Keith Baumann and Mark Sonksen Realize a Dream with the Main Stem Orchestra
The Main Stem Orchestra is a 14-piece band on a mission to recreate the great swing music from the years 1935 through 1945. The group performs big band dance music that was born on the heels of the early traditional jazz bands, but predates the rise of bebop in the late 1940s. Led by veteran musicians Keith Baumann and Mark Sonksen, the group focuses on authenticity and works from an extensive library of vintage arrangements, encompassing the swing era’s most prolific bands and composers.
Baumann, who spearheads the group, grew up in Queens, New York and was influenced by the music he heard on vinyl records played around his house. His parents had a small collection of jazz recordings, and by the age of 12, he started playing guitar. “It was the late sixties and I was very interested in folk and bluegrass music, particularly the acoustic sound of the guitar and banjo,” says Baumann, who began performing at an early age but didn’t have his first professional performance until he was in college. Following college, Baumann played gigs but also maintained a steady job. “I always felt my heart was not in the job, and I was just killing time until I could jam or play my next gig,” he says. “I used to attend musical festivals quite a bit, and there was always a lot of jamming with other players. I remember feeling extremely jealous that some of the performers who were full-time musicians did not have to go back to a day job. Playing music was their day job and that’s what I wanted for myself.”
Baumann got his break and was lucky enough to meet and perform with the “Texas Playboys”—a group of musicians who had played with Bob Wills in the forties and fifties. “This experience, not only inspired me to be a better musician, but also taught me a deep respect for tradition and convinced me that swing was what I really loved to play.”
Baumann relocated to the Chicago area in 1991 and toured nationally as a mandolinist and resophonic guitarist with the highly acclaimed Special Consensus bluegrass band. During his time with Consensus, he performed at major festivals, concert venues and workshops throughout the United States. After leaving The Special Consensus, Baumann began teaching at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music and the Harper College music department. He also started his own company, Uptown Rhythm Productions, and performed with many area big bands, orchestras, Dixieland jazz groups and swing combos.
It is in one of those groups that he met bassist Mark Sonksen. “We hit it off immediately as musicians. We both felt that many of the other bands we worked with were not playing the early swing style with the accuracy and finesse that it deserved. These groups either performed a wide range of arrangements spanning many decades and styles of jazz, or just did not have the right personnel to pull it off.”
Both Sonksen and Baumann decided to start the Main Stem Orchestra because, says Baumann, “we wanted to play the music we love and create something really good that we could be proud of.”
Started just over a year ago, the Main Stem Orchestra specializes in the swing dance band music from the mid 1930s to the early 1940s. This is the music that was popular right after traditional jazz, but before bebop started to emerge in the ‘40s. The tenor banjo had been replaced by the archtop guitar, and the tuba was dropped in favor of the string bass. Also, because it was ahead of most electrified instruments, the music was still acoustic, with no pickups or amplifiers.
There are many other swing orchestras performing period music throughout the country, but what Sonksen and Baumann thinks make them stand out from the others, are a few important elements, both Sonksen and Baumann explain.
“Number one is our commitment to the style. We focus on a specific era and stick to it, with no exceptions. To do this music right and specialize the way we do, it takes very specific equipment and playing style. You need the right acoustic guitar, bass and drum kit, etc., to get the sound the way they did in 1938. We even adjust setup our instruments specifically for this band.
Number two is our personnel. All our players were handpicked for their ability to play this early style of jazz correctly. Mainly, we needed musicians who are not only great players, but also understand the subtleties of this era of jazz. To really swing like Benny Goodman, you must phrase on top of the beat, but with certain lightness to it, so it does not get too heavy and lose the feel. We have assembled a AAA ensemble of players who have the experience and desire to perform this music right. Having played in many other big bands and being familiar with all the groups in the area, we do not see any other bands that are doing what we do.”
Both feel the music is still popular and gaining an audience because, “good music is good music, and will always have a fan bass,” says Baumann. “In music of this era, the arranging is wonderful and the songs are well written. The beat of a good acoustic dance band is infectious. In addition, there is a whole new crop of young kids who are tired of the commercial pre-packaged music that is on the radio, and are now discovering early jazz.”
Many audience members and fans might think that the music itself is good, but where does one purchase sheet music (charts) for an entire big band to play from the ‘30s and ‘40s in 2017? Luckily, that’s where Sonksen comes in. “I played in a regional dance band during my college days in eastern Iowa and started collecting big band music back then. I’d find old stock charts in secondhand bookshops mostly, but once in a while someone who would know I was a musician would give me a few charts. More recently, I’ve gotten copies of original manuscripts from various contacts of mine, both in the U.S. and in Europe. These are from the original big band books of the likes of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Jimmy Lunceford and others. There is a certain thrill to playing music written by the hand, literally by hand, of Fletcher Henderson! Additionally I’ve done some transcribing of tunes myself when time permits. I would be remiss not to mention the treasure trove of material that David Berger has transcribed over the past three decades, and fortunately has made available. Through his work, I think the musical genius of Duke Ellington is better known and more appreciated.”
Both band leader Keith Baumann and music director Mark Sonksen, have been conceiving of this group for more than three years, and they are very excited to have it finally take shape.
But they alone can’t create the music. They need other musicians with the experience, knowledge and performance expertise to play this music so it sounds authentic.
The current personnel of the Main Stem Orchestra includes: guitarist Keith Baumann, bassist Mark Sonksen, drummer Brian Collins, pianist Jeremy Kahn, trumpeters Andy Schumm, Art Davis and Josh Jern, saxophonists Eric Schneider, John Otto, Barclay Moffit, Bill Overton and Ed Enright, trombonists Russ Phillips and Steve Duncan, and vocalist Petra Van Nuis.
You can hear the Main Stem Orchestra perform live at their next public performance at the Illiana Jazz Club on Sunday, October 22 at 2 p.m. For more information visit mainstemorchestra.com.