The Tomkats Jazz Orchestra performs weekly at The Blue Parrott Bar and Grill in St. Pete Beach. The group plays every Monday night, rain or shine.
ST. PETE BEACH – An inquiry at The Blue Parrott Bar and Grill about when the Tomkats Jazz Orchestra is playing always gets the same response.
“Every Monday night, seven o’clock, rain or shine.”
It has been that way for the past eight years. The big band never misses a Monday night.
The band’s gig at The Blue Parrott, 85 Corey Circle, is just the latest since the band was founded in 1984 by two musicians who felt the area needed a band that could play the old standards. For many years the band played at the Bilmar Beach Resort in Treasure Island. Then it hopped around for a bit before settling at the Blue Parrott.
Music Director Greg Dunn, 58, has been with the band since the beginning. He’s a trumpet player and was one of the early recruits of the founders. He’s worked hard at keeping the tradition going.
“I never thought of this going for 30 years, how wonderful it has been,” he said.
The band has 18 pieces including the vocalists. It is a throwback to the big band days of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman. Dunn says his group knows that interacting with the audience is as important as the music they play.
“We try not to be strangers during intermission,” he said. “While some musicians are shy about talking to people, most of us try to talk to the audience and find out who they are. Then you have a connection and everybody knows us by name. I’m the head cheerleader.”
Regular attendees on Monday night know they will be hearing something new every week. What they might not know is the musicians may be hearing it for the first time themselves. Dunn says the musicians are seeing the music for the first time when they sit down to play. They use Mondays as a rehearsal night. Reading is crucial for anyone who wants to play in the band. Beyond that, Dunn says they are all having a good time.
“We call this a ‘kicks’ band because everybody gets a kick out of playing,” he said. “We try to let everybody know they are appreciated and every band member can write for the band if they want to. Everybody has good ideas and that’s how we’ve managed to keep everybody happy.”
Being happy is important to Dunn, he says, and to the group as a whole.
“Everybody is required to be happy, you can’t have unhappy, angry guys,” he said. “Friendships are more important than the artistry. At the end of several hours we are all going to go home friends.”
The newest member of the band is saxophonist Kenny Anderson. He recently moved back to Dunedin to be near to his mother who needed help. His musical career included touring with Tom Jones. He likes what he sees with the Tomkats.
“They’ve been keeping me busy,” he said. “I like this very much.”
Like others in the group, Anderson plays in church on Sundays. There is never a day off.
“A day off is trouble to me,” he said. “Just last night I was in West Palm Beach playing with a Steely Dan tribute band, now tonight here I am.”
Just as enthusiastic about the Tomkats is Joe Saunders. He’s been around a lot longer than Anderson. He joined the group 13 years ago when they still played at the Bilmar.
He attributes the band’s success to the places they have played in.
“We’ve been fortunate to have these long running gigs,” he said. “Being able to play week after week, year after year gives the band the opportunity to get really tight. We’re able to develop chemistry and inspire each other as we play together.”
Saunders, who was a music major in college and is now a trial lawyer, says playing in the band is important to his state of mind.
“Music is still a love of mine,” he said. “This is an opportunity to explore the musical side of my brain.”
Better than all that, however, is the camaraderie Saunders feels exists among the band members and the audience.
“I’d say we’re family, the band is like a family and some of our long-time fans are family too,” he said. “We have fans who have been coming every week for over a decade. That’s what keeps us going, without them we wouldn’t have had this long run.”
Among those fans are Dave and Lynne Johnson of St. Petersburg. They discovered the band soon after they moved from Michigan.
“We’ve been coming here for three years,” said Dave. “We met a couple who had been coming here; we came with them one night and fell in love with the band. We’ll never miss a Monday unless we’re sick or on vacation.”
“It is great music,” said Lynne. “There is great people watching and great dancing. It is all good.”
One of the regulars who makes for great people watching is Brady Johnson. During the day he is known as the barbecue man. He cooks mostly at the Saturday Morning Market in St. Pete.
Monday nights he puts on his finery, including his signature fedora and dances the night away. He’s a tall man who can’t be missed among the crowd.
“I’ve been coming here for seven years,” he said. “I love dancing and I love dance music.”
He says he’s never been turned down. “Swing dancers don’t ever turn you down, we dance with everybody.”
Arthur Ozark and his friend Jody Loeffler regularly drive from New Port Richey to hear the band on Monday night. Ozark says they rank up there with some of the best.
“I’m 84 years old and I’ve been listening to big bands for 70 years,” he said. “I can remember hearing Johnny Mathis in Chicago. This is the best big band in this area; it is right up there with any band I’ve ever heard.”
Both the band and the Blue Parrott seem to be happy with the arrangement on Monday nights.
Frank Theisen, the owner of the Blue Parrott, says the band helps his business and he hopes they stay around for a long time to come.
“We’ll be keeping them around,” he said. “It is one of those things that works with everybody, the musicians, the customers and the business. It is a win-win situation.”
Dunn, who remembers a time when they played in a cigar bar and whose wife made him change his smoky clothes in the garage before he could come inside, says they too are happy with where they are now, in the smoke free environment of the Blue Parrott.
“We’re going to ride that pony until it drops,” he said. “We’ve had other people court us but we’re happy at the Parrott.”
The Tomkats Jazz Orchestra plays every Monday night beginning at 7 pm.