Bohemian Caverns, Brian Settles of Thad Wilson Big Band
Bohemian Caverns, Brian Settles of Thad Wilson Big Band

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Former Thad Wilson Big Band saxophonist Brian Settles

The Thad Wilson Big Band was on the bill last Thursday night at HR-57—but that’s not what took the stage. Instead, trumpeter Wilson led a quintet (with tenor sax, piano, bass, and drums) through Miles Davis’ score for the 1957 film Elevator to the Gallows, which showed as the band played. The change wasn’t inappropriate, since Davis had used the same instrumentation in the film…but why not the big band, as advertised?

“The band basically mutinied on me,” Wilson explains during a set break. “So I shut it down.” This was a surprising bit of news from an ensemble that has been a staple of the Washington scene since January 1998. It had become something of a required course for D.C. jazz musicians—most of the scene’s regulars have passed through its ranks—and was, one member remarked, “the only game in town.”

“The bottom line? Money fucks up everything,” Wilson says. “The gigs just weren’t there, and so the money wasn’t there. But I also felt like the discipline wasn’t there with a lot of people. They didn’t get the hard work and rehearsals that come with a big band, and they weren’t into the ensemble work either. It was more an attitude of ‘Hey! I can solo in this band!’”

“We didn’t quit because of the money,” says Brad Linde, the band’s former baritone saxophonist. “It was because the time and effort wasn’t worth the musical direction. The band has potential with a book of originals, but Thad was playing the same 10 tunes every week.”

Linde refers to the band’s engagement at Bohemian Caverns, where it had played every Monday night for nearly two years. Economic realities forced the venerable U Street NW jazz club to end the arrangement in August.

“With a couple of exceptions, the operation was in the red every week,” says Omrao Brown, the Caverns’ co-owner and booker. “There’d be 12 people on the bandstand and five in the audience. The money we were paying them was coming out of our pocket. It just didn’t make any sense to continue.” Brown did offer the band a once-a-month slot, but when they played elsewhere to make up for the loss, cracks began to show.

“The last couple of gigs outside of the Caverns put a lot of us over the edge,” says Linde. “Thad was beginning to be too much to deal with: late starts, same repertoire over and over, not getting paid.” In particular, Linde and others (who didn’t wish to be quoted) point to an April performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, for which they have still not been paid.

Pianist Amy Bormet recalls the gig that sent her packing, at Bangkok Blues in Falls Church. “Everybody was questioning everybody else: ‘Are we getting paid?’ Nobody knew, and Thad wasn’t saying anything,” she says. “We finally got paid, like, 20 bucks apiece. People were there because they wanted to be in a big band, not to make millions off of it, but there wasn’t a lot of openness or honesty going on. And irritation had just built up to a maximum after a summer of playing to nobody showing up.”

Within a week, Bormet, drummer C.V. Dashiell, and trumpeter Mark Chuvala all left the band.

The final straw came Sept. 14, when the band returned to Bohemian Caverns for a live broadcast on WPFW. That night, alto saxophonist John Kocur, one of the band’s star soloists, announced that he was quitting. “With John leaving I figured it was time to go,” Linde says. “We all sort of left with that last Bohemian Caverns gig.”

Kocur, however, doesn’t cite the internal conflicts in his decision. “It becomes difficult as a jazz musician to compound doing something for a living, with doing something for the love of the art,” he says. “Sometimes you have to make some choices about the amount of time you’re putting into things. I just got married; I’m teaching music now at NOVA; and I’m trying to make things happen for my own quartet. I was just so busy.”

“Thad is an eccentric cat,” says trombonist Reginald Cyntje. “But he knows what he’s doing in this business. These musicians who are complaining, they didn’t ask advice from their elders in the music about working in a big band in D.C. They didn’t take the initiative to promote their own performances, to get people into the clubs to come see them. They just complained about things on Facebook.”

Wilson acknowledges he never paid the band for the Kennedy Center, but he says he’d paid them for a previous gig out of his own pocket and asked them to wait a few days for him to deposit the funds. Instead, he says, “About 10 checks bounced because people wanted to cash them right away. Now, the Kennedy Center was a $500 gig, and nearly all of that went just to covering the bounced checks from the last gig.” (Several members of the group confirmed this sequence of events.)

Of the repertoire, Wilson explains, “I could never get rehearsals to come together, because people were never able or willing to make it to them. Why introduce new tunes into the repertoire if we’re never going to rehearse them?” (Linde takes the opposite tack: He never came to rehearsal because there was never anything new to rehearse.)

“The part that cats are having a hard time understanding is that I don’t want any more from them than they’re willing to give—but at the same time, just showing up for the gig and saying, ‘Hey, where’s my money,’ is not enough,” he says. “It’s an issue of maturity: understanding what’s necessary and required to keep things moving.”

In the meantime, his former band members can now establish themselves on the scene through other means. Linde already leads his own nonet, currently playing reworkings of Thelonious Monk’s and Miles Davis’ repertoires.

Bormet plays with several groups, including Kocur’s, and is earning a master’s degree in music from Howard University. Other members, particularly Cyntje and tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, are having no trouble finding work.

Wilson says he intends to rebuild the band from the ground up. “I will always be doing something with the big band configuration,” he says.

He also promises to remain active in smaller group configurations, and has even found a steady gig once again: He announced from the stage last Thursday that Movie Night—playing a film score (often his own) as that film screens—will now be a monthly feature at HR-57. Given the opportunity, he says, he hopes to find opportunities to work with many of his old bandmates again.

Photograph by Darrow Montgomery /file