A Crabtowne band playing for dancers Classics: Fans of the group, which began in the early 1980s as a rehearsal band and played in a church basement, say its lively and danceable music has life and a spirit that makes it fun.

March 26, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The "Hesitation Waltz" is not in the repertory of the Crabtowne Big Band.

But then, this is not a band that plays much in three-quarter time. When the music starts at Surfside 7 in Edgewater on Wednesday nights, the tiny dance floor fills immediately with couples jitterbugging, shagging and Lindy hopping. But no waltzes.

Take Charles and Vivian Claypool of Severna Park, for instance. They've been dancing together for 50 years, married for 49. "They play danceable music, and they have a good beat," Charles says of the band. His wife adds, "They're enjoying themselves. They have a life and a spirit that a lot of bands don't."

The Claypools have been Crabtowne groupies since it was the house band at Jason's (now the Eastport Clipper) in the mid-1980s. And from the ease of their dancing, it's clear they know what they want in a band.

"They play danceable music, and they have a good beat," says Charles. His wife adds: "They're enjoying themselves. They have a life and a spirit that a lot of bands don't."

Crabtowne plays the classics, from "Take the A Train" to "My Funny Valentine," from "Makin' Whoopee" to "The Shadow of Your Smile."

Most of its approximately 17 musicians have been playing in jazz bands since high school. The ages of the players average in the mid-40s, and their Surfside 7 nights are a release, an opportunity to revel in the music of a bygone, tuneful era.

Money from weekly gig

What money they make at their weekly gig goes for new arrangements, music-stand lights, cables, folders and the band ties, blue embroidered crabs on a red background.

A crab playing a saxophone adorns the band fronts, the stands that hold the music for the saxophones.

Their families have learned to live with boys' night out on Wednesdays. (All but one player and the band's vocalist are men.) "She's come to grips with it," says sax player Tom Andrews of his wife, Peggy. "Except when we play on New Year's Eve."

Some of the history of band is in nicknames many of the players have acquired from band announcer and bass player Randy Morris, owner of Annapolis Marine Electronics:

Morris and Nick Pastelak, "the singing drummer," call each other Flail and Flounder," after a night when they couldn't do anything right.

Doug Hart, who plays tenor sax and manages the band's business, is known as "Goose Down and Dirty" Doug. Originally, it was just "Down and Dirty" for his style of solo playing. On an exceptionally cold night at the King of France Tavern, however, he spent the whole evening in his ski parka "and played better than he ever had before," says Morris.

Eric Pietras, another tenor sax player, is called "Five Alarm" because he accidentally set off the fire alarm when the band was playing at a senior center.

Scott Holbert, the lead trumpet player, is called "Pocket Change" because he tells people when they're "10 cents sharp" or a "nickel flat."

Began in early 1980s

Crabtowne began in the early 1980s as a rehearsal band, playing even then just for the fun of it, in the basement of Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, says trumpeter Dwight Fielder, one of the charter members.

In 1984, the band went professional. Over the years, it has BTC played at a slew of Anne Arundel night spots, many of which aren't there any more.

Before the Surfside, the longest gig was five years at King of France Tavern in the basement of the Maryland Inn. There, the band not only played every Wednesday, but also opened for or backed up major acts such as jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli and singer Ethel Ennis.

At first they played for "the gate" (the cover charge). Then management decided to keep the gate and pay the band a small fee. That degenerated into a "tip jar" gig. Some nights the tips barely covered expenses; other nights, it swelled to $150 or $200, but that had to be divided among 17 players.

"If we had to make a living, we'd all starve to death," says Hart, deputy officer for operations in the county health department.

The band also plays weddings, fund-raisers such as the Holly Ball and events such as the Anne Arundel County Fair and the Star-Spangled Celebration around the Fourth of July. For some of those engagements, it charges $1,500 to $1,800, which assures the players of $75 to $100 for a day's or night's work.

Surfside since January

In January, the Crabtowners accepted an offer from Jerry Osuna, owner of the Surfside, to move to the Edgewater venue, where they are paid a nightly fee. The Surfside also has a regular blues night on Thursdays and the Stef Scaggiari Trio with Artie Dicks on Mondays. "Our business [on Wednesdays] is up a good 100 percent, and I'm estimating an 80 percent increase in head count," says Osuna. "They're drawing the market we had hoped."

Crabtowne's audiences followed it to Edgewater, and newcomers crowd the dance floor at the supper club.

Among them are Dave and Gay Shepardson, 37 and 39 respectively, Web site designers from Annapolis who show up in matching black-and-white shoes to Lindy hop. This dance from the 1930s -- its flying-style gyrations pay homage to Charles Lindbergh -- has recently come back into vogue.

From the Claypools' elegance to the Shepardsons' verve, the Crabtowne Big Band draws all kinds, but one thing connects them: the music of an era when dance and song were inseparable, as were the dancers who hummed and swayed to it.

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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