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Thursday, Sept. 18, 2003 02:20 pm

Swing, the next big thing!


John Sluzalis loves swing music. The drummer still listens to recordings by Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie, and over the years he's even organized his own big bands. But Sluzalis was forced to abandon his last group when Club on Broadway closed in 2002.

Then this summer Sluzalis called up trumpter Dick Garretson. A former musical director for the Ice Capades, Garretson has taught in local schools for 35 years. Back in the 70s, the friends had formed the Springfield All-Star Big Band, which wowed audiences at the State House Inn, staging elaborate trumpet battles on the bar. They decided to put together a new orchestra, starting with a few musicians from their original band. "We wanted to recreate the smooth tunes, the upbeat swing songs that brought the house down with the All-Star Band years ago," says Sluzalis.

But they also craved a new adventure--they planned to recruit personnel and write-up original charts. They tapped saxophonist Perry Rask, a professor at Millikin University who won Downbeat magazine's student music awards in 1994. They also called on Merchant Street Rowdie trombonist Harlan Geiser, who's traveled all over the world in bands backing Bob Hope, the Mills Brothers, Gladys Knight, and the musical Chicago. The trumpet section is particularly strong, with Garretson, Tom Gleason, and Jim Culbertson. Gleason has toured the Middle East and South America with Millikin's Jazz Lab Band and performed with the Four Tops, the Temptations, and Gloria Lohring. Culbertson has played throughout the U.S. and Europe with Decatur's MacArthur High School Band, which was a featured act at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2001. This year Culbertson has been on the road with his son Brian, a popular jazz keyboardist who records for Warner Brothers.

With their new big band, Sluzalis and Garretson went looking for a place to perform--a more difficult task than you'd imagine. Eventually they found the Spillway Lanes at 1025 Outer Park Drive. The bowling alley has a noted musical history; in the mid-60s its lounge showcased such acts as REO Speedwagon.

Dubbed the Bowling Alley Big Band, the new group will play at the Spillway every third Sunday of the month from 6 to 9 p.m., starting this weekend. Performing classic tunes from the 30s and 40s, it will apply a "fresh coat of paint" to the well-known arrangements, says Sluzalis. He thinks a new generation is hungry for other musical genres besides rock. Tony Bennett, for instance, has found an audience on MTV, and in Chicago big bands are regularly booked at such nightclubs as the Green Mill, Fitzgerald's, and the Elbo Room. Sluzalis expects his new outfit to be a hit.

"The market is growing for this style of music," he says. "While it takes a lot of work to organize 17 musicians for a gig, I revel in it."

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