The ministers of jazz 

Mark Buselli and Brent Wallarab are making Indy a Jazz destination

Mark Buselli and Brent Wallarab are making Indy a Jazz destination

The orchestra, in full complement
Reeds: Tom Meyer; Mike Stricklin; Ned Boyd; Rob Dixon Trumpets: Joey Tartell; Jeff Conrad; Mike Hackett; Mark Buselli T-bones: Brent Wallarab; Loy Hetrick; Jason Miller; Richard Dole French horn: Celeste Holler-Seraphinoff Piano: Luke Gillespie Bass: Jack Helsley Drums: Jesse Nolan

On any given Tuesday night, the largest concentration of musical talent in the state can be found at the Jazz Kitchen performing with the BWJO or, for the uninitiated, the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. Hailing originally from Bloomington, the orchestra features the Midwest’s best musicians performing new and classic works for big band.

The BWJO’s resounding success is directly attributable to the fortissimo enthusiasm and commitment of founders Mark Buselli and Brent Wallarab, two inspired musicians who aspire to make Indianapolis a jazz destination.

“We have a major vision for Indianapolis that’s going to make jazz accessible and relevant to everybody’s life,” Wallarab says.

Imagine, of all things, an Indianapolis Jazz Center, fully funded and open to the public. A pipedream? Not if the present BWJO success curve continues.

“It will be for everybody, whether a musician or not,” he says.

They even hope to offer college credit.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

For those who’ve not had the pleasure, let’s duck inside the Jazz Kitchen, the group’s Tuesday night hang for the past eight years.

Sizzling swing band

Though it’s a chilly fall night, the BWJO 10-piece swing band sizzles in the Kitchen’s twilit rouge and black lounge. Walking in the door, you are pulled in like a magnet by the bold brass and taut groove. The sound is full, with a dynamic range the room can barely contain.

Attendance tonight is low, barely three patrons per band member, but enthusiasm is high. Like sports fans cheering the home team, these folks avidly acknowledge their favorite players.

“Yeah, Mark!” “That’s right, Tom!” they shout, after a solo. The age range is split down the middle: 30 and under — 60 and over.

This is dancin’ music and a few couples brave the floor to swing to a rollicking “Tuxedo Junction.”

Duke Ellington’s lesser-known “Merry-Go-Round” comes next, a medium swinger from the 1930s. Leader Wallarab — neatly shorn, wearing his signature dress jacket, glasses glaring in the par-cans — trades his baton for his trombone and joins the section. Mid-tune he stands and, amply supported by pianist Luke Gillespie, bassist Jack Helsley and drummer Jonas Oglesbee, tears into a rousing and beautiful upper-register solo, wonderfully executed, and over all too soon. Jeff Conrad follows suit with effortless salvos of high, crisp trumpet notes.

Most of the selections played tonight are historically accurate renditions of original recordings, many painstakingly transcribed by Wallarab.

American love songs

For something more contemporary, let’s peek in at the BWJO Valentine’s Day concert last season at the Indiana History Center. (For more on this year’s Valentine’s Day concert, see our Infobox.) Great American love songs, tastefully given anything from a mild facelift to an extreme makeover, were performed before a capacity crowd.

A funk groove and some thoughtful accidentals gussy up “When I Fall In Love,” while Rogers and Hart’s “Where or When,” sung with feeling by Everett Greene, closes with intensity as plangent horn punches and mercurial dynamics build a rippling chaos through which the orchestra darts deftly this way, now that, like a school of fish.

And “L.O.V.E.” becomes ambiguous through the use of augmented and suspended harmonies, bass pedal-tones and the use of mallets. The simple melody, as interpreted by vocalist Cynthia Layne, dances lithely over the solemn, beautiful orchestration.

But, let’s back up even farther.

The delights of 501(c)(3)

Four years ago the BWJO made the transition from “recreational” big band to 501(c)(3) non-profit arts organization, complete with a board of directors and a three-pronged mission.

“That’s when we crystallized what the organization could be,” says trumpeter Jeff Conrad, who played a key role.

Primary to the mission is the production of new works for jazz orchestra, which keeps the creative spirit of jazz alive. Rearrangements from the Valentine’s Day concert qualify here, as do completely original pieces.

“We are offering a unique voice for Indianapolis,” Brent Wallarab says.

A second priority is the performance of classic big band music, from Duke Ellington to Gil Evans.

“While there are probably 25 big band tunes that get played over and over, there’s another 2,000, 10 times better, that never get played,” Wallarab says.

Finally, there’s education. “We are dead serious about educating people of all ages about American music, about jazz and creativity, about the beauty and art of music, and about Indiana’s unique jazz heritage,” he says.

Filling such a tall order has made it necessary to divvy the load. Brent Wallarab is now the artistic director, doing most of the writing, arranging and conducting, while Mark Buselli, who also writes, is the educational director.

For the kids

While simply hearing live music performed with precision and passion is edifying, pre-show lectures are now part of the BWJO’s annual four-concert series at the Indiana History Center.

Primary though is Buselli’s creation of several interactive school programs. Combining live performance with discussion, these programs will reach over 5,000 Indianapolis students this year.

A program called “The Story of Jazz” introduces kindergartners through fifth-graders to basic elements of the idiom.

A multi-media “Story of Jazz” for elementary schoolers focuses on Indiana, with pictures of such legends as Wes Montgomery, J.J. Johnson and Cole Porter shown on screens while their music is performed live.

Finally, “How America Learned to Swing,” for kindergarten through 12th-grade audiences, chronicles the music and dance of the 1930s and ’40s, and features live dancers.

Ten of 20 yearly performances target the city’s public schools.

“IPS funding has been cut,” Wallarab says. “There’s no music in a lot of these schools, so we make it a priority to get to these underprivileged students first.”

Mark Buselli also heads the Indiana High School All-Star Jazz Ensemble, which features the state’s top talent in four annual concerts. And last year he started a Side-by-Side jazz mentorship program in which, like the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, a two-day workshop culminates in an integrated 36-member (18 professionals, 18 students) evening performance.

“The history of jazz is about 100 years old,” Wallarab says. “It’s always been about passing it on from one generation to the next.”

Compensating for budget cuts

On a raw, windy morning at Stephen Foster school 67, nearly 300 kids, kindergarten through eighth grade, file quietly into the gym and sit cross-legged on its white-tiled floor. Before them, on the old proscenium stage, a 10-piece band is poised for performance, like some large machine awaiting plug-in.

After a brief introduction by the school’s music teacher, the machine springs to life, and the room swells with sound. From baritone sax to lead trumpet, the tight, bright tones, which become “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” are beautiful and powerful and the kids are spellbound.

“We’re here to demonstrate to you the music of the 1930s and ’40s — swing music,” says an impassioned Buselli, as applause fades.

“How many of you play an instrument,” he asks, and nearly 30 hands jut into the air. “Beautiful!”

A casualty of budget cuts, Stephen Foster hasn’t had a music program for 15 years, says its principal Sharon Heathcock. But this year a VH1 grant helped the school buy instruments and reinstate its program.

Throughout the nearly hour-long convocation, students learn basic jazz fundamentals, some history and a few dance steps. A rhythmic exercise has them keeping time with all four limbs, like a drummer, after which they’re shown how the bass walks, how the piano chords and how the horns work together in sections.

Toward the end, as the band strikes up a brisk Jimmy Lunceford number, swing dancers J. Platter, in baggy pants and saddle shoes, and Emily Jessup, in a green vintage frock and bobbed hair, come in bouncing and spinning within inches of the students. The old gymnasium, the authentic, frenetic footwork and the swinging music poignantly evoke a bygone era.

Mark Buselli: Eureka Moments

A casual bearing and genial manner belie the core intensity of father and family man Buselli, 47, who was born and raised along with two sisters in Upstate New York.

At age 7 he began playing the French horn. That same year, his father died.

“When somebody dies in your family it’s not like, ‘OK, next.’ Years go on where you’re still thinking about it,” he says.

Ineffable emotions got expressed through his music, an outlet his mother, a once promising vocalist, fully supported.

A neighbor played the trumpet, so Buselli decided to switch to that instrument.

Not until middle school, however, at a convocation given by legendary jazzman Slam Stewart, did he perceive a deeper calling.

"Here we were, a bunch of eighth-graders throwing spit-balls around,” he recalls. “All of a sudden this guy’s in there singing with his bass. Everyone was like, wow! That’s when it started.”

Creating these eureka moments are what the BWJO is all about.

“It’s important to reach kids young, because there’s so many things for kids to do these days to get off track with their lives,” Buselli says.

After a false start studying engineering at a state university, Buselli followed a friend to Berklee School of Music, where he received a bachelor’s degree. Then he took to the road.

“I did big band gigs, rock ’n’ roll gigs, church stuff, anything.”

In 1987, Buselli enrolled at Arizona State to study computer programming, only to find most of his time taken up with practicing. So he dropped out and spent two years playing a cruise ship on which he met his future wife, Andrea, employed as a dancer. She was headed to Indiana University, so he followed and received an MM in jazz studies from there in 1996.

Brent Wallarab: Fate Steps In

Wallarab, 42, also a father, began life in northeast Ohio.

Starting piano lessons in kindergarten, in imitation of his sister, he switched to trombone in fourth grade. Three years later he moved with his family to Sparta, Ill., and, unfortunately, into a musically impoverished school system.

Things were so bad he wanted to quit playing. Then fate stepped in.

Bored one afternoon while home sick from school, he went rummaging in the basement and found a box of his dad’s old jazz records. Intrigued by photographs of trumpet and trombone players on some of the covers, he decided to play the records, starting with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five.

“‘OK,’ I thought, ‘I guess maybe there’s going to be some trombone on this,’” he recalls. And …

“It was one of those life-changing moments. Once I heard what these trumpets and trombones could do, I literally went from ‘can’t wait to quit trombone’ to, 45-minutes later, knowing that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

He went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in music from Southern Illinois University and, in 1987, entered the graduate jazz studies program at IU headed by Dr. David Baker. Impressed by his talent and ambition, Baker quickly placed him in the first band and made him his teaching assistant.

Soon Wallarab was transcribing and arranging for that band, and in five years had received his MM and had started on his doctorate.

A 1992 concert of Ellington material put together by Baker for the new Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, which he helped create, opened the door for Wallarab to become the orchestra’s lead trombonist and transcriber. It was then but a short step to his full-time position in Washington, D.C., as the museum’s specialist in jazz, a job entailing the transcription, research and restoration of classic American jazz music.

“It was like being paid to study Duke Ellington or Gil Evans,” he says. Fate again intervened in 1994 when Wallarab, at Baker’s request, returned to IU to teach for a semester. A talented trumpeter also happened to be there.

“It was like that momentous time I found those records,” he says. “If I hadn’t returned to Bloomington just then, I wouldn’t have met Mark.”

Unique instrumentation

The two quickly became kindred spirits, and formed a Sunday night rehearsal band to perform new music.

At semester’s end, Wallarab faced a dilemma. Should he remain in Bloomington and forfeit his museum job? Or return to D.C. and abandon this exciting new project? Ultimately, he was able to do his museum work from Bloomington. He still works for the Smithsonian, which gives him privileged access to the museum’s music library.

The Buselli-Wallarab instrumentation was unique from the beginning.

“We didn’t want a big, heavy, Kenton-style band,” Wallarab says. “A slightly smaller big band could swing more like a combo.”

Thus, the full-scale Jazz Orchestra has four saxes, rather than five — most of which double on other reeds. Four trumpets, four ’bones, French horn and rhythm section complete the lineup.

“French horn gives the band that Gil Evans-Claude Thornhill thing we love,” he says.

An anticipated move to Indianapolis became reality in 1997 when the band picked up a steady Tuesday at the Jazz Kitchen.

Although some local musicians were initially resentful about the band’s move here, perhaps fearing increased competition for gigs, that has changed.

“We’ve not taken work away from anybody,” Wallarab says. “It’s just the opposite. We’ve actually created.”

The Tuesday night get-together at the Kitchen, for instance — a typically off night for clubs. But that gathering, 52 nights a year, come rain or come shine, has made the difference.

“We’re a band,” he says. “We’re a working band. We’re not a pickup group that gets together maybe 10 to 15 times a year.”

Whether it’s the 10-piece swing band or the 16-piece jazz orchestra, the Kitchen’s great for cookin’ up new recipes.

“It’s a place where we can just go for it, see what works and what doesn’t,” he says.

The Kitchen’s counterpart is the Indiana History Center, where the BWJO has presented formal concerts since 2001.

Making the sacrifice

Although the BWJO is now non-profit, and has the backing to pay professional wages for many of its events, it remains an avocation for its members who must still make sacrifices.

“We’re past the stage where we’re so destitute that, well, it’s not even worth it,” five-year member Jack Helsley says. “Yet, we’re not at a level where we can comfortably do all the things we want to do.”

For Buselli, recently voted Teacher of the Year at Butler University’s music school where he heads its jazz studies program, Tuesdays begin early.

“I’m up at 7, whether I want to be or not,” he says. “I teach all day, so when I get to the Jazz Kitchen some nights I’m dog-tired. I’m sitting there playing, and I wish I could play better, but my body is physically beat.”

Wallarab, up by 9, spends his mornings corresponding with members of the board and orchestra, and preparing lectures for the two days a week he teaches at IU. And, of course, there’s always some arranging to do.

“My last class ends at 2:30 on Tuesday, so I usually get to the Kitchen about 5,” he says. “When Mark gets there after class, we set up the band, which we’ve been doing for eight years. And yet, it’s exhausting. It’s Tuesday, after Tuesday, after … And you’re getting there early, you’re setting up, is this cord working? Is this stand-light burned out? And you’re wondering, will there be seven people here tonight or 75 people? Will we get to hand the guys $10 or $35?

“Sometimes I just don’t want to be there. But I realize we have to be. It’s why we’ve been able to accomplish so much.

“Then there are the musicians. They have families, they have kids, they have struggles. You never know if they’re going to show up. And yet they do. They show up whether they want to be there or not, because they’re committed, like us. They believe in it.

“So we’re there and we’re thinking, ‘We don’t want to be here’ … and then the music starts, and the band sounds incredible, and suddenly it’s, thank God for this!”


In 1999, the BWJO released its first CD, Happenstance, which heralded the rise of a new, schooled, ambitious and creative jazz orchestra. The writing and arranging, shared almost equally between the two leaders, is fresh, vibrant and harmonically rich, and the musical execution, overall, formidable. The all-star lineup includes two of Indy’s late musical heroes, trumpeter Larry Wiseman and reed-man Chuck Carter, as well as sax-men Frank Glover and Dennis Riggins, and bassist John Huber.

The second BWJO album to date, Heart & Soul, The Music of Hoagy Carmichael, was released in 2003.

Arranged solely by Wallarab, Heart & Soul’s energy spectrum runs from an Afro-Cuban, can’t-sit-still “Jubilee,” featuring a crackling trumpet solo by Buselli, to a plangent “Rockin’ Chair,” sung reverently by Greene. Intense, inventive orchestrations and nearly flawless performances raise the bar above even that set by Happenstance.

Particularly fun is “Washboard Blues,” which opens with short Dixie lines yawning in soliloquy and polyphony until a haunting Latin groove, splashed with some playful dissonance, begins to tick beneath a disjointed head. Once through, a full-band hit leads to some very cool in-the-pocket swing.

Due for release is an original three-movement Gennette Suite, a tribute to Gennette Records, the unlikely Richmond, Ind., studio in which first recordings of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbeck, Jelly Roll Morton, et al were captured.

Also in the can is a premiere recording of music by David Baker.

Exposure the name of the game

On a live note, worthy past performances include the Gil Evans/Miles Davis collaboration of Porgy and Bess, and Ellington’s Nutcracker, which in three years has become a BWJO holiday tradition.

A regular feature at the Indy Jazz Fest, last August the BWJO performed their first annual Prairie Pops Big Band concert, which exposed them to 6,000 people.

Exposure, according to the leaders, is the name of the game. They’re certain that success is simply a matter of acquainting the public with the BWJO product. Whether or not they succeed speaks to the health of the artform in general.

“American musical taste is not really toward classical or jazz,” Conrad says. “Most people listen to whatever is on TV, whatever is on the radio.”

Jazz Kitchen owner David Allee says, “These days you don’t see the 20- to 30-year-old jazz musicians trying to get their craft figured out.” Most, he says, are 45 and older.

It’s a catch 22 — jazz, big band or otherwise depends for its survival on the support of a public which, if not exposed to the music, can’t know the rare gem it may be losing. So the stakes are high for bands like the BWJO, which labor to acculturate their public, and spread the gospel of jazz.

“Jazz education is much more than teaching skills and history,” Wallarab says. “It’s about building the next jazz audience.”

Dreaming big

Which takes us back to the proposed Jazz Center, ideally to be located on Indiana Avenue, that spiritual hub where the music of the Hamptons, the Hubbards and the Montgomerys was first preached.

The center will contain a library, an auditorium, studios, classrooms and offices, and will be a place to learn both formally and informally.

“We want to create a place where students can come and hang out,” Buselli says. “Instead of playing video games, they can check out musical instruments and maybe jam, or watch some history movies.”

Programs for preschoolers to retirees will be available seven days a week, with special opportunities for IPS kids. Seventeen full-time, world-class musicians will give lessons, run combos and teach classes. To help provide solid employment for these musicians, a 40-week concert series, similar to the ISO, is proposed.

The basic concept isn’t new — many cities, including Chicago, Dallas and Columbus, have full-time, fully-staffed jazz orchestras — but the depth of the outreach programs and the creation of new music will set this one apart.

“What we’re trying to do is along the lines of New York’s Lincoln Center,” Wallarab says. “We have absolutely everything in place to do this. It’s just a matter of getting the money.”

Annual salaries, benefits and overhead for the center are estimated at $4 million, manageable compared to say the ISO’s roughly $25 million annual operating budget. Then there’s the cost of the building.

Indianapolis recently saw completion of the new Herron School of Art, and incredible renovations at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and Eiteljorg museums. So, why not a Jazz Center?

Build it … they’ll come

“It will be a daunting task,” says IU’s David Baker. “I can’t remember a time when there was a big band that really was self-sustaining, so I don’t know how realistic it is. But these are people I believe in, so I would say this — if there was anybody could do it, I would bet on Mark and Brent.”

Like the Kevin Costner character in Field of Dreams, the partners believe that if they build the center, people will come.

“It’s absolutely doable,” Wallarab says. “This city has proven it’s supportive of things of worth and this could be an internationally recognized organization that would set the world standard. I’m ready to talk to anyone who’ll listen.”

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