The History of Blue Moon Big Band
After more than three years of managing and playing in a Baltimore-based big band, trumpet player Rob Leonard decided it was time to step out and start his own swing orchestra. Rob wanted to do things a little differently from what he was accustomed to with his former group. He wanted to:
- Charge a lower fee to customers and audiences so more people could enjoy great big band and swing music;
- Compensate his band members more generously than what he was accustomed to receiving as a side man;
- Search for and acquire musical arrangements that more closely resembled the originals, written during the Great American Swing Era;
- Have a band that didn't try to be all things to all people; rather, his band was going specialize in one thing—big band music.
Thus, Blue Moon Big Band was born.
How We Began
To Rob, the clear and sensible way to start a new band was to attract the finest musicians available. One element of the classic big bands that defined the swing era to Rob was a great, versatile, dynamic vocalist. Teresa Piermatteo, a Pennsylvania native, had been singing with another group for about six months. In Rob's opinion, she wasn't getting the best charts or the spotlight she deserved, considering her talent. Teresa was the first official member of Rob's new band.
They then invited other musicians from their former band to join the new venture. Trumpet players Scott Stansfield and Randy VanEpps, and drummer Steve Conaway, quickly signed on.
How We Got Our Name
By now, traveled musicians such as Chris Poole, Andrew Mitroff, Frank Thibeault, and John Pritchett had joined the group, which was at this time still without a name. Additional musicians that Rob had performed with joined as well, including trombonist Todd Clontz, trumpet players Mark Kelly and John Wagner, and guitarist Jason Marsheck. Other players followed, including tenor saxophonist Geoff Stewart and trombonist Gretchen Hopper. In preparation for the first job, we read down more than 75 charts over the course of the next two rehearsals, discarding the arrangements we didn't like and keeping the best of the bunch.
By the end of April, our first client needed a contract for the June performance. Rob was asked what name was to appear on the billing. In a phone conversation, he thought quickly about a name, a logo, and a possible theme song. He also recalled his favorite bandleader, Glenn Miller, once saying, "A band should have a personality all its own." With this in mind, Rob concluded that his band should be associated with something special--something that is so rare that it only happens once in a blue moon. And thus, with confidence, he told his client, "Our name is Blue Moon Big Band."
Our First Rehearsal
The new members convinced Rob that his band would soon boast 18 great musicians from the Baltimore, DC, Virginia, and Pennsylvania area. Our first rehearsal took place at a dance club in Annapolis, MD, called Club Hollywood. Eight musicians showed up, including Craig Fager, who would go on to become the lead trombone player. Rob was concerned with the low turnout for rehearsal, especially since, in his confidence that his new orchestra would be a tremendous success, he had already booked our first job for June—just two months away.
Believing that the Annapolis site was not central enough geographically to attract the caliber of musicians he sought, Rob contracted with a small church in Ellicott City, MD, for rehearsal space. The new location was closer to Baltimore and easier to get to from Washington DC and Northern Virginia. One week later, at the second rehearsal, we comprised a dozen members.
On May 1, 1998, Rob officially established the band, depositing $500 into a checking account at a local bank. With design help from childhood friend and artist Tommy D'Aquino, Rob created the Blue Moon Big Band logo--a caricature moon playing a trumpet through moon beams. We have never changed our logo.
Rob wanted to start the band out right, so he took out a second mortgage on his newly built home in Carroll County, MD, in order to buy sound equipment, music stands with the band's logo, and approximately 300 new music arrangements. Before we took the stage for our first performance, Rob had sunk the extent of his personal savings into his new venture. The investment would eventually pay off.
Blue Moon Takes Off
The band was a tremendous success, and the performance schedule quickly filled with engagements. County fairs, dances, and in August, our first wedding reception. Musicians came and went during the first several months. Frank Thibeault left due to the demanding schedule of outside performances, which opened the door for tenor saxophonist Brendan Carniaux. Shortly afterwards, a seasoned pianist from Virginia named Dave Witherspoon joined, and Geoff Stewart left the sax section due to a demanding work schedule.
Jason Marsheck was forced to leave as well, due to health concerns. Shannon Loy stepped in to fill the newly vacated tenor sax chair and Craig Brackins, a Tennessee native who grew up on bluegrass music, joined as the new guitarist. At about the same time, bassist Kevin Taylor joined the band. By the fall of 1998, Blue Moon Big Band had earned a small following in the greater Baltimore area. Rob's next goal was to break into the Washington, DC swing market, where several talented bands had been performing for years.
Our Best Performance
At an October 30 masquerade ball at the historic Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo, just outside of Washington, DC, Blue Moon played to a packed house. Several hundred dancers had to be turned away, as word of this new Baltimore-based swing orchestra had spread. Even today, many of our members recall the Glen Echo performance, where our dance was ranked as the area's #1 Lindy event for the week, as our most exciting and energizing performance ever.
The First Album
The final key step that Rob felt the band needed to complete before the end of the year was a recording, to show that the group planned to make its mark in the Mid-Atlantic region quickly. After just three sessions at the Sound Works recording studio in nearby Hanover, PA, we completed our first CD, a 16-song collection of standards, ballads, and classic swing tunes.
The project was finished on November 1, exactly six months to the day of our official inception. Phil Piermatteo, the father of our vocalist, purchased the first Blue Moon Big Band CD ever sold. Following the CD release, vocalist Teresa Piermatteo was contracted for the first of several studio recordings for radio jingles in the Maryland and Pennsylvania areas.
The End of Our First Year
With the release of the "Things Ain't What They Used to Be" CD, Blue Moon followed with three live television performances, including an appearance on the now defunct "Rodricks for Breakfast" Christmas special, filmed at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Jazz legends Ethel Ennis and Cyrus Chestnut shared the stage with the band, and Cyrus even sat in with the band on "The Way You Look Tonight."
After a handful of additional dances and wedding receptions in Baltimore, Northern Virginia, and Central Maryland, Blue Moon Big Band finished out the year with nearly a dozen performances under its belt and was rolling toward 1999 on a high note. In 1998, we adopted "Blue Moon" as our closing song at performances.
We kicked off 1999 with a series of performances in Baltimore with Chuck Alexander's Friday Night Swing Dance Club, a partnership that would continue over the next year and a half, where dancers poured out month after month to hear Baltimore's newest swing band. In April, Blue Moon got its first "big job" when a worldwide medical company hired us for its annual awards dinner at the newly constructed Baltimore Convention Center. We entertained an audience of more than 3,000 and shared the stage with television's Roy Firestone as the featured acts.
Blue Moon continued to take jobs for corporate events, wedding receptions, and dances. Mt. Hebron Presbyterian and St. John the Baptist Catholic Church contracted us for annual fundraiser dances. We continued to play every spring at both churches for several years. More wedding receptions, wine festivals, and private parties would follow, and our band would play more than two dozen events throughout the year.
We had been receiving a fair amount of air-time on local radio stations, primarily an AM station in Baltimore, WLG Legends Radio. On February 23, 1999, Blue Moon Big Band received its first national recognition via the airwaves when its vocal arrangement of Gershwin's "Somebody Loves Me," from the first CD, was played as part of a big band and jazz segment on National Public Radio's "Swinging Down the Lane." The song opened the hour-long broadcast, which also included music from Tony Bennet, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the Eddie Reed Big Band, and was aired nationwide on over 40 radio stations.
With the departure of Mark Kelly from the trumpet section and an opening in the trombone line, Tom Jackson and Chris "Moose" Skowronski joined our band. Bassist Gary Richardson also joined, replacing David Sayen, who spent a short time with the group prior to moving to California. Early in the year, the band also teamed up with the Pennsylvania-based Colgan Brothers Band, led by Pat Colgan, Blue Moon's studio producer. Joining us on several occasions throughout the winter and spring, the CBB, a classic rock band by trade, added a new sound and style to our repertoire.
During the summer of 1999, Blue Moon Big Band recorded its second CD, this time a live recording taped during a dance festival in Salisbury, MD. With 18 tracks, the new CD, "Blue Moon Big Band Swingin' Live!" offered a raw, live side that conveyed the energy and excitement our members had for the music. Several of them wrote off the second recording, though, believing it lacked the polished, high-intensity sound that had made us so popular. Nonetheless, the recording sold well and Blue Moon Big Band now had two CDs under its belt.
In September, bandleader Rob Leonard and vocalist Teresa Piermatteo were married at the Valencia Ballroom in York, PA, and the natural choice for entertainment was Blue Moon Big Band. We dazzled the wedding guests for 4 hours, performing on the same stage as legends Benny Goodman, Harry James, the Dorsey Brothers, and Glenn Miller. In fact, it was the very stage where Glenn Miller told his band members in 1937, on New Year's Eve, that he was dissolving his orchestra. Of course, the legendary bandleader re-formed the Glenn Miller Orchestra just months later, after finding that classic "Miller sound."
Rob Leonard was hearing more and more throughout the year that potential clients loved the big band look and sound of Blue Moon, but often could not fit the 19-piece band in certain venues. In response, Rob formed Li'l Bit of Blue, our partner ensemble. Comprising a 4-piece rhythm section and reed player Andrew Mitroff at the front, Li'l Bit of Blue would soon become as popular as the full orchestra. In 1999, we adopted "The Party's Over" as our closing song at performances.
In 2000, Leonard's bands played nearly every weekend from March through the end of the year. By now, both Blue Moon Big Band and Li'l Bit of Blue had become highly sought-after for weddings and dances. In addition to playing at venues such as the York Country Club in Pennsylvania, Baltimore's Pimlico Race Track, and the Glen Echo Spanish Ballroom several times each throughout the year, we had earned a strong following of swing dancers.
Among them was John "Psychoboy" McCalla, the owner of a Maryland construction company who was known throughout the area as the most energetic dancer on the floor. Psychoboy just wanted to dance, and he latched onto our straight-ahead style. Soon, the band and the dancer would hook up, with Psychoboy giving hour-long dance lessons and then Blue Moon swinging the night away. The relationship was a hit from the start, and we would work together on a handful of occasions. A year later, Psychoboy and his partner, Heather "The Feather" Coyne, were named the 2001 American Lindy Hop Champions.
On May 9, our band was once again spotlighted on the NPR program, "Swingin' Down the Lane." This time, host and producer David Miller selected Blue Moon's version of "Caravan", which joined a line-up of music from Natalie Cole, The Airmen of Note, The Ray Anthony Orchestra, and the BBC Big Band.
In October, our members decided it was time to take a cut at hosting their own dance. And so, with a full moon on Friday the 13th, Blue Moon Big Band filled the 6,000 square foot dance floor at the Towson American Legion Post 22. Joining us once again was the Colgan Brothers Band from Pennsylvania. Teaming with Teresa Leonard on a handful of classic vocal quartets, the CBB was a tremendous hit with the dance audience. Each of the singers also performed a few solo tunes with us, bringing a new dimension to the music.
At about the same time, drummer Marty Knepp joined the band, bringing a new feel and energy to Blue Moon's rhythm section that we had been seeking since our beginning. Straight-ahead on the standards and grooving on the West Coast charts, Knepp completed a rhythm section that would become the staple of our driving sound. Shortly after, saxophonist Steve Szyjka, a music student at Towson University in Baltimore, auditioned with us and stepped in as the new lead tenor player, a tough role to fill considering the talent that filled the other chairs in the sax section--a section that had at times been referred to as the "sweetest sounding sax section on the east coast."
In 2000, we adopted "Two O'clock Jump" as our closing song at performances.
In February 2001, Blue Moon hosted its second event in Towson, "A Valentine's Weekend Swing Dance." It was the final Blue Moon Big Band performance for bassist Gary Richardson and tenor saxophonist Shannon Loy, who each had decided to cut back on their schedules. A few weeks later, drummer Marty Knepp invited Roland Dorsey, a bass player from Abingdon, MD, to sit in at a rehearsal. Dorsey's feel for the music was an instant fit to the Blue Moon sound, and he joined us that evening. With the departure of Loy on tenor sax, Geoff Stewart rejoined the same week.
We performed at about a half dozen venues during the first two months of 2001. During the stretch, Rob Leonard had been continuously approached with inquiries as to why he no longer played with the band, and instead only served as bandleader and master of ceremonies. Finally giving in to the audiences' requests and the coaxing of a handful of our members, he picked up his trumpet and stepped in front of the group as a soloist for the first time in nearly three years, at our annual dance at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in mid-April. The bandleader's first appearance as trumpet player since June 1998 was highlighted with solos on Gene Krupa's "Boogie Blues," Glenn Miller's "In the Mood," and our penultimate closer, "Two O'clock Jump."
One of the most frustrating things for Rob was the difficulty in finding good arrangements of certain songs. Then he found Myles Collins, a bandleader, and arranger in Kent, England. Rob ordered a vocal arrangement of "Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen"—and not just any. He wanted the arrangement that the Benny Goodman Orchestra and Martha Tilton performed at Carnegie Hall in 1938 during the famed concert that forever changed American jazz. Collins' arrangement was perfect, note for note, and soon Blue Moon Big Band was increasing its library once again with titles such as "Route 66," "Stuff Like That There," "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and other wonderful Collins arrangements. By the end of the year, we had added nearly two dozen charts.
Li'l Bit of Blue was still growing in popularity in the Washington, DC/Baltimore area, and had put several wedding receptions on the spring and summer calendar. During the last weekend of April, vocalist Teresa Leonard appeared with the quintet for the first time, adding a new dimension to the already successful all-star ensemble, which now included David Cosby on guitar, Eric Byrd on piano, Gary Richardson on bass, Marty Knepp on drums, and original member Andrew Mitroff on reed and flute.
On May 1, Blue Moon Big Band celebrated the beginning of its fourth year since its humble beginnings in 1998. That same year, we adopted Glenn Miller's "Adios" as our closing song at performances.
Early in August, Rob and Teresa traveled to London to meet Myles Collins, the music arranger with whom they had been conducting business over the past several months. It was the first time meeting in person, as all business had previously been worked out via email and the Internet. At Pepy's Bar, near the Tower of London, Rob and Teresa finally met Myles, a perfumer by trade. During the meeting, Myles delivered his latest arrangement, the Latin classic "Sway," which was ironically played over the bar's soundtrack just minutes after the exchange.
In September, Towson University music major Katie Grimm joined our sax section on tenor. A month later, on October 13, Blue Moon Big Band teamed up once again with The Colgan Brothers Band, this time for a "Rock & Swing Into the Night" concert at the 700+ seat amphitheater at the Hagerstown Community College in Maryland. We shared the stage for 4 non-stop hours of classic rock and big band music.
On December 7, we released our third recording, "Nice Work if You Can Get It," a 20-song collection of swing, blues, and big band tunes. We sold nearly 300 copies by Christmas.
The year started off with r Rob adding nearly 100 new arrangements to our repertoire, many were courtesy to the arranger Myles Collins, in response to audiences' requests for more up-tempo vocal charts for singer Teresa Leonard. May was a particularly big month for us, as we were featured on a 1-hour broadcast of National Public Radio's "Swingin' Down the Lane" program, which aired across the country on over 40 radio stations throughout the week of May 13. By the end of June, more than 50 US radio stations had aired music from Blue Moon Big Band.
As a result of the radio airings and the popularity of the "Nice Work if You Can Get It" CD, orders for the new recording continued to come in during the first half of the year. By July 1, we had customers in 49 of the 50 US states (only Colorado was without a Blue Moon recording), and in nine countries and territories, including:
- Puerto Rico
In early August, trombonist Gretchen Hopper moved to Cincinnati, OH, to pursue a doctorate in music. The newly vacated chair was quickly filled by territory music veteran Bob Jordan.
On November 2, we made our New York City debut as the headline performer at the Swing 46 Jazz & Supper Club. As reported by the club's manager, Blue Moon's performance drew the largest audience in club history, with dancers and dining guests packed wall to wall. Responding to roars for encore numbers at the end, we enjoyed several minutes of standing ovations and a roar of approval that carried out to the streets of Manhattan. The performance marked trumpet player Tom Jackson's final appearance, as he had made the decision to start up his own jazz quartet. Josh Hillard, a Pennsylvania native, stepped in to fill the newly vacated spot.
Sales of CDs and cassettes in New York City helped to put Blue Moon Big Band over the mark of 2,000 total recordings sold. We continued using Glenn Miller's "Adios" as its closing song at performances.
The year started out in full stride for Blue Moon Big Band. By mid-January, we had already contracted engagements for every month but November (with nearly 20 performances on the calendar, including three during a 7-day stretch at the end of March). On some nights, both Blue Moon and Li'l Bit of Blue were performing in the Baltimore-Washington DC area.
We had a busy schedule lined up for Valentines' weekend, but two events were postponed due to what was reported as the biggest snowstorm in Baltimore's history. The storm dumped approximately 30 inches of snow on the Maryland-Pennsylvania area. On Saturday, we had planned to entertain at a benefit dance for Jason Marsheck, our original guitarist. Jason had been at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle for the past several months fighting a tough battle against Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia, which had advanced to lymphoid blast crisis.
With the event rescheduled twice due to heavy snowfall in the Baltimore and surrounding areas, it was finally re-slated for February 22. The event would have marked the final performance for trumpet player Randy Van Epps, one of our original members. Sadly, with the second rescheduling, Randy was unable to join us on February 22. Patrick Gleason, an Army Bandsman who had been sitting in with Blue Moon off and on for the past year, stepped in to fill the chair. The event raised approximately $10,000 for the Marsheck family's medical fund.
On Sunday, February 16, we had planned to team up with long-time friends the Colgan Brothers Band for a Valentines’ Weekend Rock & Swing concert at the 800-seat Eichelberger Performing Arts Center in Hanover, PA. Similar to the 2001 event, each group had been scheduled to perform music from its own repertoire and then join forces in the final set for 4-part vocal big band songs, featuring Teresa Leonard and the CBB vocalists (Pat Colgan, Mike Hirsh, Brian Colgan) and then some classic rock from the CBB with 13 horns and the added rhythm section. With the inclement weather, the event was rescheduled for March 23.
The concert was to be the final performance with the band for pianist Dave Witherspoon. Music veteran Mark Cook stepped in to fill the spot in the rhythm section at the concert. Following Witherspoon's departure, pianist Clem Ehoff, who had been performing with the big band and the smaller ensemble off and on for the past few years, took over the vacant rhythm spot.
Amidst all the personnel changes, Rob began making plans for our fourth recording, slated as a 2-CD set of Christmas standards as well as special arrangements written exclusively for Blue Moon Big Band. As we read through charts during the early part of the year, we scheduled studio dates at the production site of our first three CDs and marked early November for release.
From June through August, our band conducted a special "winery series" at area Pennsylvania and Maryland vineyards. Even with record rainfall, we entertained large audiences at sites such as Boordy Vineyards in Hydes, MD, and Naylor Wine Cellars in Stewartstown, PA. At some of the events, Blue Moon was joined by friends Pat Colgan and Mike Hirsh for guest vocal tunes of crowd favorites like "Mack the Knife," "Blue Skies," "Come Fly With Me," and "It's Only a Paper Moon," as well as duets with Teresa, including "Makin' Whoopee," "Unforgettable," and songs from the upcoming Christmas recording.
In late September, Li'l Bit of Blue made its first appearance at the annual Maryland Wine Festival in Westminster, MD. The group included Andrew Mitroff on sax, Roland Dorsey on bass, Dave Cosby on guitar, Marty Knepp on drums, and guest vocalist Michelle Walker. That same month, trumpet player Bobby List left to pursue other interests. His replacement was Dave Russell, a versatile player from Baltimore who quickly established himself as a key utility player, able to play the lead, solo, or whatever was necessary.
A busy spring and summer closed out with 4 wedding receptions during the first 2 weeks of October and the final recording sessions for Blue Moon Big Band's fourth CD, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which was released on December 1. Over 500 CDs and cassettes were sold by the end of the year. On December 21, we performed our "Blue Moon Big Band & Friends: A Swingin' Christmas Celebration" concert to a packed house at the Eichelberger Performing Arts Center in Hanover. Finally, the year wrapped up with a monster New Year's Eve celebration at the newly remodeled Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo, MD, where we played to nearly 700 Jitterbug, Lindy Hop, and Swing enthusiasts.
Last but certainly not least, we welcomed our newest family member at 9:18 PM on New Year's Eve, as Emma Ann Leonard, daughter of bandleader Rob Leonard and vocalist Teresa Leonard, entered the world. Weighing in at 7 pounds and 15 ounces and measuring 20 and a quarter inches in length, she came in singing.
In 2003, we adopted "Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive" as our closer, and for the first time named an "official" opener, "Deed I Do." Both songs featured Teresa.
A quick overview of our history from 2004 to today includes the reality of why our band's history is recorded in individual years from 1998 through 2003 and then becomes a summarized overview from 2004 to the present. As bandleader, chief marketing officer, gig finder, and accountant, Rob Leonard found his time suddenly focused on one important thing since December 31, 2003: his daughter, Emma.
That said, documentation of each milestone and historical entry in our journal found itself overshadowed by the joy of fatherhood. And so, below is a short summary of our history from 2004 onward:
- 2004: CD sales soared for the December 2003 release of "Baby, it's Cold Outside."
- 2005: After a 2-year stint, bassist Roland Dorsey left to pursue his growing photography business. Kevin Shaner, who had been subbing in Dorsey's place since the spring of 2004, joined full-time.
- 2006: Craig Fager, who had served as our lead trombonist since 1998, made his last full-time performance in September. Bernie Robier, who had subbed on bass trombone from 2004 through 2005, joined as a full-time member as our second (tenor) trombonist in the fall of 2006, as Todd Clontz moved from second trombone to the lead chair.
After playing with us since 2004, trumpeter Mark Kelly moved to New Orleans to hit the jazz scene. He would return in 2007 to occasionally sit in with us again. Trumpet player Leroy Bamberger joined. After four and a half years, featured trumpet soloist Josh Hillard moved back to his hometown of Altoona, PA. Trumpet player Alex Drouin replaced him. Lead tenor saxophonist Steve Szyjka left to pursue his college education. Andrew Mitroff, who joined as lead alto saxophonist shortly after our formation, hung up his horn "permanently" (he said) to focus on his life as a family man.
Alto saxophonist Eric Wetzel, who subbed in 2005, joined full- time, initially as lead tenor and then as lead alto. Joe Sullivan joined as a full-time member on lead tenor afterwards. Mike Hirsh, who has been singing sporadically with us since appearing on our 2001 release of "Nice Work if You Can Get It," became an "official" permanent member and recorded two of the 15 cuts on our fifth CD, "The Polar Bear's Pajamas." Following its completion, trumpeter Dave Russell left due to other work and family obligations.
With new, Grammy-winning engineer and producer Luke Rohwer of Acacia Recording in Mt. Airy, MD, Blue Moon Big Band released its fifth CD in nine years. It was called "The Polar Bear's Pajamas," and received countrywide acclaim from radio stations and listeners.
Original band members Rob Leonard (bandleader), Teresa Leonard (vocalist), Scott Stansfield (trumpet), Chris Poole (tenor and baritone saxophones), Todd Clontz (trombone), and John Pritchett (alto saxophone) celebrated 10 years with Blue Moon Big Band.
In April, the band answered a casting call posting for the filming of a new motion picture starring Renee Zellweger and Kevin Bacon, entitled “My One and Only.” The movie was scheduled to start filming in Baltimore and other cities in June 2008 and for release in 2009. In late May, Rob received a call from the casting director's office informing him that the band has been selected. Due to filming guidelines (no females on the bandstand in the 1950s, etc.), the movie version was trimmed to 12 members and fronted by Kevin Bacon as the bandleader. Filming sessions were held in late June and early July.
Around that time, trumpet player Leroy Bamberger left and was replaced by Jeremy Meeks. Mark Kelly rejoined full-time. We soon recorded our 6th CD, "Blue Moon Big Band Caught in the Act: 10th Anniversary Celebration Live at Naylor Wine Cellars." That same month, as a "sign of the times," the recordings from our first five albums as well as Teresa’s solo CD, were made available online for single MP3 purchases on iTunes, AmazonMP3, Napster, and Rhapsody. A month later, Teresa recorded the single, “Ordinary Miracle,” which was added to “Caught in the Act” as a bonus studio track.
Our band got a bit of a scare in late April when featured vocalist Teresa Leonard contracted laryngitis, which eventually becomes a throat infection that kept her off the bandstand for nearly 4 months. Slow recovery began in August, but even by September 20, when we performed at the annual Maryland Wine Festival, Teresa's voice was not 100%.
In June, Blue Moon Big Band made its first of two annual appearances at Naylor Wine Cellars in Stewartstown, PA, marking the eighth consecutive year of performances at the winery. A month later, we joined Facebook and created the Blue Moon Big Band group. By August, it had 100 members, and our engagement at Naylor was its 16th during that span. Also in August, we made our debut performance at Nissley Vineyards in Bainbridge, PA, with more than 1,500 in attendance.
Dave Witherspoon, our pianist from 1999 through 2001, passed away at age 66 on August 8 due to heart complications.
On August 21, “My One and Only” premiered in New York and Los Angeles. We were officially "one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon." In September, Blue Moon Big Band and its Latin-infused quartet, Blue Caliente, returned to the Maryland Wine Festival. Finally, we wrapped up our 11th year with an exhilarating New Year's Eve performance in snowy, and icy Maryland.
In May, we made our debut appearance at the Rolling Rock Club, an exclusive private country club located in Ligonier, PA about 50 miles outside of Pittsburgh. By mid-year, our group membership topped 300 on Facebook.
Blue Moon made its second consecutive summer appearance at Nissley Vineyards in Bainbridge, PA, and we played our 17th and 18th shows—two per year for nine straight seasons—at Naylor Wine Cellars in Stewartstown, PA. Come fall, Blue Caliente and Blue Moon Big Band once again performed at the Maryland Wine Festival.
In March 2011, trumpet soloist Mark Kelly left the band for a cruise ship gig. Not long after in May, pianist Eric Byrd added to his already busy schedule when he accepted a music leadership position at a church. In addition to teaching at two schools and running his own trio, the added commitment compelled him to leave Blue Moon. Our band was fortunate to welcome the incredibly talented Jan Abbott as his replacement. When Jan left the band several years later for another professional opportunity, Professor of Music at Loyola University Maryland, Dr. Anthony Villa, joined the band and has been Blue Moon's pianist ever since.
Back to March 2011, Blue Moon Big Band teamed up again with partner group Big Band Caliente for a "Hot and Cool" concert at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster, MD. This event also marked the final performance for long time Blue Moon trombonist Todd Clontz, who left the band due to family commitments. He had been with us since 1998. By August, Charlie Doherty had stepped in to fill the chair and quickly became the band's new lead trombone player.
That summer in June, audience favorite Katie Lowdowski decided to leave the band shortly after earning her pharmacy degree. The demands of a new job and plans to start a family drove her decision. What we thought would be her final performance came at the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo, MD, on June 4. The band welcomed Dan Wallace as her replacement later in the month but when Dan was compelled to leave the group a few years later, Katie stepped back in to the delight of fans and fellow band members alike.
Also in June, the band welcomed Jorge Ayala (trumpet), who had been sitting in on occasion throughout the past year, as a full-time member. On the 18th, Blue Moon Big Band performed at Naylor Wine Cellars in Stewartstown, PA. It was our 19th engagement at the venue over 10 consecutive years. This would also prove to be the band's final performance, as owner Dick Naylor passed away shortly after and the winery was sold.
We also officially welcomed Mark Alves to our trombone section in October. He had been sitting in with us since early in the year.
The band enjoyed a lot of great performances at wonderful venues over the next several years. Swing dances at the Spanish Ballroom in Glen Echo, MD as well as occasional concerts at the Carroll Arts Center in Westminster, MD dotted the schedule throughout the years.
Don Keller joined the trumpet section in 2013 and immediately provided versatility and dependability. A former military musician, Don brought both the discipline and the chops to play as a section musician, take on solos, and even step in to cover the lead book when needed. Two years later, John Morgan joined the trombone section and instantly claimed his place as an incredibly talented improv soloist, allowing the band to reintroduce some old charts from library that had been shelved for awhile.
In the spring of 2015, the band was stunned by the sudden and unexpected passing of Marty Knepp, who had played drums with Blue Moon since 2000. Even today, band members and audiences recall memories of Marty's artistry and creativity from behind the drum kit. Following Marty's departure, the band would work with a number of drummers on an as-needed basis but did not fill the role permanently until 2022 when Nick Pastelak, who had been sitting in with the group off and on, officially joined Blue Moon Big Band.
2017 brought another new member to the band, as Jim Ellis joined as the group's guitarist. A seasoned musician and instructor, Jim was "discovered" (as bandleader Rob Leonard likes to brag!) when playing with another group at a holiday concert in late 2016. Jim's talent for complimenting the rhythm section and supporting the vocalist caught Rob's eye immediately. Rob approached Jim at the conclusion of the concert and the deal was done!
In 2018, Blue Moon Big Band celebrated its 20th anniversary with the studio recording of its 7th album, "All The Cats Join In" (additional info available on the Discography page). The new CD led to yet another full hour interview/performance on National Public Radio's "Swingin' Down the Lane" program with host David Miller and air time on radio stations across the nation. The new CD was quickly recognized as the band's best project to date. It was dedicated to the late Marty Knepp, who thrived when all the cats joined in.
In 2019, the band officially released "All The Cats Join In" on January 31. Shortly after, Blue Moon Big Band scheduled its first appearance at the Hollywood Ballroom in Silver Spring, MD on March 1 for for a three-hour dance. The band closed out the year with a New Year's Eve dance at the same ballroom. At the time, there was no way to foresee what was to come over the course of the next couple of years.
The outbreak of Covid-19 in early 2020 all but shut down the live entertainment industry for the better part of the next two years, but Blue Moon Big Band eventually booked at wedding engagement in New Hope, PA in September of 2021 using a 12-piece "little big band" to accommodate the small venue. It was the first time members of the band had worked together, or even rehearsed together, in more than a year and a half.
By the spring of 2022, Blue Moon Big Band was out in the public again, first performing another dance at the Hollywood Ballroom in Silver Spring, MD and then an open-air concert in September to benefit the Hampstead (MD) Train Station renovation project. The concert being performed one day prior to the 21st anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S., Blue Moon Big Band closed out the event with a rousing rendition of Stars & Stripes Forever.
Stay tuned... more to come!