With her fingers on three simple valve buttons and a smokey-sounding voice that summons visions of lounge singers from the Roaring 20s, Bria Skonberg offers a fresh tilt on hot jazz, which she started playing when she went to high school in Chilliwack. And now she’s returning to her hometown for a reunion performance with the band mates from where it all began: the 51st Eight.
“We‘ve still gotten together occasionally,” Skonberg said by phone from her home in New York City. “We see each other at Christmas, or other events, but the focus of this event is us playing together.
“It’s really a celebration of the program that went on (at Chilliwack Secondary School) – we’re celebrating 20 years of music education in Chilliwack,” added Skonberg.
|The 51st Eight in 2002: (L-R) Brock Rutley, Vashti Fairbairn, Colin Farquhar, Evan Arntzen, Lukas Matheson, Josh Roberts, Jeremy Roberts, Bria Skonberg|
The 51st Eight was started by Colin “40” Farquhar and Jeremy Roberts in 1998, and Skonberg joined two years later when she was in the 11th grade. Also in the band were Brock Rutley, Vashti Fairbairn, Evan Arntzen, Lukas Matheson, and Josh Roberts.
About a decade after it began, it was renamed the Big Bang Jazz Band, and they’ve been performing as such every since.
For their Big Bang Jazz Band birthday bash on May 4, everyone but Rutley, and Jeremy Roberts will be in attendance, and Jennifer Hodge will be joining in. “Two of the (original) members moved on (after) a few years, but we hope they’ll come to the party,” added Skonberg via email.
As for who’s doing what, Skonberg says it will be like it’s always been: she’ll play trumpet, Farquhar will be on reeds, Matheson on trombone, and Vashti, who’s started a successful music school in New Westminster, will be playing piano. Josh Roberts, who’s a full-time instructor and performer in Vancouver, will be plucking a banjo and strumming a guitar, Arntzen, who’s also flying in from New York, will join Farquhar on the sax and lend vocals, while Benji Bohannon will be flying all the way from New Orleans to play the drums. And Hodge, who’s a well-known band leader and educator in Vancouver, will be plucking the strings of an upright bass.
Playing in high school was an enriching musical experience that set them up for life, says Skonberg. “And what we were doing was so unique – there were no other groups in BC focusing on (hot jazz), which is great for dancing, great for all ages, and really accessible to a general audience.
“Most of us wanted to become music majors in secondary school,” she continued. “And now we’re all over the USA and Canada, and sharing (our music) with thousands of people around the world, (while maintaining) friendships that have lasted a lifetime.”
Skonberg’s love of music began at a young age, and even though she’s a world-class trumpeter, her first instrument was the piano.
“I usually write (my music) at the piano,” she said. “A lot of my music is lyric-based, (so) I write all of its parts and create an arrangement that has rhythm … and then I put myself into them after; I play the voice and trumpet parts.
Because Skonberg believes music is a universal language of sorts, she said it’s best when shared. “Music is liberating and it gives you choices. It’s always been a reflection of who I am, and I want to create music that makes people feel.”
But it’s not just sharing the music she creates that Skonberg is referring to: she also means sharing her experiences with other budding musicians to help them navigate their own journey.
“Saturday morning after our show, we’re doing a seminar with (youth) that will cover a little bit of everything,” Skonberg said. “We’ll cover tips on playing, master classes, improvising, basic history of jazz, the roles of the instruments, and stylistic elements.
“We’ll also do some one-on-one and some jamming with each other,” added the musician. “It’s going to be a generational sharing of experiences: we’ll take what we’ve learned and share it with them and then listen to what they’ve learned.
“The ‘dream big’ nature, for me, started in Chilliwack because of the examples that were set, and it’s an environment where you can try anything and where ideas are supported. I want to give that back.”
The Big Bang Jazz Band Birthday Festacular is on May 4, at 7:30 p.m., at the Vineyard Community Centre. To purchase tickets, please visit BrownPaperTickets.com.