On Monday Nights, Guilford’s VFW Post 7666 is the Place to be for Big Band Swing

Band leader Pat Todd leads Tuxedo Junction at the Guilford VFW (Courtesy of the artist)


TwitterFacebookCopy LinkPrintEmail

GUILFORD — It’s a stormy summer evening in coastal Connecticut.

Raspberry brambles are soggy with rain. Briney marsh air blows in the wind. Tucked quietly back in a stand of pines off Route 1 on Mill Pond Road sits an unassuming red barn-like structure, VFW Post 7666. It’s an unlikely entertainment hot spot.

But on Monday nights, it is the happening spot in Guilford. A beehive of activity. Cars assemble with marching band precision in the parking lot. White-clad horn players debunk with instrument cases and scurry inside. Couples, families, and groups of seniors arrive with coolers and baskets. They set up picnics at colorfully-draped tables — sandwiches, salads, plates of brownies, bowls of cherries. They glide over to a string-light-decorated cash bar for gin and tonics, rum and Cokes, and Old Fashioneds.

Up front, seat by seat, the horn sections fill in, saxes in front, trombones in the middle, and trumpets standing in the back. “Tuxedo Junction: The Sounds of Swing” weekly public rehearsal is about to begin. In a few minutes, the band will roll into their first of fifteen tunes, during which they rehearse — and perform — for a local crowd, in an infectious mix of informality, fun, and chops.

Begun in 1989 by two World War II veterans as “Dixieland Jazz Band,” Tuxedo Junction was handed over to Guilford resident Pat Todd in 1995. Todd was originally the band’s piano player, and, as she says, its “roadie.” She was given the baton along with the considerable tasks of “organizing the music, finding jobs, getting subs when necessary, schlepping the bandstands….” as Todd describes.  Tuxedo Junction has been playing a Monday night rehearsal for over twenty-four years under Todd’s tenure, during which the event has become an under-the-radar local institution, although “the world still doesn’t know about it,” as trombonist Harvey Martin says.

The lights dim. Todd, elegantly casual in sandals and a skirt, steps to the microphone with a laid-back-yet-take charge manner at 7:00 sharp. “Now, this is a rehearsal. It’s possible we may stop in the middle of a song to go over something, but we try not to,” she tells the audience.

“What are we rehearsing for?” quips guitarist Gary Grippo from the bandstand. Todd names a list of regular dates, including Guilford’s annual Lobsterfest, the Sunday in the Park festival, and the Cherry Blossom festival in New Haven. She scans the room for tonight’s featured singer. “Is Val Rogers here yet? Is that Val out in the parking lot? Well, we’ll get started without her.” She turns to the band and counts in “one, two — one two three four!” and the band kicks into “Brown Baggin’ It” by Dave Wolpe, in a classic swing band arrangement. As thirteen horns, Dennis Amato on drums, Jeff Fuller on bass, Grippo on guitar, and Carter Bryan on piano warm into an easy-going synchronicity, a lone Lindy Hopper warms up the dance floor, smiling as she whirls herself around.

The band has a refreshing mix of personnel; some of the most experienced musicians in Connecticut’s jazz scene — Dave Arezzini, John Beers, Tom Boates, Jeff Fuller, and Gary Grippo — are interspersed with musicians who have returned to playing after years away, and young professionals who devote free time to the band.  It’s a nice balance. Todd regularly invites newcomers to come sub in on Monday nights; many current band members found their way into the band this way.

At a green-colored table, Joanne Martin sets down a plate of cookies. “Blueberry muffin tops,” she announces. “Want one?” She has arrived with two guests visiting from Baltimore, Anna and Marc Summerfield. They wave up to the bandstand and get a wave back from trombonist Harvey Martin.

It is an evening out with old friends: Martin played with Summerfield during their college days in the “Pride of Connecticut’s” UCMB, or the UConn Huskies Marching Band, known as the best marching band on the East Coast. They were famous enough to be invited on a 1970 tour by the Queen Mother, expanded to a three-week European tour that Summerfield remembers as “one of the most incredible experiences of my life.”  That same year, UCMB played a halftime show at Yankee Stadium:

After UConn, both Martin and Summerfield put away their horns to attend to families and careers, but in recent years they have picked them back up — trombone and tenor sax, respectively — and recovered their embouchure. Martin says, “It’s kind of like riding a bike — once you do it, you can pick it up again. And I’ve actually improved over the years.”

Six years ago, Martin was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer. He was told he had a five percent chance of making it five years. He managed to beat those odds, with a long list of treatments. In navigating the unpredictability of this time, Martin says, “Playing trombone — specifically with Tuxedo Junction — I would consider a treatment in and of itself, kind of a rock…a lot of positive energy, maybe as important as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy.” On this Monday, Martin has just received the news from his medical team that his cancer is in near total remission. “We are here to celebrate tonight!” Anna Summerfield says.

And the Celebration is afoot. The band is playing “Dreamsville” by Henry Mancini, a floating, dreamy mid-tempo ballad in a deft arrangement that opens sensitively on Bryan’s keyboard, as a new couple arrives with drinks at the green table. “Can we sit here? Can we dance?” They laugh and leave their drinks untouched, heading off to the floor to join five other couples already whirling around.

Next, in Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Val Rogers leans in, loosens up her vocals, and the horn’s intricate, punchy arrangements sparkle. As Martin attests, the band has really improved over the past twenty years, in part because of more complex, contemporary arrangements — no longer just “Glenn Miller stack arrangements.” In addition, Martin says, “The other musicians are bringing in more challenging stuff. You really have to rehearse!”

And rehearse they do. Horn sections gather on other days. Band members meet for socializing too, with a regular Guilford breakfast date on Wednesdays at the Brownstone Restaurant. While there are very few women in the band at the moment, there’s a nice mix of ages, interests, and careers. All agree that they are here because of the conviviality and fun, as well as the great music.

North Haven resident and saxophonist Nigel Regan now comes up to the bandstand. As Regan described later, he had just stopped by to consider buying a clarinet from Todd a few days ago, when she invited him to sit in. Now on summer break from University of North Texas, he handily tears through several solos over the next few songs.

In Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day,” appropriate for this soggy evening, Rogers moves out into the audience to sit and sing with an admiring group of seniors. She hands an egg shaker to a gentleman to set the rhythm for “Girl From Ipanema.” Rogers stirs up drama expertly — in singing a song Louis Armstrong made famous, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” she elicits a peck on the cheek from a toddler. “Can you tell I was a theater major?” she laughs. In “Evergreen” the 1970s classic by Luther Vandross, famously sung by Barbra Streisand, Rogers really sends gorgeous vocals soaring over the room.

As the evening winds down, Todd tells the audience, “We have over three hundred songs in our repertoire. So come back. You won’t hear the same song Monday to Monday.”

You can find Tuxedo Junction: The Sounds of Swing every Monday 7:00 – 8:30pm at the Guilford VFW Post 7666.  You can find out more at the band website, here.