August 3, 2009

McAuliffe's offers rare big band sound

The Parkside Reunion Band at McAuliffe's Pub, 3700 Meachem Road, in Racine.

Step into McAuliffe's Pub on the right Tuesday night and you'll be blown away. You'd think it'd be from the sheer volume of the 18-piece big band that packs itself onto the pub's stage with trumpets, trombones, saxophones, drums, a piano and a bass. But it's a different experience all together.

The huge band's sound is warm and inviting. The players - many with decades of experience - replace the volume of typical bar music with a subtle skill that doesn't need to hide behind amps and distortion. It's a great sound that leaves people nodding along, not yelling to get a friend's attention two-feet away.

The group is the Parkside Reunion Band and its performances on the first and third Tuesdays of the month are technically rehearsals. The group simply gets together and plays off sheet music. Members of the band swap in and out, and the band ranges in size depending on who's available that week.

McAuliffe's has hosted a big band for 11 years dating back to the John Bunic Band. Bar owner JJ McAuliffe said his connection to big bands is tied to his Dad, who loved the music. McAuliffe himself is a huge music fan, and he takes pride in being one of the few clubs in the country that hosts regular big band jazz shows. (Even more unusual, the shows are free.)

McAuliffe tells a story about Chris Byrne, formerly of the Irish-rock group "Black 47," visiting Racine and seeing the big band play. Byrne told McAuliffe: "I'm from Brooklyn, and I've never seen something like this. We don't even have something like this in New York."

McAuliffe's offers an ideal setting for the big band, said band leader Jack Plovanich. The group landed at McAuliffe's after playing at the former Brewmaster's South in Kenosha for a number of years. When Brewmaster's closed, McAuliffe's was able to take in the band.

"It's a great find for us," Plovanich said. "I hope we can play here forever."

Plovanich started playing big band music in 1976 to maintain his sanity.

At the time he was playing showtunes at Great America (then owned by Marriott) as part of the amusement park's concert band. The performances got a bit repetitive.

"We played the same 45-minute show 400 times one summer," Plovanich said. "We had to play big band charts just to get the show tunes out of your head."

He added he still plays with some of the guys he met in a big band over 30 years ago. "I've been playing gigs with some of these guys since the 1970s, which is a beautiful thing."

Plovanich credited UW-Parkside's Tim Bell for stocking the big band with talented musicians. Bell's background includes time at North Texas University, which is known as one of the great jazz universities in the world, he said. Bell's background gives the Parkside Reunion Band direct lineage to some of the great jazz musicians and arrangers of all time. It also means you could hear tunes at McAuliffe's that have never been played before by any big band in the world.

The history of big bands dates back to the 1930s and '40s when people wanted to dance, but there were no amplifiers. Clubs started hiring large bands for the crowds, and a new music form was created. Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich were stars of the time.

The Parkside Reunion Big Band has two alto saxes, two tenor saxes, a baritone sax, four trumpets, four trombones and a piano, bass and drums. Most, but not all, members of the group have a connection to UW-Parkside's nationally regarded jazz program (hence the band name).

"There are some pretty heavy-hitters in the band," said Plovanich, who himself played with music greats like the Temptations and the Four Tops.

A personal job for Plovanich is playing with his daughter, Katie Plovanich, who is a musician and music teacher.

"One of the joys of my life has been watching her grow up to be the musician and educator she's become," Plovanich said.

The Parkside Reunion Band is playing at McAuliffe's this Tuesday night at 8 p.m. The big band plays at McAuliffe's the first and third Tuesdays of every month. Admission is free.


  1. Really great feature story, Racine Post. It is a shame that big band music isn't more popular, and I appreciate your bringing the Reunion band's rehearsals to the community's attention. Thanks!

  2. Big Band Fan8/04/2009 11:05 AM

    Kay Kaiser and Ish Kabibble are smiling somewhere today.


  3. As a former member of both the UW-Parkside Jazz Band and the John Bunic Big Band, I wish I lived close enough to come hear the group - and sit in!