On a recent afternoon inside his office, Michael Bodolosky sits at his desk in the Pasquerilla Performing Arts Center on the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown campus. He tells the story of a man who made it a point to request Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” every time he attended a Jazz In Your Face Big Band performance,
After one performance, Bodolosky finally learned why. The man approached Bodolosky and told him that the song brought back memories from his time spent serving in World War II.
“I would like to think that every time we’re playing, we’re making someone happy,” he says. “Or making someone sad. You can never know what memories a piece of music – any kind of music – can trigger.”
As leader and founder of Jazz In Your Face Big Band, Bodolosky and his bandmates have succeeded in keeping Big Band Era music alive in Johnstown. There are two common denominators that all members of this band share: a passion for jazz and big band music and a strong interest in music education.
The idea for Jazz In Your Face Big Band came up at UPJ in the summer of 1998. At the time, Bodolosky, who was still teaching full-time in the Richland School District, was in the company of several musical colleagues during a Summer Music Institute taking place on campus. He remembers sitting inside the Student Union building with Larry McGiboney, Bryan Anton and Paul Walker.
“We were all reminiscing about playing in a big band and how we missed it,” Bodolosky says. “Then we got to talking about some of our students. We were all active in music education and looking for enhanced experiences for some of our accelerated students.”
Bodolosky walked away from that conversation feeling rather motivated. If there wasn’t a big band playing jazz in Johnstown, why not start one? Why not get together on a regular basis and play not only the music of jazz greats like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, but also originals? “I called a few guys and then things just came together,” Bodolosky says with a shrug and a smile.
That September, rehearsals began. Come January 1999, Bodolosky and his bandmates performed at a district jazz festival. During that performance, Dan Yoder, director of jazz studies at Penn State University, sat in with them. Afterward, Bodolosky asked Yoder what he thought of the band. His response: “That was . . . really in your face.”
On Dec. 31, 2018, Jazz In Your Face Big Band kicked off its 20th anniversary year by performing as part of “Celebration Johnstown,” an annual New Year’s Eve event that takes place in and around Central Park. They played at last month’s “Celebration Johnstown” event, too. It’s a great way to celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another, Bodolosky says. And here’s another cause for celebration: the band is still going strong. Out of the 18 members who were original to the band, 11 of those members still play in the band today.
The original band members who are still performing alongside Bodolosky are: Greg Maiocco, Dan Myers, Bruce Scileny, Ken Young, Matt Barabas, Matt Stombaugh, Paul Walker, Brian Stacey and John Pencola. Technical director Thomas Brubaker has also been with the band since its inception.
Current members of the band also include: Keith Young, Robert Scholl, Josh Hillard, Kevin Eisensmith, Josh Brumbaugh, Matt Brown, Scott Smith, Jerry Berry, Zachary Bodolosky, Joe Tirpak and Denise Canby.
(Bodolosky mentions that when Canby joined the band about five years ago, her vocals added a new dimension to their music and upped the ante when it comes to their setlists.)
Bassist Nathan Santos still commutes from Ohio on occasion to play. And in case you were wondering, Zachary is Bodolosky’s son; he’s followed in his father’s footsteps and has even branched out to form another Johnstown-based jazz band called Jazz Trip.
Former members of the band include: Gary Nastase, Tim Olson, Jason Kush, Walt McClelland, Lori Anton, Bryan Anton, Andy Sussick, Josh Surkosky, Billy Test and Nick Adams.
Jazz in Your Face Big Band has performed at festivals across the area, including AmeriServ Flood City Music Festival and St. Benedict Reunion Festival (you can catch them at St. Benedict’s again this July). They’ve even performed alongside Johnstown Symphony Orchestra.
“People have embraced us,” Bodolosky says. “Every time we play somewhere, we pick up new audience members who really like what we’re doing. We’re just glad to be keeping the sounds of the Big Band Era alive.”
The band also continues to serve its mission of promoting jazz education. Since its inception, Jazz In Your Face Big Band has presented clinics for students and performed side-by-side with local high school jazz ensembles.
“If we can help and inspire these students, then we’ve paid it forward,” Bodolosky says.
Jazz in Your Face Big Band has paid it forward in another way: by helping local musicians prepare for careers in the music field.
Here are three examples. Josh Brumbaugh, who started playing in Jazz In Your Face Big Band when he was in high school, now serves as Westmont Hilltop’s band director. Jason Kush, director of jazz studies at Slippery Rock University, performs with Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Kush, Bodolosky says, is “one of the first calls for events in Pittsburgh and travels all over the world doing saxophone symposiums.” And then there’s Billy Test, who joined the band when he was in 10th grade and now plays with the world-renowned, Grammy Award-winning WDR Big Band based in Cologne, Germany.
In his role as executive director of PPAC, Bodolosky seems to know exactly what to say about each and every production he helps to bring to the PPAC stage. But when he’s asked how much of an influence he thinks his band has made on former members who have since gone on to pursue impressive musical careers, he doesn’t know exactly what to say. “This band,” he says slowly, “is sort of like an incubator, or a launching pad, for some musicians. I’d like to think that they’d . . . maybe be in a different place if it weren’t for some of the experiences they had with us.”
For 20 years, members of Jazz in Your Face Big Band have shared their love of jazz, not only with each other, but also with students who want to learn, with senior citizens who want to remember, with anyone and everyone who appreciates the sounds of the past that need not be forgotten.