SAN DIEGO — Benny Hollman has this rather strange habit of starting a new band every decade or so without bothering to break up the old one.
So, after more than 30 years on the San Diego music scene, Hollman, now 48, sees nothing unusual about playing rock 'n' roll oldies with the Velvetones one night, Latin jazz with the Caliente Brass the next and Swing Era classics with the Benny Hollman Orchestra the third.
"Depending on the crowd and the ambiance, they all feel good," said Hollman, who plays saxophone and flute and handles arrangements for each of his three groups. "Each band, each style of music has its time, its place--just like cars. Sports cars are known for their performance, luxury sedans are great for touring and 4-by-4s are ideal for going up into the mountains.
"It's the same with music. When it's played right, under the right circumstances, any style can really get to the people."
Hollman's first band was the Velvetones, a rock 'n' roll group he founded while attending San Diego High School in 1957. The Velvetones started out playing Saturday-night sock hops in the campus gym. The contemporary songs the group performed in the '50s--like Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill"--are oldies-but-goodies now, and the Velvetones still perform them at high school reunions and '50s theme parties.
Then came the Caliente Brass, modeled after Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass, which Hollman, fresh from a two-year hitch with the Army, formed in 1966 for a Cinco de Mayo concert at the Blue Note, a long-gone downtown nightclub. The Caliente Brass continues to appear at maybe a dozen local functions a year, including Sunday's Cinco de Mayo celebration on the main plaza stage in Old Town State Park.
Its repertoire is a mix of such vintage Alpert instrumentals as "The Lonely Bull" and "Tijuana Taxi" and newer Latin-American salsa favorites such as Tito Puente's "Guajira" and Cal Tjader's "Wachiwara."
Finally, there is the Benny Hollman Orchestra, a "big band" Hollman put together in 1978 to capitalize on the nationwide resurgence of interest in Swing Era music from the '30s and '40s.
Today, the Benny Hollman Orchestra continues to be his "bread and butter," Hollman said, and consists of three incarnations:
A six-piece nightclub act that has just come off a nine-month engagement at the La Costa Hotel and Spa in Carlsbad, where it entertained guests five nights a week with faithful renditions of Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" and other big-band classics by Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Woody Herman.
A 20-member band that fires up football fans at Chargers home games at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, and which recently played at the Washington Redskins' Super Bowl victory party.
The full 32-piece orchestra, complete with strings and horns, that regularly backs such visiting former superstars as Tony Orlando, Lou Rawls and the Four Tops.
Hollman attributes his three bands' longevity to the fact that they all share several key members whom he's been able to keep happy over the years with steady work around San Diego, Los Angeles and Palm Springs.
Among them are such top players as drummer Tony Marillo, who has toured with Ann Margret, Doc Severinson and Bill Chase; alto saxophonist Gary Pack, who has worked with Quincy Jones, and bassist Jerry Trice, a veteran of countless recording sessions with Buddy Rich.
"They're all professional musicians," Hollman said. "They're not part-timers, who hold down day jobs on the side, so they've been able to dedicate their entire lives to music-- all music, not just one particular style.
"As a result, we're very versatile. We can cross over into any style, at any moment, just like that. And that's something you just don't find very often. There are big bands in town that can play great swing music, but that's all they can do. They can't turn around and play great Latin jazz or great rock 'n' roll oldies.
"Similarly, there are several Latin jazz bands around here that are really good at what they do, but they can't swing into big band music or rock 'n' roll the way we can."
Hollman is a native San Diegan who first began honing his musical talents at the age of 11, when his mother rented him a saxophone.
"I took three months of lessons and then joined my junior high school jazz band," Hollman recalled. "And, by the time I was in high school, I decided I was good enough to start making some money, so I got together with the Velvetones."
After studying music at San Diego City College, Hollman spent several years playing in an El Cajon nightclub, performing show tunes and occasionally backing such touring greats as Kay Starr and Frankie Laine.
In 1963, he was drafted into the Army. Stationed in New York City, he joined his Army band and found himself playing alongside fellow recruit--and future jazz heavyweight--drummer Billy Cobham.
Upon his return to San Diego in 1965, Holman regrouped the Velvetones but soon found that playing 1950s rock 'n' roll wasn't enough to keep bread on the table.
"At the time, Herb Alpert was going great guns, so I decided to form a second band, the Caliente Brass, along those same lines," Hollman said. "Our first gig was at a Cinco de Mayo concert at the Blue Note, and, before long, we were getting hired all over the place."
A decade later, however, the spicy brand of Latin jazz popularized in the late 1960s by the Tijuana Brass was no longer in vogue, so Hollman founded yet another band, the Benny Hollman Orchestra, to play Swing Era classics for the ballroom-dancing crowd.
Since then, rock 'n' roll oldies and salsa have come back.