Once a month, an unusual sound fills a Hampden pizzeria and spills out to catch the ears of unsuspecting passersby, who can be seen doing double-takes. The attention-getter is a 12-piece band, compacted into a corner of Paulie Gee’s, playing arrangements first performed about 90 years ago during the early years of jazz.
That ensemble, with its repertoire of catchy tunes and rhythms, is the grandly named Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra. It’s the brainchild of Lynn Summerall, who can be found in natty attire conducting the white-jacketed musicians with un-fussy little swats of a baton.
“Almost every major, and even minor, hotel had some sort of musical ensemble, usually playing behind potted palms,” says Summerall, a Norfolk native who grew up in Baltimore. “They played what was called ‘sweet’ music and the ‘hot’ stuff of Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson.”
These groups typically used a tuba instead of a string bass, a banjo instead of a guitar. A violin was often in the mix, too. The Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra, which will be back at Paulie Gee’s this weekend, is faithful to that configuration. And faithful to the style, which might be seen as a bridge between ragtime/Dixieland and the late-1930s and 1940s big bands of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and others.
“I obtained dance band charts from the Library of Congress and the Peabody Conservatory,” Summerall, 72, says. “We play love songs, show tunes, jazz standards, early swing hits, and novelty songs, dating from 1920 to about 1935.”
Summerall started collecting this band music a decade or so ago while living in Norfolk and working as an announcer for classical music programs at a public radio station.
“In my spare time, I put together a dance band,” he says. “I had talent, I had organizational ability, and I loved music from many decades, particularly the 1920s and ’30s.”
With the experience of the Norfolk group under his belt, Summerall decided to create another Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra after retiring and moving back to Baltimore in 2014 — “I still had the music, the ability and the energy,” he says.
There was something of a coming-full-circle element in that decision. Summerall, an alumnus of Baltimore City College and Towson University, got his first taste of dance band music here.
“I was a precocious trombonist,” he says. “Part of my education in Baltimore was playing in an excellent big band of local high school players. We called ourselves The Mello Men, although we were neither mellow nor men. That experience was very instrumental, no pun intended, in my love of this music.”
Summerall put dance bands aside after studying theater arts at Towson University. He worked behind the scenes at Baltimore Center Stage and the Morris Mechanic Theatre, before heading off on a varied career path with stop-overs from Los Angeles to London (“I had cog-in-a-big-wheel jobs in theater,” he says).
The distinctive world of 1920s and ’30s bands — Herman Kenin’s Multnomah Hotel Orchestra, the much more famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and so many more — is not on the radar of every musician. But having successfully rounded up willing participants for his first hotel orchestra in Norfolk, Summerall was confident of doing the same for the second.
“My budget then was limited, and still is, so I couldn’t pay for ads,” he says. “I found these musicians through Craig’s List. I also sought out other ensembles in the area that played old music, the most prominent of them being the excellent Tongue in Cheek Jazz Band. Their banjo player has played with us.”
Summerall ended up with a pool of more than two dozen musicians; ages range from the 20s to the 70s. He uses 12 musicians for each performance. Stylish vocalist Sandra Smith joins the group for some numbers (Summerall has been known to warble a few songs, too). The first rehearsal was held last September, the first gig in March.
Band members get paid about $50 per performance. Summerall hopes to increase the pay over the next year. Outside gigs should help make that possible — the group has been booked for the “Dardanella,” a high-profile, 1920s-theme garden party that will be held on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 29.
For North Carolina native Lucas Pressley, playing trumpet in the Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra — in between chemistry studies as a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University — provides rewards beyond the monetary.
“This is a good outlet to use a different part of my brain,” says the 23-year-old Pressley. “I’ve always appreciated playing jazz, and I’ve played in big bands. But that was more modern jazz. To go back to these original charts is a great opportunity to develop my skills. And playing more styles makes me a more rounded player.”
Pressley has enjoyed the experience of bringing this vintage style to customers at Paulie Gee’s.
“It was a pleasant surprise to see tables packed full of people,” he says. “It’s very energizing.”
On orchestra Sundays, tables at the restaurant are rearranged, allowing room for dancing, which patrons make use of when the beat proves particularly infectious.
That was the case at last month’s performance, which featured such golden oldies as “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Sophisticated Lady,” and “Muskrat Ramble” (the players hit a tight, extra-snappy groove on that one).
After a romp through the 1926 ditty “Lucky Day,” Summerall told the audience in his deadpan style: “That was obscure, but cute — like a lot of you.”
The pizzeria seems a good fit for the Hotel Paradise Roof Garden Orchestra, where even the youngest staffers can be spotted getting into the refined swing of the music.
“When the band had rehearsed six months, I started looking for a place where it could perform and where we could have a reasonable cover charge,” Summerall says. “I liked the size and the lighting and the acoustics at Paulie Gee’s. After we got hired, I stopped thinking about other places. For the indefinite future, this is our home base.”