The condition of big-band jazz, and the dogged spirit that has enabled it to survive, is nowhere better illustrated than in the case of Juggernaut, the Los Angeles-based orchestra co-directed by drummer Frankie Capp and pianist/arranger Nat Pierce.
Typically, Juggernaut does very little traveling. No less typically, the band works only a few nights a month and most of its members earn their living as free-lancers in the TV, movie and recording studios. Still, the men won't give up; they recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their joyful togetherness, and by today's standards there has been remarkably little turnover in the personnel.
Of the musicians who played on Juggernaut's first album shortly after its formation, 10 are still along for the ride: Capp and Pierce, saxophonists Marshal Royal, Bill Green and Plas Johnson, trumpeter Bill Berry, trombonists Buster Cooper and Alan Kaplan, bassist Chuck Berghofer and singer Ernie Andrews.
"Obviously, we're not in it for the money," Capp says. "Oh, we make enough to buy a bag of groceries and a tank of gas now and then, but we do it because it's fun, because it's great music and it has to be played, and because music like this should survive. Why do symphony orchestras keep playing Beethoven? For the same reason, we play a lot of Basie. Actually, although we've been typecast as a Basie band, we do a lot of other things: Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, originals by Benny Carter and Benny Golson, and of course the blues with Ernie Andrews."
"Whatever we play," Pierce says, "we've reached the point where we get our individual sound. You can't put your finger on it, but even when we play, say, an old Basie thing like 'Moten Swing,' we lend it our own personality."
Juggernaut today plays nightclubs, concerts and dance dates, mostly in and around Los Angeles, but with occasional forays such as festivals in Concord and Ojai. This June, they will appear for the first time in the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
"The farthest east we've ever been," Capp says, "is Des Moines, Iowa, where we did a PBS television show. But people know us around the country; we have three albums, all on Concord Jazz, and hope to make another very soon."
The orchestra was organized through a lucky accident. "The seed of this band was planted in 1957, when I had a band in Birdland," Pierce says. "At that time, Neal Hefti was writing all those great things for the Basie band, and I asked him if I could copy some of his arrangements. He said sure, so I spent many hours writing out all the parts."
Capp, who was then playing with the Andre Previn Trio in Hollywood, came to New York, heard a Pierce rehearsal and asked if he, in turn, could copy the music. "We didn't have any music of that kind in California. I took three or four charts at a time and spent 10 weeks making a set for myself--things by Neal, by Nat, and others. Then Nat and I didn't see each other for 13 years."
Pierce moved to California in 1971, leading his own group occasionally but also writing arrangements for many bands (Basie, Bellson, Bill Berry, Woody Herman), and playing piano whenever a gig came along, often for singers. "Frank and I talked about starting a band, but meanwhile Neal Hefti decided to put one together, and he hired me as contractor for it."
"I played with Neal," Capp says, "and after we worked Disneyland, he asked me to book some more dates. I set up a gig at King Arthur's, a restaurant in Canoga Park, for October of 1975. Then Neal said he was disgusted with the band business and wanted to give it up.
"But they didn't want to cancel the King Arthur's date. The owner said, 'I need something for that night. Got any ideas?' I told him I'd put a band together and call it a tribute to Neal Hefti. I told Neal about it one day while we were playing golf.
"Neal dropped his clubs--and his jaw. He said, 'You're not going to use my name on any kind of tribute! I'm sick and tired of other people playing my arrangements!' So I called Nat and said, 'Look, why not bring in some of your library--you have a lot of the old Basie things that Count gave you--let's co-lead the band and we'll call it a tribute to Count Basie instead.'
"This was just supposed to be a one-night throwaway, but the audience really flipped, and they kept us there once a week for several months."
By this time, Capp had the idea of bringing in Ernie Andrews, with whom he had worked in the Harry James band. "He was the closest to the Joe Williams-type singer that I knew, and he's been a great asset to us right along."
Soon after Juggernaut had recorded a live album at King Arthur's, Pierce had to return to another role that had long been a part of his life, that of Count Basie's alter ego, filling in at the piano whenever Basie was ill.