Jazz is practically in the DNA of drummer Joe Pulice, who grew up around big bands.
His dad, Joe Pulice Sr., ran a drumming school in Racine, Wis. The junior Joe Pulice’s older brother, Mark, also took up the instrument.
Pulice, a drummer for the JazzMN Orchestra, a nonprofit orchestra based in Hopkins, has toured with Woody Herman and his Thundering Herd. He’s also played for Broadway shows. “I feel my best and am most at home when I’m behind the jazz drums,” he said.
Many of the other local musicians who make up JazzMN have similar biographies.
A core group of JazzMN players has done countless gigs together over the past several decades. Maybe that’s why they jibe so well together. “You know each other’s playing inside and out, so you can support them in the best way possible,” Pulice said.
On Sunday, March 16, the group will perform at the fine arts center at Hopkins High School. The Grammy Award-winning vocal ensemble New York Voices will jump in during the second half of the concert. Beforehand, the Minnesota State University Jazz Choir will play in the lobby.
Douglas Snapp, JazzMN’s artistic director, said the concert will touch on many different sounds, styles and genres. That keeps the energy level up and showcases the group’s wide range of talent, he said.
In general, he likes to get things going at every concert with a high-energy piece. On Sunday the concert will open with Duke Ellington’s bebop composition “Ko-Ko,” which Snapp describes as “a hard-swinging tune.”
From there, the music is all over the map. “New York Injection,” a composition from former L.A. pianist and composer Bob Florence, is “based upon the chord changes to the jazz standard ‘What Is This Thing Called Love,’ but is presented as a fast jazz waltz,” he said.
Another piece, “Transit,” by New York composer Darcy James Argue, begins with a “sort of slow chorale and progresses into a fast contemporary jazz style with many slightly dissonant jazz sounds” that challenge the ear, he said.
In the same work, a trumpet solo seems to venture into jazz-rock before “tapering down to simple harmonies at the end,” Snapp said.
The dynamic changes dramatically for “Quietude,” a composition from Thad Jones, which, as its title suggests, has a more-relaxed feel.
Those selections, along with a few others, set the stage for the four-person New York Voices, which has a “straight-ahead” jazz style with beautiful harmonies and arrangements, Snapp said.
JazzMN’s back story
JazzMN started up in 1999, back when many big bands were fading. Cities all over the country tried to pick up the slack by starting their own civic jazz orchestras, akin to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York City.
Snapp said he admired the way in which musicians in classical orchestras got the chance to hone their skills and artistry.
Normally, jazz musicians are put on the spot, and they don’t have the chance to rehearse music before a gig, he said.
When Snapp learned about the Columbus Jazz Orchestra, which operated much like a classical orchestra, “I thought if they could do it there, we could do it here,” he said.
Fresh from writing his doctoral dissertation in jazz studies, he got to work organizing the JazzMN Big Band. In recent years, the group has moved away from its old “big band” label. It’s now referred to as the JazzMN Orchestra, he said.
The term “big band” has a 1930s and ’40s connotation, like swing music, Snapp said. But JazzMN has a wider repertoire; it switches easily between old and contemporary songs, and everything in between. “We’re trying to provide the community not just quality, but different styles within the jazz genre,” he said.
The 17-piece JazzMN group brings together top-notch musicians who’ve played with the likes of Prince, Buddy Rich and the Minnesota Orchestra. “It gives you an idea of the caliber that we have,” he said.
And, although the group has a loyal following, it’s still under the radar for many people. “We often have people come to see JazzMN for the first time and say, ‘Wow, this is incredible. We never knew this group existed.’ ”
Filling a void
Mary Louise Knutson, a pianist and full-time musician, joined the group in 2003.
Throughout the year, she tours with Doc Severinsen, the former bandleader for the NBC Orchestra on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” The Mary Louise Knutson Trio also has traveled all over the globe.
Yet she always returns to JazzMN. Even after all this time, the music never gets old. “The material is always really challenging,” and it helps her keep up her reading chops, she said. “The gig itself puts me on my toes. I have to be in shape to play with this band.”
The same thing goes for the national artists. “I learn from them every time they come in, taking notes on how [the JazzMN musicians] perform and interact with the audience. It’s a way to inform my own career,” she said.
All in all, the group is “a really wonderful, inspiring group of musicians. When you put everyone together, it’s pretty powerful,” she added.
Pulice said the group helps fill a void in the jazz scene. “It’s good to have a band of that caliber still working. It shows our city believes in the arts,” he said.
Although jazz goes through cycles, in recent years he’s seen fewer gigs locally and nationally, he said.
For starters, the sheer number of jazz venues has shrunk. The Artists’ Quarter, a St. Paul jazz club that closed its doors on New Year’s Eve, was “a true artistic place,” he said.
The Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis “has been good for us for years,” but it’s gotten more business savvy and is bringing in more national acts and fewer locals, he said.
Additionally, Broadway engagements get shorter and shorter, and more theater companies have their own self-contained groups, Pulice said.
In the past, he’d play for up to four months with a touring Broadway show during its stop in the Twin Cities. Now, a musical will often run just for a week or two, he added.
And, many other musicians that play for other nonprofit organizations don’t get paid, as JazzMN players do. “We call them ‘just-for-kicks bands,’ ” he said.
Nevertheless, he and the other JazzMN players continue to be serious about the music.
In a time when jazz gigs ebb more than they flow, “You feel fortunate to be a part of it and you want to continue the tradition of making music. It’s the goal, to keep fulfilling society through jazz, and that’s part of why we love doing it.”
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.