Front Porch

The JazzKatz Project: Bigger than a Big Band

David Hayes, director of the JazzKatz Project

Members of the JazzKatz Project

The first thing you notice is the look. Sitting behind their music stands, the 13 musicians, dressed in black suits and black ties, give off an air of elegance and style, their neatly folded pocket squares adding a bit of Don Draperesque panache. The trombones glint and glimmer in the stage lights. The trumpets and saxophones shine as well. Launching into their first number, an up-tempo take on the theme to “American Bandstand,” the sound is big. Not just loud, but big, full, and vibrant. It hits you in the chest and seems to envelope you as it fills the hall. The trombones lend a supporting line behind the saxophones, while the trumpets belt out a quick hot riff. This is music with élan, swagger, and pizzazz.

The band is the JazzKatz Project, an ensemble that has performed concerts and made appearances at special events for the last year throughout San Diego. This form of an ensemble, about a dozen horns backed up by a rhythm section, goes back to the forties, when bandleaders such as Jimmy Dorsey, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and dozens of others filled the concert and dance halls of America with their big bands. The JazzKatz Project has taken this music and updated it with new tunes, new arrangements, and a new attitude.

David Hayes is the musical director of the JazzKatz. As the person who went about forming the band a little over a year ago, he is responsible for their sound and approach. Dark-complected and burly, he stands squarely. It seems like you’d need a bulldozer to knock him over. With a curly head of salt and pepper hair, he sports a hint of a well-trimmed goatee. Responding to a question, there is almost always a slight pause, as though he is gaining the attention of an audience or classroom. “We are the JazzKatz Project,” he says. “Why are we not the JazzKatz Big Band? We left the big band name out because I don’t want to give anybody the ability to put us in a cage, to define us and easily sum us up, to be able to say, ‘Oh Glenn Miller, that’s what you do.’”

While the Project does actually dip into the music of the forties and fifties from time to time, the band features arrangements of tunes that have been more recent hits. They also play in more contemporary musical styles, incorporating pop and soul into their sound. Hayes emphasizes the band’s versatility. He wants the band to have the ability to pare itself down to smaller units from time to time, if need be, and branch out into combos, trios, and quartets. He also anticipates expanding the ensemble, possibly adding strings and performing as a jazz orchestra for certain occasions.

He sees the band as encompassing more than just a performing unit and includes educational projects as something on the horizon for the ensemble. As an example of the JazzKatz Project being more than just a band, Hayes mentions that several musicians from the Project have been engaged in putting together a film. A friend of his, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, came up with a script. “And, of course, with a good movie you need a good film score,” he remarks. He secured a few compositions for the film, which a number of the JazzKatz musicians perform for the soundtrack. With a working title of On the Contrary, efforts are being made to get the movie into the New York Film Festival.

The story of the JazzKatz goes back about 15 years ago. At the time, Hayes was involved with the Coastal Community Symphonic Band. With a few members of that band he helped to form the Coastal Cities Jazz Band. That ensemble is still active, performing four or five concerts a year.

Wanting to perform more, as well as to branch out into more musical explorations, Hayes went about handpicking members for the JazzKatz Project. He set high standards. “I wanted musicians who I could pitch a chart in front of and they could perform it right then and there,” he says. “We have, actually, opened up charts on a gig or two and performed them without a rehearsal on those numbers.

“All the members of the JazzKatz are monster players. All of them are talented and play with imagination. But I also wanted people who are bold in their playing. I wanted musicians who could engage the audience visually as well as musically. I didn’t want a stage full of guys with their heads down in their charts.” It is a point of pride with Hayes that the members of the JazzKatz Project are such professionals that a once-a-month rehearsal is all that is needed to work on tunes and arrangements. These rehearsals give the ensemble the opportunity to add to the charts, sometimes opening up a section of the chart for solos or adding a different intro to the tune, such as a drum fill.

Although the members of the JazzKatz are some of the most talented musicians in the San Diego area, Hayes also sought out musicians with the personal qualities to make the ensemble an effective musical unit. “Our group is a family. We all get along. Nobody in the band is ego driven. Nobody has a head so big that it doesn’t fit through the door,” he says. He credits this quality with the ease with which the band members work together during rehearsals. The players also have a lot of loyalty to the group. One member of the band recently gave up a paying gig so as not to miss a JazzKatz practice session. “And I have 120% loyalty to them as well,” Hayes adds. The one problem for the band that Hayes mentions is their ability to find venues that can accommodate them. For many places, their stages are too small to fit the 13 musicians of the band.

After several numbers the band brings up Whitney Shay. In a sharp red dress and heels, she takes center stage. A singer who has been making her mark on the local music scene for the last couple of years, Shay has a big voice, one well to suited sing with a large band like this one. Shay and the band perform “Smooth Operator,” the Sade hit from the eighties and finish the set with “Can’t Shake It,” an early sixties hit from Etta James that Shay covered on her recent CD, Soul Tonic.

Hayes is local born and raised, a graduate of Castle Park high school in Chula Vista. His life with music goes back to grade school. He says, “There was nobody musical in my family, but I started playing in fourth grade. I don’t know why; I just wanted to play.” He credits Gary Withem, an alum from the Gary Puckett and the Union Gap who was the music director of his high school, with helping him and other students get inspired by music. “I did it all — concert band, stage band, marching band. I picked up the horn and never put it down. The one common thread in my life has been music, the only constant in my life,” he says. “A lot of music that interested me were things that I just stumbled upon. I remember in the seventies my friends were listening to disco and I was listening to jazz.”

On his own from a very early age, Hayes has held a variety of jobs. For the last 17 years he has worked as a realtor. Besides being a musician, he has also worked in movies. His first film appearance goes back to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, San Diego’s homegrown horror spoof. He can also be seen in the Adam Sandler vehicle Jack and Jill as well. His television work includes appearances on “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and other programs. Hayes also serves on the board of directors for the local of SAG-AFTRA, the film actors and broadcasters union.

He was music director for National City for 12 years and at Rancho Santa Fe for the last seven. “In National City, when I started as music director, we had seven kids in the music program. When I left, there were more than 350,” Hayes notes. “I made music a cool thing to be a part of. I showed kids that it was cool to make music; I showed them how it could get them involved in teamwork, how it could be a part of their lives.” By the time he left his position in National City, the school had a string program, three levels of band, a choir, and a mariachi ensemble.

Hayes says that a JazzKatz CD should be out sometime soon, too. “It’s just so great when this band opens up a chart and we play it,” he says. “The band is so good, and it’s so exciting.”

See the JazzKatz perform on Saturday, December 15, at Queen Bee’s Art & Cultural Center, 3925 Ohio St. in North Park.

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