be about 100 years old today. If they danced to young Louis Armstrong [in the 1920s] they’d be around 120 years old. Thanks to a revival in swing dancing, many retro bands of all sizes attract fans in their 20s and 30s.
“I choose to form a small version of a big band, the kind very popular from 1920 to 1935, before Goodman and Miller,” he said. “I use 12 musicians, including a violin, which is unusual in this day and age.
“A huge pleasure this has given me is introducing this great music to audiences and musicians who knew little or nothing about it, beyond what they might hear in old movies or on records,” Summerall said.