This story starts with the classic words of a fairy tale: Once upon a time... And that was a time when young people listened to live big band music, danced to live big band music, and sang to live big band music.
Today, their grandchildren listen to different music in a completely different way: through electronic buds jammed into their ears. But Bob Hughes and his 16-piece band still do it the old way, playing time-tested swing favorites for appreciative audiences some of whom remember when the tunes were top of the pops.
Local audiences will have a chance to hear Bob and his Big Band on Sunday, Aug. 20 at a fundraiser at the Essex Island Marina sponsored by the Essex Knights of Columbus Our Lady of Sorrows Council. The event runs from 5 to 8 p.m. and features music, dancing, hors d’oeuvres, and a wine and beer bar. Proceeds from the event go to support local charities.
In the past, according to Ed McCaffrey, a member of the Essex Knights of Columbus trustee council, benefiting charities have included the Shoreline Soup Kitchen, Essex Ambulance Association, and food gift cards to local families in need.
The band plays all the swing standards of greats like Tommy Dorsey and Glen Miller, but Bob adds that making the standards relevant to today’s younger audiences remains a challenge.
“If they hear the music,” he says of young people, “they love it; too bad they can’t hear more of it, but when they leave, they go back to their own entertainment.”
Still, Bob is updating his playlist to appeal to younger audiences. He recently got five Count Basie arrangements of Beatles tunes. The Beatles, he notes, were not merely a pop phenomenon but extremely talented musicians.
“Way ahead of their time,” he says.
The Beatles music adds to the collection of more than 3,000 big band arrangements that Bob has. He says that the depth of his collection has helped attract the best musicians to the group.
“Word about the arrangements gets around,” he says.
His ensemble, he emphasizes, is not an amateur group; it includes, among others, Lewis Buckley, the now-retired director of the United States Coast Guard band. Bob’s group has played standard engagements like weddings and in the past has done high profile turns at venues like Foxwoods.
Bob plays the alto saxophone in the band, but in other groups he has played saxophones of all ranges from soprano to baritone as well as the clarinet. He started instrument lessons as a compromise with his mother when he was in the 8th grade. He wanted to play football; she was hesitant, but he promised if she let him play, he would take up the saxophone. He had already played piano from the age of five, taking lessons from his mother, a concert pianist.
Bob, who grew up in Detroit, met his wife Barbara at Michigan State University when they both were students. He was working as a busboy in her dorm. Barbara has her own opinions when she looks over Bob’s playlists for the band’s performances. Recently she told him to drop a song that she felt was far too dated, “Alice Blue Gown,” inspired by the shade of blue that was a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth.
“He should deep six that one,” Barbara says.
In college, Bob majored in journalism and took a job with an advertising agency, but with a growing family, he wasn’t happy with the travel that was a part of the job. He became a stockbroker, living all over the United States, from Connecticut to Texas and California. Wherever he was, he found a band to play with.
In addition to managing brokerage offices, for many years he also served as an expert witness in cases involving complaints against brokers. Most often, he says, the complaints involved churning, the buying and selling stocks where the focus was making a commission, not advancing the clients’ interests.
“I loved the brokerage business and I wanted brokers to be honest,” he says.
Bob and Barbara moved to this area in 2000, but it was initially a surprise to Bob. He got a call from Barbara when he was in an airport. She asked if he was sitting down because she had something important to tell him. After staying with friends in town, she had just bought a house in Essex.
In the basement of their Essex house, Bob has a computer where he stores digitized versions of his vast collection of musical arrangements, but there is more. He also starts plants, both flowers and tomatoes from seed under grow lights in the basement.
“Nothing like the taste of fresh tomatoes,” he says.
He has also made all the family’s bread in a countertop bread baker since the early 1990s. Rye is his favorite, but he makes everything from pumpernickel to white bread.
Though he no longer sails, when the family lived in Norwalk he was a successful competitive racer. His sailing career actually started when he won what he remembers as $400 on the television game show Match Game with celebrity partner Betty White. Since most quiz shows were on during the day, he explains, it was hard to get male contestants and clients at Merrill Lynch recruited him to appear.
“I remember he pulled the chair out for Betty White to sit down and the other contestant didn’t do it,” Barbara says with an obvious degree of pride.
Bob used his winnings to buy a vintage Lightning sailboat, #78, indicating its order in the original manufacture of the craft.
“It was so old,” he recalls.
The family graduated to a Morgan 30, and did events like Block Island Race Week in Bob’s sailing days.
When Bob and Barbara moved to Essex, he first looked for a band he could join. When he did not find any that needed a saxophone player, he decided to start his own group. Now 83, he says it is harder to jump up and down announcing songs and then get back to his seat for playing, but that doesn’t dim his enthusiasm for the music.
“I would like people to hear us and appreciate the sound we are making,” he says.
Island Swing, Featuring the Big Band of Bob Hughes
Sunday, Aug. 20 from 5 to 8 p.m. at Essex Island Marina. Proceeds to benefit the Essex Knights of Columbus. For tickets call Ed McCaffrey at 860-575-4694.