Northampton Press

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Stoneback ‘Jazz Upstairs’ to swing

Friday, June 21, 2019 by GEORGE VANDOREN Special to The Press in Focus

If you have a taste for Big Band music, mark 7:30 p.m. June 21 on your calendar when the Rob Stoneback Big Band holds court in Miller Symphony Hall’s Rodale Community Room for the “Jazz Upstairs Series.”

The 19-piece unit has performed with such notables as Rosemary Clooney, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, The Manhattan Transfer and Frank Sinatra and Frank Sinatra, Jr. to name a few. The Stoneback Big Band has four CDs to its credit, and has recorded with Simone, Nina Simone’s daughter.

Stoneback got his start the way a lot of area musicians did. He says, “I started trombone at nine-years-old in the fourth grade in the Parkland School District. I played all the way through college and grad school.”

Stoneback received a bachelor’s degree in English from Franklin and Marshall College and did graduate work in English at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge.

He recalls, “I had free a ride as a TA (Teaching Assistant). It was 80 miles from New Orleans and I jammed a lot there. I had a seat in the LSU Baton Rouge Jazz Band, even though I was studying English, not music.

“I came home in the Summer of ’75 and started to look for English teaching jobs. The market was very tight. Substitute work was available, but spotty.

“I went to the King George Inn [formerly at Cedar Crest and Hamilton boulevards, Dorneyville] and sat in with Dave Roper. A guy heard me play and asked if I ever thought of going on the road.

“Long story short, he had a friend who did booking. They had a trombone vacancy in the Tommy Dorsey Band in two weeks. So, I went on the road with the Dorsey Band.”

Stoneback returned to the Lehigh Valley and played with the Bobby Bear Allentown Jazz Ensemble and later with Reds Moll’s Patriot Band. He got the urge to start a band of his own.

“I decided to give it a whirl. I was co-student leader of the F&M Jazz Band, plus the director at LSU wanted me to lead the band even though the music majors wouldn’t have liked it.

“We started with a lot of the guys from the Bobby Baer Band and Reds’ band. We would rehearse in the junior high cafeteria in Emmaus.”

Stoneback is enthusiastic about his band, calling it “the best band I get to play in. Everyone is working as a team to make it better. You don’t always have that in a band.”

In the trumpet section, Bill Hicks and Steve Lombardi split the lead while Dale Forris and Doug Matz share the jazz book.

In addition to Stoneback, the trombone section consists of Chuck Dressler and Bill Smith with James Burrowski on bass trombone.

Stoneback explains, “We always split things up: solos, lead, etcetera. Every guy who can solo will get a chance to solo.”

Saxophone players are Greg MacGill and Neil Wetzel, alto; Tony Gairo and Ken Moyer, tenor, and Chris Heslop, baritone.

The rhythm section is Marty Milliner, piano; Paul Demarest, guitar; Paul Rostock, bass, and Garry Rissmiller, drums.

The band’s vocalists are Dennis Jeter and Robin Work.

Collectively, band members have performed with a “who’s who“ of jazz players and continue to do so. They teach, lead their own ensembles, write arrangements, and haver degrees from prestigious colleges and universities. They’re first-call players if you’re looking for jazz. Many have been with the Stoneback Band since the 1980s.

Stoneback says the “Jazz Upstairs” audience can expect “Big Band jazz. Swing is our main thing. We’ll do some Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Basie, probably Maynard Ferguson.

“We’ll do some of my arrangements and some by others in the group. We’ll play ‘Los Zapatitos’ by Neil Wetzel, with a Latin groove. We might even venture into the rock area. Overall, it will be a night of good straight-ahead jazz.”

Tickets: Miller Symphony Hall box office, 23 N. Sixth St., Allentown; millersymphonyhall.org; 610-432-6715