The Story of How The Spokane Jazz Orchestra was Formed,
and has Grown over the Last 40 Years
Where Did We Come From?
Back in the early 1960’s, before the World’s Fair came to Spokane, before the revitalization of our city’s downtown core, before the grand re-opening of the Bing Crosby Theatre, a small group of jazz musicians started jamming in the small, stuffy upstairs room of one of the music buildings on Gonzaga’s campus. Only they didn’t call it “jamming” or “jam sessions”. They called their time together Jazz Clinics because, their focus was honing their craft and improving their performance skill-improvisational jazz.
These musicians started a reading rehearsal band, and invited small audiences in to listen to them play. They invited the top young musical and jazz talent in the area to be a part of their reading band and their Spokane Jazz Clinic. Things were taking off; the music community was starting to buzz about them and they were really starting to gel as a group.
Then the 1974 Expo World’s Fair came to Spokane and for 6 months the Spokane Jazz Clinic sat dormant. Why? Because most of the musicians in that group were employed full time in the World’s Fair Band (and many other smaller ensembles) to entertain the crowds at the Fair.
Shortly after Expo ’74 ended, the leadership of the Spokane Jazz Clinic came together to discuss picking it back up again. They recognized the desire in the community for a symphony or large musical group, but understanding that America is the birth place of Jazz, wanted to offer the community a jazz ensemble. And so, the Spokane Jazz Clinic voted unanimously to become the Spokane Jazz Orchestra; a decision that would usher in an almost half-century of concerts, performances, music education and community support for Jazz.
(Fun side note, the early organization was smart and frugal; the music stands used by the first iterations of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra came from the World’s Fair Band!)
How Did We Get Where We Are Now?
The creation of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra in September of 1974 started a music adventure in our region, four decades in the making. For more than 40 years, the SJO has been a repertory ensemble, offering programs in the various styles of large ensemble jazz ranging from Dixieland and Swing-era to contemporary repertoire.
The SJO has also been responsible for helping to put this region on the map; bringing in many famous guest artists and vocalists. The list of guest artists has come to read like a "Who's Who" in the jazz world. The exhaustive list includes Diana Krall, Mel Torme', Dizzy Gillespie, Karrin Allyson, Della Reese, Joe Williams, The Four Freshmen, Clark Terry, Don Menza, Ethel Ennis, Ernie Watts, Claudio Roditi, Allen Vizzuti, Gail Nelson, Mary Stallings, Lanny Morgan, Mike Vax, Chuck Mangione, Carmen Bradford, Frank Foster, Gunther Schuller, Dee Daniels, David Benoit, Walt Wagner, Sunni Wilkinson, Ben E. King, Martha and the Vandellas, the Drifters, the Platters, and Little Anthony.
(Additional fun side note, while Dizzy Gillespie did in fact rehearse with the band, he never performed. His concert was scheduled for Saturday, May 18, 1980, and promptly cancelled when Mt. St. Helens erupted!)
Since its formation, the Spokane Jazz Orchestra has had eleven music directors- all of whom have had a meaningful impact of the style and quality of both the performances and the musicianship of the orchestra. The SJO’s first director was co-founder Bruce Preuninger. Following Preuninger, the music directorship has been held by Paul Halversen, John Luppert, David Morgan, Bob Curnow, Bernard Rose, Paul Davis, Dan Keberle, Tom Molter, and Dr. Don Goodwin-who leads the SJO currently.
The SJO achieved international status when Gunther Schuller served as its Principal Guest Conductor. Maestro Schuller conducted several of SJO's performances during his tenure. Before his passing in 2015, this world-renown conductor, composer, author, musician, and jazz authority had a major impact on the level of musicianship, dedication, and passion within the SJO.
Where Are We Going?
The Spokane Jazz Society has always been on the forefront of jazz music and performance. Since its founding, directors and performers alike have traveled to other cities and states to learn new music (both inside and out of the jazz genre) and incorporate what they’ve learned in the SJO’s repertoire. The SJO has made a model of incorporating guest artists, vocalists, and composers; some have been famous headliner names, some have been local talent building incredible careers. We’re innovative with the music and the way we arrange it. And the audience loves it!
That tradition continues today. Dr. Goodwin, who took directorship of the orchestra in 2015, continues the tradition of pushing the ensemble to new and adventurous areas, while maintaining an appreciation and level of expertise for the classic styles jazz. The SJO is a jazz orchestra for traditionalists who love the medium and are devoted to the classics, but it is also the orchestra for the person hearing jazz for the first time and waiting anxiously to fall in love with America’s original art form, the sound of life.