We want you to understand what you’ve gotten yourself into.
The New Reformation Band (NRB) jazz repertoire encompasses Dixieland, ragtime, blues, big band, and swing… the hot music that lifts spirits. It delivers beautiful harmonics reinforced by a beat that sets toes tapping. It’s true. It’s been unscientifically proven. (As we play, we watch the crowds at each live gig. Toes are bouncing all over the place.)
NRB was formed in 1970 during a cold Michigan winter. Seven musicians gathered in the sanctuary of the First Congregational Church in a shocking yet highly successful attempt to bring jazz into the service. Most had played “jazz” before, just not in church, and not with each other. With the exception of the Brothers Oppermann — on piano and banjo — most were shaking hands for the first time.
This was not to be a daunting task. The tunes selected were from the hymnal, and so recognizable that even those slackers who rarely attended a service could be expected to know them.
The chief instigator of this attempt was the church’s youth minister, Pastor Gary Miller. During his Saturday night vigils in this industrial community, the “Rev” would visit the bars… especially those with music… with the admirable goal of offering counsel and support to “lost souls.” But he always had his trumpet under his arm in case there was a chance to sit in.
On one memorable patrol, he met Dave Oppermann, a local businessperson by day, and a sing-along piano player by night. In the bars he was usually joined by drummer Bob “the Silver Fox” Gunther, but he also put together quintets as needed for country club dances.
The preacher asked Dave if he would help organize a seven-piece group for a single performance…a Dixieland worship service. As a life-long native, Dave knew, or knew of, most of the better musicians in the Saginaw Valley. A date was selected and personnel solicited.
At “First Con” the church secretary snagged Reverend Miller. She was preparing the bulletin and needed “the name of the band.” With a knee-jerk reaction, the Pastor said, “The New Reformation Dixieland Jazz Band,” thus sticking the group with a name too long for any marquee. No worries. The group expected to play “just once.”
To make a somewhat radical experiment border on acceptable, the band teamed with the church’s 40-voice choir and its full-time organist. On the chosen Sunday at 9:00 am, the musicians arrived and “looked at the song list”…determine the key in which each was to be played…and how solos would be delegated.
By 10 am, the sanctuary was filled. (Curiosity produced a great turnout.) As the service closed with the inevitable “Saints Go Marching In” the experiment was gauged a major success. The congregation enjoyed opportunities to sing favorite hymns, accompanied by the choir, organ, and jazz band.
The musicians were stunned. They realized they actually sounded like they knew what they were doing. With the boost from the choir and organist, satisfaction approaching “a thrill” washed over them. A one-time gig, the first of what has become hundreds, delivered an unexpected inspirational and religious experience.
The story could have ended there. But when the church finally emptied, and musical equipment was repacked, there was a general feeling voiced by Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” Band Leader Dave said he would make an inquiry or two and see if there might be “one more gig” before dissolving. There was. The Pinconning Roadhouse and Petting Zoo was up the highway north of Saginaw. Sharing the bill with a rather fragrant rabbit and a somewhat over-rated talking chicken, the boys still sensed there really might be a future.
45 years and thousands of performances later, here we are. During those 4-1/2 decades, four splinter groups spun off from the original and found their own success.
Against the advice of all sensible critics, NRB produced 16 albums with another one “always on the way.” The first three were 33-1/3 long-playing records. The next six were cassette tapes (could you find a cassette player if you had to?)
Dave’s goal — yep, he is still the leader, ‘cuz no one else would accept the job is to have all 16 available as CDs and for downloading by the end of the year. Each is being “remastered” by one of the best talents known. The sound of the new versions surpasses the originals. However, the old corny jokes, banter, and thoroughly enjoyable great times by the musicians come roaring through.
As each is ready, it will be made available.
We hope this “American almost success story” will pique your curiosity enough to want to see “what all the shouting’s about.” (Can you pique without peeking?)