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If you go
What: The Fort Wayne Big Band Jazz Fest
When: Noon to 5:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Allen County Public Library, 900 Library Plaza
Admission: Free
Courtesy photo
Band director Mark Van Cleave helped organize the Fort Wayne Big Band Jazz Fest.

Big band’s back

Director with storied career launches festival

Mark Van Cleave’s dad was a school band director who sent mixed signals to his son about music.

He thought that learning to play an instrument could benefit Van Cleave in numerous ways.

But he changed his tune when Van Cleave indicated that he wanted to make a profession out of music.

“The last thing a father wants his kid to be is a musician,” Van Cleave says, laughing. “It’s sort of like, ‘Didn’t you learn enough from me to be smarter than this?’ ”

If Van Cleave has any regrets, he’s keeping them close to the vest as he prepares his first big band music festival.

It happens from noon to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, inside and outside the Allen County Public Library.

Van Cleave’s Jazz Orchestra will perform with the IPFW Jazz Ensemble, Don Pearson’s Conglomernotes Big Band, the Blue River Big Band and an all-star assortment of many bands. Van Cleave has done a lot of interesting things with his career since he briefly matriculated at Indiana University in the late 1970s.

(He says the reason he kept leaving school was because he’d get calls from bookers and promoters who’d say “I’ll pay you more for a week than you paid for a whole semester.”)

Van Cleave assembled and directed bands that performed live for circuses and ice shows, he toured with the Four Tops and the Temptations, and he played lead trumpet for the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.

He recalls a presentation that the orchestra had to make to Congress to secure funding.

Conductor Gunther Schuller prefaced a song with a long lecture about its significance.

An 80-year-old musician leaned in to Van Cleave and said, “We weren’t trying to make art. We were trying to get (sex).”

Van Cleave says big band music is a uniquely American art form, but it dies if it gets stored on a shelf.

“The music is now revered as high art, but it was the pop music of its day,” he says.

“You gotta have fun doing it if anybody’s gonna have fun listening to it.”