The couples out on the dance floor aren't the only ones feeling the music.
The bass guitarist tucked away at the big band's back corner is also in the groove. His head rocks side to side in time to the music. His feet tap.
Playing the bass line – the music's foundation – isn't the only way he holds things together. He calls out a cue to help the players take one song to its close. When a guest vocalist forgets the words to “My Funny Valentine,” he comes to the rescue.
“You care for me,” he calls out.
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That's what you do when your name is on the band.
Bill Hanna's Vintage Dance Band is playing its Monday gig at Grand Central ballroom. The regular bass guitarist is out for four months, so Hanna has left his usual post as first trombone to fill in.
Down at one of the tables, a woman opens a bakery box and takes out a birthday cake. When the band takes a break, the players drift out into the room. Hanna ends up at the table with the sweets.
You see, it's his birthday – his 76th. And he's spending it doing what he's been doing in Charlotte nearly a half-century: playing music.
Hanna will play at another nightspot tomorrow – Tuesday. At another Wednesday. Thursday. Friday.
Every week, Hanna spends four or five nights onstage, in addition to teaching at Central Piedmont Community College.
“Music,” Hanna says, “is so much fun.”
Night after night
Here's Hanna's nightly schedule:
Second Monday of the month: Bill Hanna's Vintage Dance Band at Grand Central on Central Avenue.
Each Tuesday: Jazz quintet at Big Ben British Pub on Providence Road.
Each Wednesday: Jazz group at Cajun Queen Restaurant on Seventh Street.
Each Thursday: Jazz at the Double Door Inn on Charlottetowne Avenue.
Each Friday: More jazz at Cajun Queen.
At Big Ben the night after Hanna's birthday, the setting is altogether different from Grand Central. The long, narrow bar off the main room has no platform. But his quintet has the prime spot at one end – backed by a window looking out to Providence Road. Hanna, seated now at an electronic keyboard, is front and center.
As with the dance band, he's the foundation. But now, armed with the keyboard, he throws in riffs of his own between solos by the others. In “Bernie's Tune,” a spirited Gerry Mulligan number, Hanna grabs the trombone at his side – his No. 1 instrument, actually – and takes the lead. He changes role again for a blues song, T-Bone Walker's “Stormy Monday.” Now Hanna sings. You wouldn't accuse him of producing dulcet tones, but for a blues song, his voice has true grit:
“They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's just as bad
“Wednesday's worse, and Thursday's also sad…”
The weary litany does not describe Hanna's feelings about his own weekly routine.
“If I'm playing with a quartet or trio or quintet, and if I have a good group, and the audience is receptive, I could play all night,” Hanna says. “I don't get tired. I don't get sleepy.”
Afterward, he admits, he may conk out. But he obviously thinks that's a small price.
“It's wonderful to play for people. It's an ego trip. If anybody says it isn't that way, they're crazy.”
He's a teacher, too
Hanna does all this on top of teaching at CPCC. Even though he's a part-timer, he's on campus five days a week, teaching jazz history, jazz vocals, improvisation and big band. All this playing and teaching is just a continuation of what Hanna did during his 30 years with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Hanna began at Hawthorne Junior High, then took over as band and orchestra director at Cochrane Junior High. In 1970, he added Independence High – teaching there in the mornings, Cochrane the rest of the day. He was forced to be versatile: Trained as a trombonist, he didn't know a thing about string playing until duty called him to teach it at Hawthorne. He began by buying a book and teaching himself.
During the evenings, Hanna performed. He played trombone and later double bass in the Charlotte Symphony. He played second violin in a community orchestra at Queens College. He played in dance bands at country clubs and in jazz groups at night spots. When a theater troupe performed a different musical each week at Ovens Auditorium, Hanna played in the pit.
By this point, Hanna is “a Charlotte institution,” says Tim Freer, general manager of Cajun Queen. Hanna has played there for 18 years, often with his former students sharing the stage.
“The way they play, and the way they play off each other – they're having fun,” Freer says. “That's what the audience senses.”
His students also get the message.
“Bill's passionate about music,” says Johnny Wicker, a CPCC student who plays the drums in the Vintage Dance Band. When Wicker first asked about the band, he recalls, Hanna wasn't deterred by the fact that he hadn't had much experience: Hanna told him to plunge in and learn by doing.
That doesn't mean Hanna is a pushover. During a Vintage Dance Band rehearsal at CPCC, the group keeps hitting a snag in one number. Each time Hanna stops the players, he sounds a little more impatient.
Finally: “Trumpets! Dadgummit! By now, it ought to be right. If you need to, come in early and practice it … I'm sick and tired of that thing being mishmashed all over the place.”
Sitting down to talk after the rehearsal, Hanna admits that his bedside manner may be lacking. Most of the band's members aren't professional musicians. Their skills and dedication vary.
“It's hard to take,” he says, “if you're a musician who strives for perfection.”
Weekends are for flying
Busy though he is, Hanna does draw the line: Hardly ever, he says, does he take a gig on the weekend.
“I want to go out and fly my airplane,” he says. “I love my airplane.”
Hanna has had a pilot's license since 1987. Since 1996, he has owned a two-seat Cessna 150. When he feels like it, he says, he'll fly across the state just to get a hamburger.
The sentiment harks back to a couple of lines from “Stormy Monday,” his blues song from the Big Ben show.
“The eagle flies on Friday
“And Saturday I go out to play.”