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Jazz band keeps the beat: Local group preserving big band sound

FM Jazz Orchestra members, Shane Block, John Pederson and Fred Haring, are trying to reinvigorate the local big band community. David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
The FM Jazz Orchestra played a holiday concert at West Acres Shopping Center. Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO — As a former public school and college teacher, John Pederson spent decades educating people about music.

He may be retired from the day job, but Pederson is still trying to open eyes and ears to tunes in the area.

The trumpeter and his FM Jazz Orchestra play Wednesday night at Dempsey's in downtown Fargo.

He doesn't see the show as just a gig, but rather a declarative statement that big band jazz is still very much alive.

"Big bands in the U.S. are becoming extinct," he says. "It's really America's only born-and-bred musical style."

While he's devoted to the art form, he wasn't exposed to it until college. From there he was hooked. He would play with regional acts, like the Dick King Band in Grand Forks for 12 years and 17 years with the Fargo-based Jazz Arts Big Band.

He also spent time with rock and soul act Mike & The Monsters and still plays in the jazz duo Prism with pianist Mary Marshall and in the rock band Boogie Knights.

He started the FM Jazz Orchestra four years ago and has been thrilled by the group.

"It's as good as any of the Jazz Arts Big Bands in any of the 17 years I was with them," he says.

The group plays songs by Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, Michael Buble, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, among others.

"There's nothing like the sound of a big band, I think," he says. "It's a wonderful art form. It allows for ensemble playing and solo improvisation. I try to get everyone involved in playing a solo at some point in the concert."

Fred Haring, tenor and alto saxophonist in the group, says the sound is inspired by the "powerhouse sound" of the old Tonight Show Band, or Stan Kenton or Buddy Rich's bands.

He's known Pederson for 25 years and appreciates his, "eye towards quality music".

"We love playing the music, and we love being around people who want to play music," Haring says. "It's not watered down. Some of this stuff is pretty challenging, and you have to be on your A-game to be able to handle it."

He likes the variety in songs selected, from hard-driving swing tunes, "that will really throw you back in your seat," like Rich's "Groovin' Hard," and "Love for Sale" or Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," to ballads like Chet Baker's take on "My Funny Valentine".

As of now, the group only plays a few shows a year. With four members making the 100-mile round trip from Alexandria, Minn., the number of dates a year may not get more than three or four, though two summer concerts are already booked, including the annual JASS Festival.

A March show at Dempsey's as part of the Monday night jazz rotation was cancelled due to an illness in the band and rescheduled for Wednesday.

Pederson credits Russ Peterson for the Monday night jazz shows at Dempsey's.

"It's keeping jazz alive," the trumpeter explains. "That's my goal with the jazz band. I want to preserve America's musical heritage."

To do that, he wants to eventually get sponsorship to bring in guest artists for concerts and workshops.

"I want to be a catalyst for jazz in young people. I used to tell them, 'Music lasts a lifetime whether you're a player or a listener. There are not a lot of things you can do that will last,' " Pederson said.

If You Go

What: FM Jazz Orchestra

When: 8 - 10 p.m., Wednesday

Where: Dempsey's, 226 Broadway, Fargo

Info: Music is free, ID only.