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With passion, tenacity, jazz group survives

It's a difficult job keeping a jazz orchestra rolling, but veteran trumpeter Dan McMillion says he just can't give it up.

By PHILIP BOOTH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2002

It's a difficult job keeping a jazz orchestra rolling, but veteran trumpeter Dan McMillion says he just can't give it up.

TAMPA -- Dan McMillion, the veteran Tampa trumpeter and leader of one of Florida's most notable oversized jazz groups, has a love-hate relationship with his job. That's how his friend Vic Hall, longtime jazz announcer for WUSF-FM 89.7, describes it in liner notes for the brass man's fifth CD, last year'sGot the Spirit.

McMillion, 65, is passionate about his art, taking his horn into stratospheric heights over rising and falling waves of trumpets, trombones and saxophones and a hard-driving rhythm section. It's an acoustic wall of sound that can be as powerful as any given guitar army.

But polishing his chops on trumpet and valve trombone represents a mere fraction of the work required to keep the Dan McMillion Jazz Orchestra rolling. There's a 200-piece library of charts to maintain and catalog; gigs to be booked in hopes of landing decent pay for each of 16 musicians; set lists, maps, transportation and countless other details for each gig; and sundry duties related to recording projects, marketing and publicity. It's little wonder that so few big bands find steady work, much less stay together.

The recordings of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James early on excited McMillion, the son of a part-time big band musician, also a multi-instrumentalist. The aspiring trumpeter grew up in Detroit but graduated from Tampa's Plant High in 1956 and returned to Motown. He played with Woody Herman and backed the likes of Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee and Joe Williams.

He returned to Tampa in the mid-'60s, and led various combos in addition to his day job restoring and repairing Volvos. McMillion finally put together a big band of his own in 1995.

"I knew it would be a lot of work, but I didn't know how much work," he says of his jazz orchestra (a term he prefers over the musty-sounding "big band").

Recognition goes a long way to keep frustration at bay, and McMillion has had much to celebrate in recent months. For starters, he landed in the top 10 on the list of Grammy nominees in the category of Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. The top five, a group that this year includes bands led by Rob McConnell, Nicholas Payton, Bob Mintzer, Jim McNeely and Bob Brookmeyer, became official nominees.

And in the latest edition of Jazz Times, a major national jazz monthly, Got the Spirit was lauded for McMillion's playing, the work of his soloists and an intriguing, raucous stomper, Closing Time at the Engine Room Bar, written and composed by baritone saxophonist Butch Evans. That tune features solos by McMillion, bassist Joe Porter, tenor saxophonist Jeff Jordan, pianist Richard Drexler and trombonist Roger Delillo. Saxophonists Kim Bock and Valerie Gillespie take solos elsewhere on the disc.

The disc has received notice elsewhere at home and around the world, with laudatory reviews in Cadence magazine, the online publication Allaboutjazz.com and British periodicals Jazz Journal International and Big Bands International.

"The band has sort of come into its own," he says. "We sort of have a style. We can't be a ghost band for Maynard, but that's the style of the band -- Maynard Ferguson and Woody Herman."

The neoswing movement of the '90s, which yielded brief commercial attention for bands such as Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, failed to spark attention for McMillion's group and other modern-leaning jazz orchestras.

"It didn't help us," he says. "I wasn't about to go into one of those retro shops and put the guys in zoot suits."

The public's interest in music by large jazz ensembles waxes and, mostly, wanes on a regular basis, as shown by McMillion and Chuck Owen, leader of Tampa's Jazz Surge, which is more oriented toward new original compositions. And commercial prospects are notoriously slim. So why keep on keeping on?

"Tenacity," he says. "I always say, the devil made me do it. I haven't given up on this thing, and I certainly have wanted to many times. I've always liked the big band sound and playing in that setting. It's something you can't reproduce with synthesizers."

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PREVIEW: Dan McMillion Jazz Orchestra, Largo House of Jazz at the Largo Cultural Center, 105 Central Park Drive, 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $10. Call (727) 587-6793. Also, at 2 p.m. Feb. 24 at the Catherine Hickman Theater, 5501 27th Ave. S in Gulfport, admission $5 at the door.

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