Northern Wilds Magazine
Big Time Jazz Orchestra, comprised of musicians in the greater Twin Ports region, is in its fourth decade of playing jazz. | SUBMITTED
ArtsFeatured Musician

The Big Time Jazz Orchestra Plays On

Jazz was invented in America, and if you want to hear some of that music in the Northern Wilds, look no further than the Big Time Jazz Orchestra (BTJO). From their very first rehearsal in 1989, they have been spreading the gospel of this uniquely American music ever since. Randy Lee and his wife, Mary, were in that founding group of musicians, and I recently talked with Lee regarding BTJO.

“The Big Time Jazz Orchestra is made up of the finest big band jazz musicians in the greater Twin Ports region, including college and school jazz teachers, [Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra] members, retired military musicians, and many occupations,” said Lee. “It is an artistic jazz ensemble playing music of jazz masters (Ellington, Basie, Akiyoshi, Schneider, Kenton, G. Evans, Rich, Herman, T. Jones, etc.), as well as performing new creations.”

Not long after they started as a band, they also became a 501c3 non-profit organization with the mission of promoting big band jazz music in the Northland. “I was a jazz lover and practitioner before starting the band,” said Lee. “With the retirement of a local prominent jazz band leader, some of us saw the impetus to start a top shelf large ensemble jazz group. We wished to make it professional level and as accessible, visible, and marketable as possible, and saw the collaboration route and the non-profit trail as important steps for the ensemble.”

Randy Lee of Big Time Jazz Orchestra. |SUBMITTED

One unique feature of the band is their focus on collaborating with other charitable groups and music programs through the donation of their concert proceeds. For example, the BTJO has an upcoming concert in August that will benefit the Lake Superior Zoo. “We’ll have a great time playing outside at the Public Library and the Zoo in August and will feature diverse styles, new music, and many talented soloists. There will be powerful music as well as very peaceful approaches,” said Lee. “We’re also proud to say we’ve played over 100 benefit concerts for charitable causes and we’ve performed for and/or with every regional college and high school jazz band.”

Also in August, BTJO will play a concert free to the public at the Duluth Public Library. In both this one and the concert that supports the zoo, several members of his family will be joining the band. His wife Mary, son, brother-in-law, and nephew will all be playing with the ensemble. “It’s quite special to have a professional level saxophone section within the family,” said Lee. “I’ve performed many times with various members but only once did nearly all of us play together and that was a family wedding. My son and nephew are both talented so it’s a thrill to play high level music with them. And my multi-talented wife, Mary, co-founder of BTJO, has done many, many gigs with me over the years. She’s been part of BTJO for most of its 33 years.”

The BTJO is in its fourth decade of playing jazz. Lee shared how his feelings about this uniquely American art form have changed over the years. “I’ve become even more ‘philosophical’ about the music and its traits and offerings. I think when I was younger, I saw myself as ‘a player’ and enjoyed all the rest that came along with that, but over time I think more of a leader, hopefully in the better qualities of that position, and a shepherd for the band and its music. And only in my last 10 years do I actually consider it therapeutic as it often tells a story, plus practicing is therapeutic for me.”

The BTJO fundraiser at the Lake Superior Zoo will take place Friday, August 4, from 6-7 p.m. They will play a free concert at the Duluth Public Library on Thursday, August 10, from 6-7 p.m. “We are very proud that the band often plays at a really high level that is about as fine a big band sound and presentation as you will find,” said Lee. But don’t just take Lee’s word for it—come to the concerts and hear for yourself.

If you can’t make it to the gigs, the band has recorded two CDs of original compositions and jazz standards. You can hear sample tracks of those recordings and learn more about Big Time Jazz Orchestra on their website:

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