Aurora Borealis presents: Critical Mass Big Band!
The Critical Mass Big Band began as an offshoot of the Woodinville Community Band in the summer of 2001. The Woodinville band had a number of big band charts and had attempted to start a big band earlier, but that endeavor did not last long. Some musicians from the Woodinville band decided to get together before the regular band rehearsal to play this music. These founders include Greg Klein, Jim Waters, Victor Ross, and me.
Since no one else wanted to, I became the first music director of this as yet unnamed big band. Initially, we rehearsed simply for the enjoyment of playing the music, which was primarily swing and dance music. Once we decided to try to secure gigs, we voted on a name The Tsunami Big Band won. When the devastating tsunami hit in 2005, this name was soon changed to Critical Mass Big Band. Perhaps it is the band’s karma, but after this new name was adopted, the Japanese power plant nuclear meltdown brought the term “critical mass” into common usage for a while. Thus, I strongly advise the band to not rename itself the Asteroid Impact Big Band or Magnitude 8.3 Big Band!
I was the band’s music director for its first two years and led the band through its early gigs, including its very first gig at the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church. Our second gig was at the Renton Farmer’s Market. After a while, we realized we needed a director with more formal musical training so our bass player, Paul Nelson, stepped into the role. When he left the band, he was replaced on bass by Al Shabino. Les Norton and Barry Smith have also directed the band. Les recalls his time with the band as follows:
I was asked to sit in with the band by a trumpet player. The band also needed a new first tenor and, even though I hadn’t played in a while, I thought I would give it a try. They liked me enough to ask me back.
Paul Nelson was the musical director at the time but had lots of work conflicts and missed many rehearsals. There were also problems with finding subs each week to fill in when others couldn’t make it. With my past experience with big bands I had a rather large list of players I could tap and a fairly good collection of charts. I stepped up to the plate, finding the needed subs, and asked my friend Keith McClelland, a very experienced arranger, director and musician, if he would substitute as the director when Paul couldn’t make it. Keith was very busy with other projects and had a limited amount of time, but was willing to rehearse the band each week if I handled the details of the band members and musical charts.
At this point the band began to make a musical change from community swing band to a jazz band, with the level of musicianship rising considerably. I was able to bring in more challenging charts and Keith’s knowledge and experience raised the band to new heights. In effect, I evolved the band to beyond my own ability and had to move on, leaving the band in Keith’s very capable hands.
Keith initially planned to lead the band as a short time gig, but stayed around for years. The band was also organized into a non-profit organization at about that time as well, with Barry Smith as President and Victor Ross as Treasurer.
The band originally rehearsed at the same place as the Woodinville Community Band, the town’s middle school. We met on Thursday nights, but the band members wanted a different night so we found a new Tuesday night home at the First Lutheran Church in Bothell, in exchange for playing 1-2 gigs per year at the church. The band met there for many years, until the church discontinued the relationship. After a brief stint at First Presbyterian Church in Bellevue, the band moved to Lake Washington High School. Both locations were found by Jim Waters. Currently the band rehearses at Odle Middle School in Bellevue, where the lead trumpet player, Barry Roberts, teaches.
The band’s relatively short history has seen a remarkable evolution from a modest band playing just to entertain ourselves, to a popular talented group of musicians who continuely improve over time. I am admittedly sad to leave this wonderful group, but I know that the band will continue to entertain others and grow as a musical group for years to come.