Joel Guldin oversees the Les Brown Big Band Festival, an annual event in Pennsylvania. Les Brown, of course, was as an American jazz musician who led the big band Les Brown and His Band of Renown for nearly seven decades from 1938 to 2000. He died in 2001 but his legacy lives on through Joel’s commitment to his career.
Joel graciously gave the Dean Martin Association some of his time recently to chat about the Festival.
Elliot Thorpe: Joel, can you tell us of the history of the Festival? How, when and why did it begin?
Joel Guldin: In 2006, through Les’ relatives still in the area, a PA state historical marker was dedicated in front of the house where Les was born. There was a reception after in which both Williams Valley high school and elementary jazz bands and After Hours, the local big band, performed. I asked if this reception/dance would be an annual event but was told it was just for that year.
Former Band of Renown members are super supportive
So I decided to organize the Les Brown Jazz Festival to promote the musical history of our area and the festival would replace/resurrect the school district’s jazz festival that was discontinued about five years earlier. At the first festival the only performances were the WV Elementary Jazz (which I directed) and the WV Alumni Jazz Band (later known as the Town of Renown Orchestra) which I organized for this event, since I couldn’t attract any other bands to perform.
In 2009 Les Jr. appeared at the festival for the first time.
In 2011 I decided to go all out: I got a committee together and we sought out community sponsors, hired professional bands and singers. Les Jr. began being a regular from that year on. In 2012 the festival went from just Saturday to Friday through Sunday with a dance on Friday, the festival on Saturday and Sunday had a Festival of Music non-denominational church service. That year it was renamed the Les Brown Big Band Festival. It has retained that format ever since. That year was the Les Brown Centennial and to celebrate we brought former Band of Renown members in from LA: Dave Pell, Jack Redmond, and Don Clarke. Our MC was NPR big band historian David Miller. The festival saluted brother Stumpy Brown in 2014 with Stumpy coming to the festival at age 86 despite being wheel-chair bound.
We recreated a Bob Hope USO show at the festival in 2015 and a salute to the Dean Martin/Les Brown years in 2018 with Dean impersonator Andy DiMino of Las Vegas.
ET: What’s your own background and involvement? Do you play at the festival?
JG: I started and have organized it since it began. My elementary jazz band performed at the festival every year until I retired in 2017.
ET: How much does Les Brown’s son get involved with the Festival?
JG: Les Jr. is very supportive as is Les Sr.’s daughter Denny Marsh-Jordan and her son Jeff “Swampy” Marsh. Denny and Jeff have attended twice and support financially. Les Jr. has attended almost each year and has acted as MC and performed (vocally) on stage with many of the participating bands.
ET: Do the surviving original members of the band support what you do?
JG: Former Band of Renown members are super supportive and have become friends of mine throughout the years: Stumpy Brown, Jack Redmond, Dave Pell, Donn Trenner, Ted Nash, Don Kramer. Sadly, as the years go by we keep losing more band members.
ET: Did you know Les (Sr) personally?
JG: I had corresponded with him via snail mail when I first started awarding the Les Brown Elementary Jazz Award to my elementary jazz musicians in 1982 but never met him personally. Through that correspondence is how I got to know and meet his brother Stumpy.
ET: You attract a number of different artistes to the Festival every year. What do they bring to the event?
JG: With my being and educator first, the original intention was to expose our students to their professional musicianship, style of music, and have the children interact with them along with entertaining the public that attend the festival.
ET: I vividly remember seeing Dean Martin in his London concerts in 1983 when I was 12 and talking to another audience member who was in her early 90s. She, with delight, pointed out that I was probably the youngest there while she was no doubt the oldest. Bearing in mind, then, the era of the music the Festival supports and promotes, do you have a similar range of ages?
JG: Yes. Of course our festival attracts an older crowd but the performing groups are jr. high, sr. high or college bands. Our professional performers range for 30-50. To encourage younger audience members, we offer free admission to any students up through college.
ET: What is it, do you think, that attracts them to the Big Band and Swing sound?
JG: I never mention the age of the music being performed to avoid it being labeled as old fogie music. The students never as when it was written or popular. They just play it and like it. Once I tried to take ‘Sentimental Journey’ out of the band’s line up with members insisting it be put back. That became our official opening song for every performance. They loved ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000’ and tried getting them played every year.