No season quite brings on nostalgia like Christmas, as people remember the sights, events and, most importantly for the Cariboo Gold Dance Band, the sounds of their childhood.
A bona fide Williams Lake institution, for close to 40 years now the Cariboo Gold Dance Band have been delight the citizens of Williams Lake and beyond with the jazzy and swinging tunes of the Big Band Era, a genre of music itself that is now close to 100 years old.
Popular in the Roaring Twenties, the Dirty Thirties and during the Second World War this loud bombastic genre was meant for one thing: dancing.
While their heyday in the popular zeitgeist may well have passed, the excitement and energy of big bands are kept alive around the world by groups like the Cariboo Gold Dance Band.
The Tribune sat down with three of the original founding members of the group at the start of the holiday season to reflect on their legacy and ongoing work in both the community and beyond. For these seasoned musicians, the journey has almost been as much fun as the music itself.
Those who know the dance band, or indeed the music scene in general in the lakecity, will know longtime trumpet player Murray Hoffman, originally from Vancouver, who has been with the band since its very first rehearsal in a friend’s dining room in 1983. Barring a few sabbaticals, Hoffman has been with the band ever since as it fills a little niche of creativity for him personally. As a teacher, Hoffman said having a stress reliever like music was really valuable as it gave him an opportunity to do something fun while connecting with fellow adults.
Mike Barbour meanwhile began his musical career at the age of eight playing the clarinet in Vernon, close to 66 years ago. Up until the founding of the band, Barbour played the clarinet but once the band started up he switched over to the tenor saxophone.
The soft spoken and quiet drummer, John Christoffersen from West Vancouver, who prefers to stay in the back and lay down the beat, has been drumming for the band for almost 20 years straight. Before he said that he’d do gigs with them off and on depending on availability and was also a founding member of the Williams Lake Community Band with Barbour. Christoffersen, like many of his fellow band members, learned his craft through school band programs which he said speaks to the strength of these programs, as they’re all 50 years out of school and still using what they learned.
“What’s nice about the band is, we can disagree in terms of politics or any other issue but when you sit down and play, I only judge them on their music,” Christoffersen said.
All of them moved to Williams Lake for work in the mid-70s to mid-80s and each fell in love with the community for their own reasons and stayed on. Hoffman joked he didn’t even know where Williams Lake was at the time he came up to work for two years that turned into close to four decades
Barbour recalls discussing starting a big band over a couple of beers after a Williams Lake Community Band practice, itself started at the end of the 70s. Hoffman said the real instigating event that made them form the dance band was when a member of the Williams Lake Stampede Association approached them after a Christmas concert and asked if they could play music for 1983 Stampede Queen Ball. As a bunch of young mid-20-year-olds, Hoffman said they all agreed they could do it no problem and would be able to easily memorize a bunch of songs, which turned out to be wrong.
“I don’t think there was a single person, in that original band, who had ever played jazz or big band music,” Barbour said. “I’d like to believe we’re a little better now than we were back then.”
“Like Mike said we weren’t really raised on a lot of Swing. It was kind of our parents’ music but it is such a happy music to play, it just gets your toes tapping and gets your fingers snapping,” Christoffersen said.
They were whipped into shape by Jeff Dolman, a music teacher who served as the band’s first leader and alto-sax player who put the band on the road to success. Hoffman said he was really good and had a lot of experience from playing semi-professionally during university.
One of the first things the band did to prepare for playing together was purchase a book which had around 10 songs in it, Hoffman said, that were all professional arrangements, some of which they still play to this day. Barbour added that big bands tend to play songs with multiple music charts per piece, per instrument all woven together by a mix of timing and improvisation. At the time some of them cost as much as $100 a chart, Barbour said, and today they have around 480 charts, all bought with revenue generated by the band’s performances.
For that Stampede Queen Ball, however, the band had just six songs memorized that Hoffman said they could actually play all the way through. He recalls how they showed up in their formal bow ties to play their songs and surprisingly enough, they were a hit.
“They said don’t stop now and we’re going well we don’t know any more songs, sorry. They said well then play them again and John Stewart, who was our drummer back then, counted us in and we started on our first one and started again,” Hoffman said.
After that night they realized the band had potential and the group resolved to stick together and learn new songs so they could play a full set of songs next time. This group of teachers, lawyers, doctors, dentists, mill workers and businessmen eventually settled on the name the Cariboo Gold Dance Band, even if one or two members thought it sounded like a type of beer.
Over the next three decades, the Cariboo Gold Dance Band would go on to play hundreds of events, often out of town, and helped launch many fundraisers. While it’d be nice to play more in Williams Lake from time to time, Hoffman said they enjoy putting on their own concerts every year for the community.
One of their frequent stops has been Kamloops where they’ve collaborated with Kamloops’ own Kamloops Big Band and several other big bands from across western Canada for the Big Band Spectacular and also provided music for a dance school’s graduation ceremony at Colombo Lodge.
A standout moment for the band, even to this day, Hoffman said is their 1988 trip to Lake Tahoe on the border of Nevada and California where they played the Biltmore Hotel for a week. At the time a lakecity local by the name of Dennis Murray was offering bus tours to the states and one of their band members was dating him. The two hatched this “great idea” Hoffman said that the band should go down and play in the states.
At the time they couldn’t get green cards, Hoffman said, so rather than get paid formally for it they received free room, board and ski passes.
“So we took our bus tour down, it took two days to get there, and we skied, played every night and we just had a blast,” Hoffman said. “Fortunately we were all a lot younger then so we could do it.”
Hoffman and the others laughed as they recalled how they were welcomed as the ‘Moose Band’ rather than the Cariboo Gold Dance Band. Barbour added that several groups of local professional singers performed with them over that week as “singers love to sing with a big band.”
The best story Christoffersen has is that of a gig the band did up in Prince George. They had ended a set with Glenn Miller’s classic In the Mood and following the break, a fella came up to them. Christoffersen recalls there just being tears streaming down his cheeks as the man told them how he’d been a member of the tank core in Belgium, during the Second World War, and how he remembered the day Glenn Miller’s plane went down in 1944.
“You kind of take people back and we’ve had people now, when we play dances, hobble up and they say thank you, you took me back to my youth or thank you, you made me happy tonight,” Christoffersen said.
Be it folks reliving their youth or young people rediscovering the past, all agreed they love when people get up and dance as they play no matter their skill or ability. Christoffersen said many of them also enjoy the inherent challenge of playing big band music due to the unique challenges associated with playing it. The scales read differently than most other music, he said, and aren’t meant to be played as written, as each musician must match his tempo to the others in an ever-evolving organic fashion.
“When it’s right, it is a natural high. We can come out of a dance and I’m not down for two or three hours,” Christoffersen said.
In their close to 36 years of performing, the three said they’ve had over 40 band members come and go from the usually 15-strong ensemble. It’s a constant evolution, Hoffman said, which is part of what makes things exciting.
Over the years both Christoffersen and Hoffman said the band has done its best to give back to the school system that gave them the skills they have today. To this day, they’ll assist with camps and programs that bring band students together to hone their craft or take part in school musicals and productions, though it’s been some years since the latter has happened in the lakecity.
Barbour added that anyone interested in hiring or checking the band out can do so via their Facebook page Cariboo Gold Dance Band where they have a few dozen sample videos of their performances. Anyone interested in joining the Cariboo Gold Dance band is encouraged by Hoffman to join the Williams Lake Community Band first to get a sense of what’s required.
The band is scheduled to perform next this holiday season on Saturday, Dec. 14 at Cariboo Place and Monday, Dec. 16 at Retirement Concepts. The band practices Monday nights at 7 p.m. at the Seniors Activity Centre, Barbour said.
Hoffman said that at Christmas time they most enjoying playing songs from Frank Sinatra to Mariah Carey and everything in between.
“The way people light up when they recognize a song and start to sing along —it’s very cool,” Hoffman said.