WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It feels like a mighty wind, according to vocalist Diana Tuffin: The sound of the Camel City Jazz Orchestra, a fully professional, 16-person jazz orchestra — or “big band,” in the vernacular, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
“To feel all that fabulous sound blowing through you,” Tuffin said. “That must be what windsurfing is like; they just blow me away.”
The band will perform in a concert setting Thursday night at Hanesbrands Theatre along with Tuffin and dancers Elizabeth Fowle and Jeremy Huggins, but here’s the best-kept secret in town: You can also hear them for free in rehearsal every Monday night at Krankies.
The band practices in jeans and T-shirts, but they will spruce up for the Thursday night show — in suits or tuxes — and the dancers will be in costumes that flow and move, Fowle said: “We try to vary the costumes to fit the feel of the piece.”
Cameron MacManus, co-music director of the band, plays trombone and leads the weekly practice sessions.
“It’s a tradition in a lot of larger cities,” MacManus said. “I think it started in New York with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis jazz orchestra. They played at the Village Vanguard every Monday night for years. … Those guys, I think, did more actual reading straight through tunes, rather than stopping and rehearsing, so it is fairly unusual to have a big band that rehearses in public.”
The musicians don’t get paid to rehearse, MacManus said, but they do get paid well for performing gigs, thanks to a strong board of directors.
The band plays old standards such as “Stardust,” by Hoagy Carmichael (1927), cheek by jowl with such innovative new compositions as “Chatelet” by William Austin Smith, a piece that the band commissioned in 2013. Smith is a UNC School of the Arts alumnus who lives and composes in Savannah, Ga.
Tuffin, who made her professional singing debut at the National Black Theatre Festival in 2003, was working on “Mean to Me” and “Just You, Just Me,” two of the four songs that she will perform with the band. She will also sing “Cheek to Cheek” and “Paper Moon.”
“I’m thrilled,” she said. “This is my first outing with them. … I’ve worked individually with many of these musicians before, including Matt Kendrick who I call my musical godfather because he introduced me to the jazz music scene here in Winston-Salem, and there are so many wonderful musicians: John C.B. Wilson, percussionist extraordinaire. Just so many great musicians … Matt Kosma.”
Tuffin recorded her CD, “Stained Glass and Smoky Bars,” in 2011 at Wilson’s Spot Studio in Winston-Salem.
Kendrick is a bass player with his finger in nearly every local musical jazz pie, including a regular jam session on Tuesdays at Tate’s Craft Cocktails. Kosma is the co-music director, president of the board and lead tenor saxophone player for Camel City.
Tuffin found her way to Winston-Salem in 1999, after living in Cleveland, Detroit and Atlanta. A certified construction site safety officer, Tuffin moved to New York in 2012 for work but managed to study with Norman Simmons, the great musical arranger for the likes of Carmen McRae, Joe Williams and Anita O’Day.
Now, she’s moved back to Winston-Salem, where she re-connected with Kendrick and Kosma at Tate’s.
“I jumped in and jammed, and Matt Kosma said, ‘We’ve got a gig coming up, and I want you to sing with us.’
“Nothing could be finer than to be back here in Carolina,” Tuffin said. “As Dorothy said in the ‘Wizard of Oz,’: It’s right here in our own back yard. The music community here just embraced me so. People have taught me so, so much. Many of them are music educators. I’m not formally trained, but I’m learning all the time.”
Band members come from Winston-Salem and Greensboro. A few are UNCSA students or grads; and some are, indeed, music teachers: One is a middle-school band director and seven are college or university professors.
Tuffin loves jazz and the Great American Songbook. “I do not hip, neither do I hop,” she said.
Hipping, hopping, swinging and bopping were dancers Fowle, 22, and Huggins, 25, who were also practicing their routines with the band. They are members of Winston-Salem Festival Ballet. Fowle teaches dance to students ages 7 to adult: ballet, jazz, tap, pointe, partnering, contemporary and musical theater dance.
“There’s something about dancing to live music that’s really uplifting,” Fowle said. “It’s a very motivating feeling to have all that music around you.”
They’ll dance to “Stardust,” “Chatelet,” “All the Cats Join In,” by Benny Goodman, and “Trumpet Blues and Cantabile,” by Harry James.
Other songs on the playlist include “Shiny Stockings,” by Count Basie; “Take the A Train,” by Duke Ellington; and “Groove Merchant,” by Thad Jones.
“Wait till you hear this band,” Tuffin said. “They blow people away.”
Krankies was full of music and joy on Monday night, but the sweet was tinged with the bitter.
Craig Whittaker, the band’s lead alto saxophone player and a board member, died the previous Saturday after a 12-year battle with cancer.
“I’m pretty torn up about it,” Kosma said. “We all are. He was such a great guy.” Both Wilson and MacManus expressed their feelings of loss.
Although he had been unable to play for several months, Whittaker had recently come back to rehearsals to coach the band on some songs. He left a lasting impression.
Thursday’s concert will be dedicated to his memory.