Swing band from Atlanta headlines Big Band Benefit Concert

By James Saxton
Times Correspondent

Playing band music may seem to some a mere extracurricular activity, but for one young man, it meant a reason to finish school and push beyond.

“Rashad started with me in 7th grade,” said third-year Henry County High School director of music Reed Lukat. “He could play only three notes on a tuba at first, but some of the other band members encouraged him, and he stuck with it.”

Vocalist Amy Holloway, right, sings with the Sentimental Journey Orchestra in the first annual Big Band Benefit Concert last February. This year’s concert is Saturday, Feb. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Henry County Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $15. Special photo

It was a pair of incidents in his junior year that made a difference in the young man’s life. “He came from a difficult background, but he stayed with us all through middle school and high school, learning his instrument and learning to march. I took my tuba students to A Tuba Christmas in Atlanta, an event when about 350 tuba and baritone players get together and play Christmas carols.”

“I saw, as we drove into town, his eyes light up. ‘I’ve never been to Atlanta,’ he told us, and his eyes were wide open as we drove into downtown. I looked at him during the performance, and his attention was glued to the orchestra and his eyes were full of wonder.”

Later that year, Lukat said, “we watched a marching band competition and Rashad saw Jacksonville State University compete. He told me later that’s the only reason he wanted to go to college – he wanted to march in that college’s band. And he did. And he played for the Spirit of Atlanta Drum and Bugle Corps in the summer. He ended up going to London with the Jacksonville State band and told me about that. Today Rashad has a good job and a college degree largely because band people were good to him and he fell in love with band and marching.”

“It’s all the Rashads and countless others, that’s why we do what we do to provide a band,” he said. “And funding the band, that’s why we do the annual big band concert.”

The second annual Big Band Benefit Concert, featuring the Sentimental Journey Orchestra and Chorus, on Saturday, Feb. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Henry County Performing Arts Center, 37 Lemon St. in McDonough, benefits the Henry County High School marching band. Tickets are $15 per person general admission and can be purchased from any HCHS band member or at the door.

“Our band is almost entirely self-funded,” Lukat said, “and though we do get a little help from the county, it’s not enough. So every ticket sold is helping us provide music in the lives of our students. Without this concert the kids couldn’t do any travel, marching shows, halftime shows. It pays for instruments and music – and the music costs $80 to $200 for one piece of music – and it pays for four concerts a year.”

“It’s about what the band program does for the students,” he said. “Marching band is a big deal to these kids. Research shows that music does great things for the brain. It just makes these kids good hard-working people, more than anything.

“And it keeps them in school. If you look at graduation rates, band is a huge help. While our high school overall has made advances in graduation rate, our band students are at 100 percent, that is, every Henry County senior who has come through band here the past three years has graduated, and the vast majority are at a college, the rest are in skilled trades. Band is just so beneficial to our county.”

At the beginning of the concert, the 17-piece HCHS Jazz Band will present the first set of songs. The Jazz Band includes five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, and four in the rhythm/percussion section. “This is a select group of young musicians who’ll put on a great set. They’re the best of HCHS, and I’d put them up against anyone in the county.”

The pros take the stage for the rest of the evening. Atlanta’s Sentimental Journey Orchestra, of which Lukat is a 13-year member as lead tenor flute, is a 19-piece professional orchestra in their 46th year. “We play all over the region, big shows. We play at the Fox Theatre. We’re primarily a dance band, playing swing and big band hits, old and new, from the 1930s to today – Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Count Basie, up to Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Buble. The vocalists will amaze you, too.”

Sentimental Journey Orchestra is a name well known nationally for quality swing music, Lukat said, and “we always put on a show that surprises people, who come up afterward and say, ‘I didn’t know I’d enjoy this kind of music so much.’ It is a very fun, amazing evening.”

Henry County High School Director of Music Reed Lukat, standing, plays his saxophone with the Sentimental Journey Orchestra in the first annual Big Band Benefit Concert last February. This year’s concert is Saturday, Feb. 18 at 6:30 p.m. at the Henry County Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $15. Special photo

One reason the band teacher, with 33 years of music experience, worked so hard to bring the orchestra to McDonough last year for the first annual concert was to show his students what could be ahead for them as they enter the working world.

“There are 19 members to SJO, of which only six are full-time regular musicians. The rest are bi-vocational – one is a retinal surgeon, there’s architects and carpenters and other tradesmen and a Georgia Tech professor and there are music teachers like me. So the kids get to see that there’s life for music after high school, even if you don’t major in music in college.”

“Plus,” Lukat said, drawing in a big breath and drawing close, “Henry County doesn’t get to see this kind of show very often. We’re growing in arts and drama and music, and that’s great. But, you’ll see, big band music is something you just need to witness live to appreciate, and, look, at just $15 a ticket, you’ll usually pay much more to see a professional orchestra like SJO. And the PAC is a great music venue, great acoustics. And it helps our kids, so it’s a win-win.”