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Route 66 Jazz Orchestra was born of tribulation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2013: The big band era may have peaked in the decades of the 1930s and ‘40s, but don’t tell that to the musicians who make up the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra. They are committed to keeping big band music alive and vital in the St. Louis area.

That commitment was put to the test just last year. From 1969 until right before the fall semester started in 2012, the group was the Meramec Lab Jazz Band. Suddenly, funding was cut and the musicians regrouped.

The roots of 66

What became the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra started 45 years ago, when Ron Stillwell started the jazz band at Meramec Community College in Kirkwood in 1969.

Stillwell -- who still works with Route 66 as a sound engineer and arranger – turned the band over to Director Bob Waggoner in 1975, and Waggoner led the group until 2005. At that point, Bob Boedges, who now directs the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra, was asked to take Waggoner’s place.

Boedges had started his career as a music educator in 1965 in the Normandy School District. There he workedl under Herb Duncan, a noted music educator in the area for many years. That first job also gave Boedges his start in jazz education.

“Herb told me my duties would include the Stage Band – which is what we called the jazz band back then,” Boedges said during a recent telephone conversation. “I spent 28 years in Normandy and loved teaching jazz.”

That love for jazz helped Boedges continue the impressive legacy of the Meramec Lab Jazz Band. Its unique mix of musicians from students in their early 20s to veteran players in their 60s and beyond was made possible by the continuing education program at the community college.

“The music department there was very strong,” Boedges said, which made it attractive to good musicians. Students could take courses in the music department for credit, and continuing education classes were open to the public.

With low fees, the Lab band remained attractive to talented musicians who loved playing in a big band.

And with the talent, Boedges said, the band “soon began to develop a reputation as a very good group.”

Hard times and rebirth

The economic downturn of a few years ago put pressure on St. Louis Community College budgets, and the lab Band at Meramec became an annual topic of discussion among college administrators.

Then in August 2012, right before the beginning of Meramec’s fall semester, it was announced that funding for the band was ending.

Boedges said 2012 was “an especially tough year for the Community College in terms of funding” and it “began dropping credit classes that couldn’t pay for themselves.” The Lab Band was one of the casualties.

Members of the band – including Boedges – decided they wanted to keep the group going. The name was changed to the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra.

That was just the beginning. Major obstacles included finding a rehearsal space and new performance venues now that the theater at Meramec was no longer available.

“We were very fortunate to find rehearsal space at the First Unity Church on Butler Hill Road in South County,” Boedges said. “All the folks at the church requested from us was that we do concerts there a couple times a year, which we were more than happy to do.”

As for the venues, “we really didn’t have too much trouble finding other places to play – or find an audience as well,” Boedges said. “People really enjoyed our performances at Meramec. And we still had a considerable e-mail list of names from people who came to our concerts. So we were able to get the word out effectively whenever we were able to play.”

Since the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra formed a little more than a year ago, the band has performed at such places as the Sky Music Lounge in Ballwin, Kirkwood Station Brewing Co., Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and the Kirkwood Park Amphitheater.

In addition to getting the renamed group some much-needed awareness, the concerts proved valuable in raising funds to keep the group going – and replenishing the invaluable library of band charts the group had accumulated over the years for rehearsals and performances.

“All the charts belonged to the college,” Boedges said, noting that they did have arrangements that band members had brought in. “For example, one of our vocalists, Valerie Tichacek, had lots of vocal and big band charts. But there were plenty of arrangements we had to work hard to replace. And the money we made at those concerts helped us do that.”

At the Sheldon

Next Tuesday’s concert at the Sheldon will be a big moment for the orchestra. It will be the largest venue the band has played to date, and Boedges and the members of the 20-piece band are working hard to gain a larger audience.

The program for the Sheldon event will include a range featuring music by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Stanley Turrentine and Gordon Goodwin. Tichacek and Ron Wilkinson will add vocals on several songs.

“We really want the orchestra to continue,” concludes Boedges. “We’ve got our website up, and we’re exploring the option of setting the group op as a not-for-profit. We want to take our time and make sure we do it right.”

For additional information about the Route 66 Jazz Orchestra, go to www.route66jazz.com/

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