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Laguna Beach


Warm up December with Laguna’s JaZz Band and Community Concert Band

By MARRIE STONE

Celebrate the season with three live performances by the Laguna JaZz Band and Community Concert Band this month, all featuring long lists of Christmas favorites. Holiday festivities kick off this Friday, Dec. 3, at Hospitality Night where the Laguna JaZz Band will perform at 6 p.m. on Beach Street. The 18-piece ensemble, featuring vocalist Ginger Hatfield, will play a set of seasonal classics as well as a few jazz surprises including Louis Armstrong’s Zat You Santa Claus.

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

Vocalist Ginger Hatfield will perform with the Laguna JaZz Band at Hospitality Night this Friday, Dec. 3 at 6 p.m.

If you miss them this Friday, catch the JaZz Band again at the front entrance of The Susi Q Center on Thursday, Dec. 9, from 5:30-7 p.m. (where hot chocolate and cookies will be served). This concert features the instrumentalists only. For a little more formality and an indoor venue, the roughly 60-piece Laguna Community Band will perform on Sunday, Dec. 19 at 2 p.m. at the Laguna Beach High School Artists’ Theater. All events are free and open to the public. 

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Courtesy of Laguna Community Concert Band

The Laguna Community Concert Band will play at the Laguna Beach High School Artist Theater on Sunday, Dec. 19 at 2 p.m.

Curious about the bands’ history and the talent that makes up their membership, I sought out the two conductors of the Community Concert Band (Mark Lowery and Peter Fournier), the Director of the JaZz Band (Lynn Olinger) and one of their star vocalists (Lisa Morrice). They shared the origin of this unique organization, what makes these ensembles special and a few extraordinary stories from some past performances. 

Everything these band leaders told me solidified my suspicion that we live in a town rich with culture and talent. Not only are the musicians willing to perform for free after hours of weekly rehearsals, but they’ve built their own strong community bonds from within over the decades. Every story they shared made me again appreciate our unique village vibe and the hidden gems among us that make our town distinct. 

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

With several regular free performances scheduled around town throughout the year, there are several opportunities to hear both the Concert Band and JaZz Band, including at the Festival of Arts during the summer

In the beginning…

Like many homegrown Laguna Beach institutions, the Community Concert Band was born over a few cups of coffee at Zinc Café. In 1999, Theresa Marino (flutist) met with Dr. Bill Nicholls (local conductor) and Carol Reynolds (Laguna Beach Arts Commission member and musician) to make a bold proposal – let’s strike up a band. The original company consisted of only eight members and met at the Laguna Beach Recreational Department. Twenty-two years later, its membership now hovers around 65 instrumentalists and has seeded several spin-off groups including the 18-piece JaZz Band, a flute ensemble, a Dixieland band, a woodwind ensemble and a brass quintet. 

“We welcome people to join us,” said vocalist Lisa Morrice, who’s been with the group for 18 years. “We have some instrumentalists who are fairly rudimentary. Others come from backgrounds in education, some simply do it as a hobby and a few are professionals. Both the Community Concert Band and the JaZz Band really nurture their players.” 

Meet the conductors

Mark Lowery joined the Laguna Community Concert Band five years ago as its third principal conductor after retiring from a 38-year career teaching all levels of music education throughout Southern California. He studied bassoon with Norman Herzberg (an icon of bassoon pedagogy at USC) after getting a degree in music education from California State University Long Beach. He still judges music festivals and plays with bands, orchestras and chamber music groups throughout the area. 

Lowery came to music naturally. His father, Ray Lowery, played French horn with the Laguna Concert Band for years. His sister, Lisa, served as a guest oboist and his brother, Drew, also played the French horn as a guest player. Lowery himself played with the Concert Band a few times as a musician, but it wasn’t until former conductor Ed Peterson contacted him when he decided to retire that Lowery officially joined. 

“Ed was a good friend of mine. A few other members also knew me well from my time teaching high school. I was interviewed by the Board, and they agreed I was the right choice,” Lowery said.

The Southern California music scene is a small, tight-knit community. Lowery attended both high school and college with founding member Marino, whose father was the Loara High School band leader in Anaheim. “It’s a small world,” Lowery said. “I had all the graduates from Loara High School stand up at our last concert and there were six of us.” 

Within that small world, the bonds are tight. “Where else can you find 60 people who get together this often and play together?” Lowery said. “We’ve gotten to know each other, become friends and socialize together. We have lots of fun. That’s the idea.”

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Courtesy of Mark Lowery

Mark Lowery has served as the Laguna Concert Band’s conductor for five years

Lowery is joined by assistant conductor Peter Fournier, who also spent over three decades teaching in the Newport-Mesa and Irvine Unified School Districts. Fournier was selected in 1996 by the LA Times as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” for developing the largest string program in Orange County. His career capstone happened in 2003, his final year of teaching, when he took University High School’s 106-member symphony to Carnegie Hall.

Fournier has served as assistant conductor for nearly 16 years. He earned both his bachelor and master’s degrees in conducting from the University of Pacific and USC. He’s played with several big bands and orchestras, as well as serving as the Music Director of the Irvine Civic Light Opera. For two decades, Fournier has Directed the Tuba Christmas in Downtown Disney, where he conducted more than 500 participants for the Guinness World Record. 

Speaking of small worlds, Lynn Olinger was one of Fournier’s first high school students when he began teaching in 1965. “He was playing saxophone back then in Whittier,” Fourier said. “There are all these different connections that everyone makes with our ensemble, and the wonderful people from different backgrounds – science, medicine, math – you name it and they’re there.”

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Courtesy of Sandie Ward

Peter Fournier acts as assistant conductor, a position he’s held for more than 15 years

Olinger, who has served as the director of the JaZz Band since 2017, has played the sax since he was seven years old. He even played with the famed USC band while still in high school. Olinger studied music education and electronic music at UCI. During the Vietnam War, Olinger played in the army band. “A far preferable place to be, that’s for sure,” he said. Olinger spent his 36-year career teaching in the Capistrano Unified School District. “Once I retired, I was able to get my horn back out,” Olinger said. “And my first stop was Laguna Community Concert Band.” Now Olinger plays in four bands, including two jazz bands. 

“I don’t know if you know this, but we call it the JaZz Band, with a capital “Z” in the middle,” Olinger told me. How did he come up with the idea? “I probably copied it. It was probably on my iPod or at some festival we played where they spelled it like that. Anyway, I thought it looked pretty cool.” Indeed.

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

Lynn Olinger has served as Director of the JaZz Band for almost five years

The bands welcome you and your instrument (especially if it’s a trumpet)

“The Community Concert Band is open for anybody who plays an instrument and wants to come play,” said Lowery. “We don’t have any real restrictions. If you show up for the first rehearsal and the music is either too easy or too hard, you can decide whether you want to come back again.”

Lowery said he’s on the lookout for trumpet players. “We had six trumpets in our last concert, but only four showed up to this prior rehearsal so I’m looking for trumpet players right now,” he said.

The JaZz Band has a few added restrictions because they play across a wide variety of genres including pop, Latin, salsa, swing, big band and other styles. All JaZz Band members must also play in the Community Concert Band and have a high level of proficiency in sight reading music. Spaces are limited, given the smaller ensemble size. 

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

Vocalist Lisa Morrice performs at the Festival of Arts summer concert series with the Laguna JaZz Band

Building a band from the bottom up

What gives our Community Concert Band that uniquely rich and textured sound? The bottom half of the band provides those rich tones. Lowery credits the strong bass of the band and the sizable number of trombones, tubas and low brass. “We have six good flutes and that’s what we need. With the exception of French horns and trumpets, our instrumentation is pretty full. We have three tuba players and seven trombones, which is essential to getting a nice warm, dark sound.” Most community groups are very top oriented, Lowery said, with a lot of flutes and clarinets. 

Lowery and Olinger also point to the importance of their drummer to keep both bands on beat. “Gary Wampler was the director of the Fountain Valley High School band for 30 years,” said Lowery. “He plays a key position. Without a good drummer, the band would be in trouble. He doesn’t let me change tempos or move things too easily.” 

Wampler recently missed a JaZz Band rehearsal, and it sent the evening for a spin. “I almost looked for a professional to substitute,” Olinger said. “He’s such a good drummer.”

Lowery also relies on his solo oboist. “The oboe parts are always very difficult and very soloistic. Ann Steele isn’t a professional player, but she does such a great job. I can’t say enough good things about what she does. The pressure to have to play something well. She’s one of our star soloists.”

A community band also benefits from the diversity of its membership and the varied talents and professions they bring with them. Several members were educators, leading their own high school and college bands. 

“Our average players are not trained musicians, meaning they didn’t go to school for music. They don’t have degrees in music,” said Lowery. Dr. William Langstaff has practiced dentistry in Villa Park for decades. “He comes to rehearsals religiously to play first chair solo clarinet.” 

Dr. James McGaugh, a renowned neurobiologist at UCI and pioneer in the field of learning and memory, played with the band for years – both the clarinet and saxophone – until age-related issues caused him to step down. “He had his own trio on campus with a couple other colleagues,” said Fournier.

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Photo by Peyton Webster

Clarinetist Jennifer Baker (mother of vocalist Katie Baker) at the Playhouse last month

The challenges of conducting a community band

“Choosing music is one of the hardest things we do,” said Lowery. “We have to pick songs that are entertaining to our audience. That’s priority number one. But the pieces also need to be at a level the band play. We’re not going to play music that’s too difficult.” 

That’s the other problem of community bands, said Lowery. “We only meet once a week. High school and college bands meet every day. They can do a lot when they’re meeting 20 times a month. We have limited rehearsal time, so we have to pick music that we can make sound good.” Lowery’s theory in music and in life – accentuate your positives and hide your weaknesses.

A long lifetime of loving music

Lowery’s father, Ray, played the French horn with the band throughout his 80s and into his early 90s. He passed away in 2017 at age 94. 

“I’m sorry to say a trombone player, a clarinet player and a bass player passed away this year,” Lowery said. “All in their 80s.” But, Lowery added, this demonstrates that playing in a band is something people can do well into their elderly years. “You might not be as proficient, or hearing loss might become an issue, but there are no restrictions on how long someone can play an instrument. Major symphony orchestras have members playing into their 70s. It’s one of those jobs where young musicians think they’ll have a chance to audition and then realize a musician who’s 50 years old might be there for another 20 years.” 

Serving our community one concert at a time

“We’ve given this joy we have to the community, and it’s all done for free,” Morrice said. “The reason it’s free, in large part, is thanks to the City of Laguna Beach and their vision to nurture artists of all stripes. This community has theater, dance, visual arts, and several organizations that nurture musicians and singers as well. This environment is especially fertile for a community band.”

In addition, the bands receive grant money from various other local foundations. “Because it’s a community band, we wanted it to be something that everybody could take advantage of,” Morrice said. “We received several grants throughout the year, including the Festival of Arts Foundation Grant. This is how we’re able to provide for our audiences, and it’s something we’re grateful for. It all comes from the community of Laguna Beach, our fans and people who donate to help us operate.” 

Thanks for the Memories 

The past 22 years have led to some wonderful memories for band members and the community alike. Morrice helped the Concert Band celebrate its 20th anniversary milestone with a remake of Bob Hope’s “Thanks for the Memories.” 

“I rewrote the words to fit all the years we played together,” Morrice said. “I sang about all the hours we rehearsed and how we got sunburned while playing on the sand. It was really nostalgic and fun. It was a parody piece, but it really was a tribute to the band.” 

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Photo by Peyton Webster

Vocalist Lisa Morrice performed at the Playhouse last month

Morrice also did a show with the JaZz Band at the Festival of Arts this summer featuring vocalist Rick Evans. “Rick is a friend of mine,” said Olinger. “He’s just a hoot. He’s an old Vegas lounge singer and a Delta Cruises guy. He gets the audience going playing popular ‘60s and ‘70s stuff that everybody knows, like “Elvira.” He got a standing ovation at the August show.”

“It was so good,” said Morrice. “It was the first time we’d done anything substantial in public in over two years. The response from the audience was overwhelming and everyone was so happy to be there. It made it a special evening.”

Last month, the Concert Band did a salute to Broadway musical at the Playhouse. Orange County High School of the Arts vocalist Katie Baker sang. Katie’s mother, Jennifer Baker, plays first chair clarinet in the band.

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Photo by Peyton Webster

OCHSA vocalist Katie Baker sang “Frozen” with the Concert Band at the Laguna Playhouse last month

Lowery remembers that concert for their rendition of “Porgy and Bess.” “It features a trumpet and trombone solo. We had a great time learning and perfecting that song.”

The longer the conductors talked, the more memories came. “Can I give a little pitch for being in a band, especially a high school band?” Olinger said as we wrapped up our talk. “What other activity on a high school campus has 140 kids going in the right direction together? It’s amazing discipline. One hundred and forty people all must be on all the time. They’re not sitting on the bench. They all have to play exactly the right note at exactly the right time – and as close as possible to the right pitch – to make it sound good. These people are used to working totally together every second they’re on that stage.” 

The result, he said, are lifetime friendships and a lot of camaraderie. Seniors mix with freshmen, and those memories last for decades. “It’s just invaluable. It’s like family. These kids are closer than most people after their high school career.” Olinger begins listing off the many connections he’s witnessed throughout his decades teaching high school band. “It’s a small world. That’s just how it works.”

A band for every season 

Aside from their December performances, the public can see the Concert Band and JaZz Band play throughout the year. They perform annually at the Patriots Day Parade, on Main Beach during Memorial Day, at the Fête de la Musique in June, on the Festival of Arts’ stage in the summer and other live performances as they become possible.

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Courtesy of Laguna JaZz Band

The Laguna JaZz Band performing at the Fête de la Musique

For a complete schedule and other information, visit their website at https://www.lagunaconcertband.com.

 

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