By Bruce Pulver
John Scatena’s grin says it all.
On the first and third Monday of every month, folks pour into Café 290 in Sandy Springs to hear the swinging music of Joe Gransden and his 16-piece Smoking Big Band.
The atmosphere is exciting, the music is energizing and the guests appear to be having a great time.
“It’s a beautiful thing!” Scatena said, employing his signature line.
The club at 290 Hildebrand Drive is hidden in a small, out –of-the-way shopping center just off Roswell Road. It’s been there a quarter century and Scatena has operated it for the past 15 years.
“The objective for the past 25 years at Cafe 290 has been to take jazz to the maximum and expose the world to the best performers Atlanta has to offer,” Scatena said.
On June 1, 2009, Scatena and Atlanta jazz vocalist, trumpeter and bandleader Joe Gransden staged the first live Big Band Jazz night at Cafe 290. Sixteen musicians gathered to perform music from a bygone era. At first, it seemed a risky business. Would anyone show up?
But Scatena and Gransden knew what they were doing.
“I lived in New York City for many years,” Gransden said “Monday night is big band night at the city’s legendary jazz clubs. I was fortunate to play in many of them when I lived there. I saw the excitement and fun this setting could create.
“Until now, there was not a regular big band night happening in Atlanta. I felt if I assembled the best musicians in the Atlanta, played fresh arrangements from the big band masters and put on a show that was fun for everyone, we had a good chance to succeed.”
Since the first downbeat, the show has filled Cafe290, which holds 200 people. Spontaneous applause and evening-ending rousing ovations are the norm.
Each Monday, Gransden and his band mates deliver two sets of swinging music from the song books of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles and Count Basie. The music is familiar, but freshly arranged by trombonist/arranger Wes Funderburk.
“I love being part of Joe’s big band. Cafe 290 has such a great vibe and the audience can’t get enough of the music.” Funderburk said. “As an arranger, the sensation I get from hearing great musicians playing my charts is overwhelming.
“I think the audience picks up on how happy all of the musicians are, as well. It’s definitely a symbiotic relationship. When the crowd goes wild, the band swings harder”
On the first Monday of each month, a guest artist usually sits in with the band. Special guests — both vocalist and instrumentalists — keep things creative and spotlight the improvisational aspect of live jazz performances
Atlanta jazz icon and WABE FM 90.1 radio personality H. Johnson, host of the Saturday night “Jazz Classics” show, often attends and kicks off the evening with a funny story or two.
Carl Anthony, elder statesman of jazz radio WCLK 91.9 and long-time host of “Serenade to the City,” said, “…what makes (Cafe290) Big Band Monday nights with Joe Gransden so successful is the cohesiveness of the band, the great arrangements, his guest artists and the ease with which Joe not only interprets a song but interacts with the audience.”
Grandsen said Café 290 seems to provide a place he feels comfortable taking musical chances.
“When I first came to Atlanta, I was looking for a place to play jazz” Gransden said. “At that time I was in my early 20’s with a lot of passion for jazz and a desire to develop and mature my sound. John always welcomed me in his club. We would often hang out and talk about family, friendships, and the general ‘meaning of life’ stuff.
“So when I wanted to try the big band concept last year, it was a natural to ask John first if he would be interested.”
Scatena, Gransden and Tony Wasilewski of Hot Shoe Records, (www.hotshoerecords.com) plan to make a live big band recording at Café 290 on the evenings of July 5 and July 19. “We want to fill the room in July with folks who want to be a part of the excitement of recording a live performance being made for the world to hear and enjoy.”
So smile, John Scatena. You most certainly have created a “beautiful thing”
For Reservations call Café 290 at 404-256-3942. Cover charge $8. Free Parking. www.cafe290atlanta.com