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Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The New York Times > Arts > Music > The Definition of 'Phat': Big Band With Young Fans

The New York Times > Arts > Music > The Definition of 'Phat': Big Band With Young Fans

The New York Times
March 9, 2005
The Definition of 'Phat': Big Band With Young Fans

LOS ANGELES, March 8 - Taylor Rasmussen, a Led Zeppelin fan, recently discovered another band that suits his 13-year-old taste. He describes it as having "a new cool sound" with funky bass lines, high-pitched notes and difficult solos.

That band is actually a big band, Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, and its "new" sound is good old jazz. And at a recent concert at the gymnasium of the Lindero Canyon Middle School in Agoura Hills north of here, Taylor and an excited throng of students treated these jazz musicians like pop stars, screaming their approval and lining up to have CD's, T-shirts, posters and even casts autographed by Mr. Goodwin and his 17 musicians.

"Would you sign my back?" a giggling girl asked Mr. Goodwin.

"Could you write 'Happy Birthday, Kelley'?" another girl asked, handing him a poster she had just purchased.

The heyday of big band jazz may have been back in the last century, but contemporary groups like Big Phat Band have found a market among teenagers, particularly those in school and college music programs. Mr. Goodwin, a film and television soundtrack composer who formed his group in 1999, has aggressively courted this young audience. Jazz educators say students are a natural market for big bands because these are the most common type of ensemble in most schools.

"People would think that a lot of people supporting these jazz guys are older people, but a lot of them are high school and college kids who are exposed to the music," said Edward Protzman, band director at Central Bucks High School West, near Philadelphia.

But sales of jazz recordings have been stagnant at about 3 percent of the music market for years. And while there are dozens of professional jazz big bands working around the country, they have fewer opportunities to record and play than a trio or combo because, with more musicians to pay, they are more expensive to book and transport.

Some big bands have found that they can compete with rock and rap for the attention of a portion of the youth market. Maynard Ferguson, 75, the trumpeter whose career with Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Kenton and other jazz greats dates back to the 1940's, still tours for most of the year.

But these days, about 80 percent of his gigs with Big Bop Nouveau, his "small big band," as he calls it, are at high schools and colleges. "There's nothing more glamorous for these kids than when they get to meet a professional jazzman," he said.

Some school band directors said that students connect better with big bands than with jazz combos or trios because more of them could see their instrument played. Band leaders like Mr. Goodwin also publish their compositions, which means they are available for school bands to play.

"His music is so well known by kids that kids want to hear the band," said Jim Warrick, coordinator of jazz studies for New Trier Township High School in Winnetka, near Chicago, which invited the Big Phat Band to perform at its jazz festival for school bands last month.

The Big Phat Band has two CD's, which have earned five Grammy nominations for complex but upbeat, quirky tunes with catchy titles like "Hunting Wabbits." Mr. Goodwin, who tried twice to get a big band going in the 1980's and 1990's, said he initially put together the Big Phat Band to record his music. But after playing his first live gig at his alma mater, California State University at Northridge, other school engagements followed and now account for about half of the group's concerts.

Some school music directors said Mr. Goodwin had gone after the youth market more aggressively than others. In addition to assembling a group of top Los Angeles musicians, most of them friends he entices with promises of more lucrative work in movies and television, Mr. Goodwin said he had appealed to young people by recording with the latest technology, promoting the band through e-mail messages, a Web site ( and music publishing, and doing what pop stars do: offering CD's and T-shirts for sale at concerts, for instance, and staying on with other band members afterward to sign autographs.

It also helps that Mr. Gordwin, a boyish-looking 50-year-old who has won three Emmys for music he composed for Warner Brothers animated films, works in Hollywood and can talk about his involvement in movies like "The Incredibles," "Coach Carter" and "Attack of the Killer Tomatoes!" He said he named his band "Phat" to make it distinctive, although he was momentarily stumped during an interview when trying to explain what "phat" meant.

"Phat is an acronym for hot, terrific ...," Mr. Goodwin said, before text messaging his 14-year-old son for help. (His son's reply: "Phat, adj., of a very high quality or standard.")

Mr. Goodwin said he fell in love with big band jazz when he discovered Count Basie as a seventh-grade music student. After his success as a commercial composer, he said, he wanted a more enduring vehicle for his music and to do his part creating new jazz fans and musicians.

School gigs alone cannot sustain a big band, but they are helping propel the Big Phat Band on to bigger and better things. The group signed with the William Morris Agency in late 2003 to try to expand its base to include major jazz festivals and concert tours. It is closing the Playboy Jazz Festival on June 12 at the Hollywood Bowl and traveling to Hong Kong for the opening of a Disneyland park in the fall, and working on a third CD scheduled to be released next year.

But young people remain the band's core audience.

"They're really appreciative," said Andy Martin, a trombone soloist with the band. "They stand up and yell and scream."

So voracious is their reaction, Mr. Goodwin agreed, that when the band plays to more subdued older audiences, "we wonder, are we getting across to these people?"


  1. Anonymous12:35 PM

    I couldn't agree more with this article. With so much of the popular music coming out these days being somewhat drab it is nice that some of the big band energy is coming back and giving people a chance to listen to something else other than what plays on the radio over and over again.

    As far as my listening needs go I have found a new website The website is full of music reviews by customers, and they can comment, rank, and compare albums, bands, and groups from all over the world. It is a really great on-line review for people and what they think about their favorite music.

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