Mona Shield Payne
Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013 | 2 a.m.
At age 87, Roger Hall still loves to play the music of his youth, that larger-than-life big band sound that no longer commands respect among the casino bosses in this town.
In an earlier life, he played in bands backing Nat King Cole, and Sammy Davis Jr. and the rest of the original Rat Pack. Yet, with the city’s backbeat overtaken by a new generation of bejeweled rappers and DJs, he found fewer places to blow his alto sax in a big band. One by one, restaurants such as Peppers and the Italian American Club, which used to host bands, all closed.
But Hall still plays. Four nights a week, music case in hand, he walks down a pitch-black driveway on a rural lane within view of the Strip, past a horse stable and roadside mailboxes, to a place musicians call the Garage. It’s a Quonset-hut-shaped space big enough to hold a dozen cars, built by a local music lover to house the impromptu jam sessions of players dedicated to the old swing-band sounds of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman.
The scene is one of this city’s musical secrets: Events aren’t advertised, but news of gigs often passes by word of mouth, drawing people in to celebrate sounds of yesterday.
On a recent night, Hall took his seat among 16 other musicians, in the first row with the saxophone section. Nearby, a trumpet player in a raccoon hat readied his solo. Another sipped from a bottle of Bass Ale he kept at his feet. A student trumpeter from a local college was there to play among veterans old enough to be his grandfather.
Fronted by an orchestra leader dressed in a red sweatsuit, the band suddenly came alive, moving easily through several sets of Christmas-themed music with decidedly jazzy arrangements.
With his gray hair and sparkly blue eyes, Hall was back in his orchestra chair, sight-reading the complicated scores that make him feel alive. Who cares if the casino owners think nobody will pay to hear this kind of sound anymore, that the decent-paying gigs are mostly gone?
The boys in the band were playing for nothing and loving every minute of it.
“For me, this is therapy,” Hall says, dressed in a faded shirt and blue jeans. “If I wasn’t here, I’d probably be home in front of the TV watching ‘The Price is Right.’ ”
“And I’m not goin’ there.”
Six nights a week, the Garage is jumping with big band music as different players converge to jam and share music. The oblong space, built six years ago by musician Jim Hemmings, was soundproofed for music but still serves as a part-time storage locker for books, cast-off electrical equipment, file cabinets and a few old couches.
The musicians don’t care. They tell jokes they’ve repeated for decades.
“It’s always the drummer’s fault,” someone says to no one in particular.
It still gets a laugh.
“It’s unexpected, and it’s a throwback,” said Sam Wagmeister, a music columnist for the monthly Vegas Voice, who joined a handful of other impromptu viewers. “You get the feeling when you walk in here that you’re in the presence of some really special, dedicated people.”
They’re players such as 80-year-old Ron Brandvik, a tenor saxophone player from North Dakota. A former regular player on the Strip, he says that as a kid, his parents asked him what he wanted for Christmas: a clarinet or a bicycle. He jokes he should have chosen the bike. There also is 37-year-old trombone player Steve Meyer, who got his first gig at age 18 with big band leader Ray Alburn, who supported Meyer’s “clueless self” and made him feel like “one of the cats.”
Then there’s Hall, whose mother was a ragtime piano player and whose father sang in a barbershop quartet. Hall’s musical inspiration is saxophonist Charlie Parker and, like the Bird, he’s rarely found without his saxophone. He used to carry his sax on dance cruises he took with his wife, always ready to sit in with the band. But after she passed away a decade ago, Hall stopped dancing.
Nowadays, the Garage is where he indulges his artistic bent. The sessions here remind Hall of those wild nights in old-time Las Vegas, such as when a tiger at a Siegfried & Roy show fell into the orchestra pit and jumped onto the piano. The musicians scrambled, “but that cat was more afraid than all of us,” Hall said. Or how the rising curtain at one show on the Strip caught a bass and lifted it into the air — with the player still attached.
Occasionally, these aging players still get gigs with touring national acts or at corporate events.
“Every so often, if I go to an Aretha Franklin concert, I’ll look into the orchestra pit and say, ‘Oh, there’s Lou!’” said Kat Ray, a jazz singer who sits in with Hall’s group once a month.
Ray recently recorded a CD of big band music featuring Hall and others in the hopes of inspiring interest among local music venues.
But for now, these gray-haired boys in the band play for themselves.
Each week, Bruce Johnson, a professional musical director from Wisconsin, assembles more than a dozen technically demanding scores he knows will challenge even these veterans.
“It’s a weekly adrenaline rush,” he said. “I think that a lot of these guys, if they still weren’t playing here, would probably be dead.”
And then the band rolls into a sassy version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” fortified by a commanding drumbeat and the growl of a muted saxophone solo.
And there’s Hall in the first row, just like always, playing his lines, making sure the music doesn’t go silent.