With a name taken from a hit song of 1944, you might expect Baltimore’s Sentimental Journey Orchestra (SJO) to stick to tunes from the Swing Era. That was true when Don Steinwig, veteran of the Swing Era’s Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters big band, formed SJO in 1977, but the band has since expanded its repertoire. Today the band’s library has three thousand arrangements! “We have the personnel to re-create ‘40s to ‘50s stuff, like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw,” says band director Jim Quinlan, “but also a spectrum from that era to Buddy Rich and the Terry Gibbs Dream Band to [the contemporary L.A.-based big band of] Gordon Goodwin.”
Quinlan, a retired internist who plays tenor sax, is SJO’s only remaining original member. He tells me that the band started in Sparks under the auspices of the Optimist Club, with seven adult players and seven high school students. He took over the leadership in 1979. The band eventually became adults only and has been rehearsing every Monday night for forty years, the last twenty at the Cambridge School in Pikesville. Quinlan has rarely missed a rehearsal.
“We have one common goal,” says Quinlan: “show up on Monday and have a good time.” Part of that good time is playing challenging material. “I like to bring in something we can’t play and they like that,” Quinlan says of his musicians, who include the head of psychiatry at University of Maryland Hospital and an editor of the New England Journal of Medicine. The band also includes trumpeter Gil Rathel, who played with the big bands of Woody Herman and Don Ellis.
When I observed a rehearsal in fall, 2017, an air of camaraderie and good humor pervaded the room, but when Quinlan called tunes everyone got quiet and serious. With wry, self-deprecating humor, Quinlan says, “They listen to me. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I was willing to take over.”
As has become a familiar theme, especially for the decades-old big bands like SJO, Quinlan says that they don’t gig as much as they used to. In the past year the band played at Baltimore County’s Senior Expo and a dinner dance at St. Joseph Parish in Cockeysville. This fall they will play another dinner dance there, a benefit for a food program, and a concert at Heartlands retirement community in Howard County.
In 2017 SJO released three albums on Sonority Records. This month they finished their thirteenth album, featuring vocals by Richard Heyman. About the band’s prolific recording, Quinlan says, “I’m not sure why I do that, maybe just to prove we exist.”
This article continues our series on area big bands — if you missed any of them, you can catch them here at Big Band of the Week.