by Ardeana Hamlin
of The Weekly Staff
BANGOR, Maine — When big band Sentimental Journey, settle into chairs behind music stands, its 18 members wearing blue sports jackets, white shirts and ties, they are the personification of big band music in the Bangor area. They bring to the present day the music of another era, channeling the spirits of the Big Band Era greats, such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Les Brown, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Glen Miller and Frank Mantooth.
The lights dim, titular band leader Sam Yates gives the nod and the venue fills with a lush, brassy sound that lifts dancers from their seats and sends them to the floor to swing dance the evening away.
Sentimental Journey, which rehearses every Wednesday at All Souls Congregational Church in Bangor as it has for 20 years, had its beginnings as a klezmer band more than 20 years ago when the Rev. James Haddix of All Souls and Rabbi Joseph Shonberger of Congregation Beth Israel, both saxophone players, started playing kelzmer music together. One thing led to another and soon other musicians wanted to be involved, leading to the formation of the big band.
“The original intent,” Haddix said, “was to be a rehearsal band.” Meaning that they would simply get together every week to play for the fun of it, with no plans for performing publicly.
Sam Coco, who plays lead alto sax in Sentimental Journey, and an experienced big band musician, provided the fledgling band with music charts, arrangements from the late 1930s to the 1950s, Haddix recalled.
Speaking of the band members, Haddix said, “They have all loved music from an early age. We all play and have a good time.”
Haddix said big band music is special to him because he listened to it with his father and it was his father who bought him his first horn when he was in fifth grade. “I can’t pick up a horn without thinking of him,” he said.
Sentimental Journey band members range in age from 30-something to 80-something, with an average age of perhaps 60-something. Their occupational backgrounds include minister, counselor, school music teacher, lawyer, pilot, landscaper, Air Force Colonel, doctor, retired police officer, former nurse, carpenter, computer programmer, ship captain and business owner. They hail from Greenbush, Castine, Bangor, Ellsworth, Hampden, Sedgewick and Blue Hill.
While Sentimental Journey has no formally designated band leader, trombone player Silas Yates of Castine currently serves in that capacity. Yates is a University of Miami jazz program graduate and former teacher at that university, who holds a master’s degree in music theory. He also is a former nurse. “I’ve had a lot of experience rehearsing bands,” he said. “I’ve been doing that since I was 16.” He also serves as the director of the Castine Town Band, a post he has held for the past 10 years.
Yates joined Sentimental Journey when he moved to Castine from Michigan in 2000.
“I’m excited about the music,” he said. “That’s why I do this. No one’s in it for the money.”
Don Menninghaus of Bangor, owner of Dr. Records in Orono and a trombone player in the band, echoed Yates’ statement. “Everyone is in it [the band] for the same reason,” he said. “There’s not a lot of egos. They love the music and what they do.”
Menninghaus also serves as the band’s leader and has been a band member for 20 years. “Being in the band introduced me to trombone parts I didn’t know about, and it allows me to learn and discover new things. The music can be challenging,” Menninghaus said.
During band rehearsals, members often play more difficult arrangements they don’t play at dances, just for the joy of it, he said.
“Big band music,” Yates said, “is the neatest music there is.” He speculated that one of the reasons it is still around in Maine today is because many high school music programs focus on big band music.
Sentimental Journey’s lead alto sax player is 88-year-old Sam Coco of Brewer, who in his career as a school guidance counselor, worked at Bangor High School and schools in The County. He, too, has been with the band since its inception.
Coco’s romance with big band music began during World War II with the 678th Army Air Force Band stationed in Atlantic City, N.J. “I’ve been in music all my life,” he said. “I come from a musical family. World War II, even with the war raging, was a romantic period, dance bands were in their glory. It was a tear jerker thing, guys overseas, nostalgia. The music was a very important part of our lives.”
After Coco came to Maine, settling eventually in the Bangor area, he played with Al Corey’s Orchestra and Nat Diamond’s Band, traveling to gigs throughout Maine and even New Brunswick. “Every town had its own high school, every school had a prom. There was a demand for dance bands. It was not unusual to play five nights a week.”
Coco said that being a member of Sentimental Journey is a wonderful thing. “You feel good about it from the point of view that you contributed your part. At the end of the evening you feel satisfied that things went good.”
But more than that, “You have such possibilities for sound [with big band music],” he said. “The arrangements we play are for five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, and a rhythm section of drums, piano and bass. It makes for a nice harmonic sound.”
Sentimental Journey band personnel in addition to Haddix, Yates, Mennihaus and Coco are
Dave Simmonds, Scott Rapaport, Bob Totman, John Thomas, Chris Cook, Peter Polk, David Unger (father, trumpet), Dave Unger (son, piano), Jim Trembly, John Haley, Dave Halvorson, Howard Jones, James Williams and vocalist Alice French.
Substitute players, who help keep the band going, Yates said, are Tim Hall, Kristi Bousflield, John Gandy, Don Blodgett, Greg Waldren and Sonja Hannington.
Haddix, Yates, Menninghous and Coco said they enjoy playing at dances.
“It’s good to see people there [at dances] having a good time. A dance band likes to see people dance,” Haddix said. “I like the idea that we are one of the bands carrying on the [big band] tradition — friends get together to play, enjoy one another’s company and bring real joy to people. I like being part of something bigger than I am, and getting lost in it — and think of my dad, too.”
Sentimental Journey will play its next gig at 7:30 p.m.Saturday, Nov. 2, at Next Generation Theatre, 39 Center St. in Brewer. The band also will play one dance per month at the theater from January through June. Admission is $8. For information, call the theater at 989-7100.