If you take a stroll down the 400 block of North Tonawanda's Oliver Street on any given Sunday night, you might hear the music of the big band era coming from a certain building. This is not particularly surprising as many people enjoy this style of music. However, if you happen to catch a glimpse of the band, you may be surprised by who's playing the music.
Every Sunday night, musicians old and young (but mostly young) gather to play music from the '30s and '40s.
At the head of this motley crew of musicians is director Frank Lorango, who calls the band members to attention and begins tuning them up. Once every one is pitch-perfect, Lorango tells them to flip to a song – he picks "Mood Indigo," made famous by the late Duke Ellington. This is how a normal rehearsal starts for the Sugar & Jazz Band, which plays, as Lorango puts it, the "music that memories are made of."
Lorango is no ordinary director – he is nearly 90 years old. And the band is no ordinary band. A collection of musicians ranging from ages 12 to 80, the band, with kids from schools all over Western New York, is strictly volunteer. They do not get paid for their work. Instead, the reward is something much greater – a chance to learn and improve as musicians.
With Lorango as its director, Sugar & Jazz was formed more than 50 years ago by two students from North Tonawanda High School when their school band dissolved. Eventually, through various performances and word-of-mouth, the band gained players (and fans) from all over Western New York, and became a full-fledged big band. It has become one of the premier jazz bands in Western New York, and Lorango has dedicated his heart and soul to keeping big-band music alive.
Sugar & Jazz is described as "one big family" by Mr. L. (as his "family" calls him), and consistently has former members returning to play gigs or sit in at rehearsals. Because there are no auditions, the band is all-inclusive, further promoting the general feeling of camaraderie and family.
The most rewarding thing about Sugar & Jazz? According to Lorango, it's getting to further the musical education and experience of the young kids in the band.
"I feel this band provides a great opportunity for students and retirees to further their musical abilities," says Lorango.
One of Lorango's often-repeated phrases is: "I'd rather give a kid an instrument than a gun."
"Frank works great with young kids," said Mark Swarts, a drummer/vocalist/roadie who has been with the band since 2003. "Mr. L. is in his element when he has kids that aren't top-notch, and he gets to work with them. He really perks up when he gets to work with those kids. He has a real talent for putting together a band of young kids and making them really great. When he has a chance to help a young player develop, Frank really shines."
And what do the players think?
"He just does so much for us," says Mike Christie, a senior at Kenmore East High School and an all-county trumpet player who has been with the band for six years. "Sugar & Jazz has made me the player I am today."
"I'm twice the player I was when I came here," says Jim Maternowski, a trumpet player who has been with the band for a year. "Mr. L. is a good teacher and has been really supportive, and the band has been a great experience for me."
With all the seemingly endless repetitiveness of pop music today, it's refreshing to have a group such as Sugar & Jazz continue the tradition of big-band music. It is great to have a chance to listen to and play a style of music that is often forgotten today among the ocean of Top 40 music on the radio.
Lorango says he wishes he could have more kids like the ones in the band. They have tremendous work ethic and heart, and share his dedication to the music of this era.
The band recently lost six seniors to college, and Lorango is always looking for new members. If you're interested in joining the band, contact Sugar & Jazz at 692-1760 or visit its website at www.sugarandjazz.org;http://www.sugarandjazz.org for additional information.