Mac McLean / The Bulletin
The crowd jumped to its feet and started dancing less than three bars into the first Big Band standard the Mem'ry Makers played during a Thursday afternoon concert at the Bend Senior Center.
“I just love their music,” said Elaine Swanzy, who danced with her friend, Earl Williams, during just about every song. “I love coming out here because I can dance.”
Swanzy and Williams try to make it to see the Mem'ry Makers every time they play. They also try to see the Alleycats Jazz Ensemble whenever it plays a show at Bend's Community Center.
Both bands — along with The Notables Swing Band — feature seniors who learned or relearned their instruments by playing with the Cascade Horizon Band (see “If you go,” Page B6).
The Cascade Horizon Band started in 2003 when 12 musicians who admittedly “were a little rusty,” got together and started a music program similar to one that started in New York more than 20 years ago.
“There's always room for music,” said Mary Ellen Marlett, a flute player who joined the Cascade Horizon Band during its second year and now serves as its membership coordinator.
Norm Wonzer started playing the alto saxophone when he was in school. But he had to stop playing the instrument after he started a career and a family, taking whatever free time he had for practice.
“One day, I just said: 'Gee, I wish I could still play the saxophone,'” Wonzer said, remembering a conversation he had with his wife about 20 years ago when he was in his late 30s or early 40s.
With his wife's encouragement, Wonzer started playing the alto saxophone by taking private lessons offered by a college student where he lived. More recently, he taught himself to play the tenor sax.
Learning instruments goes a long way when it comes to improving and preserving the mental health and brain function among the elderly. Studies have shown practicing musicians could be less susceptible to age-related degeneration in the brain than nonmusicians and are less likely to develop dementia after age 75 than people who rarely play an instrument.
Another study found musically inexperienced people between the ages of 65 and 85 improved their working memory, perceptual speed and motor skills after just six months of piano lessons.
These benefits, along with the less tangible social benefits associated with having people to play music with, prompted the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., to form the New Horizons Band in 1991. The idea behind this program was to give people 50 and older a chance to learn or relearn the instruments they may not have played since they were school-aged.
The model quickly grew; there are now 206 New Horizons groups across the world, according to the program's website. The Cascades Horizon Band in Bend was the 65th group to adopt this model.
Wonzer has played saxophone with the Cascade Horizon Band since he helped form it in 2003. He's also played with the Alleycats, which spun off from the Cascade Horizon Band and gave birth to his current band, the Mem'ry Makers.
He also plays saxophone with The Notables, which sprung from the Cascade Horizon Band in October 2010 and like its predecessor, is open only to people 50 and older. Neither the Alleycats nor the Mem'ry Makers have an age requirement, but they consist mainly of retired people because of their schedules.
“We're very tight knit,” said Howard Gorman, who's been playing the alto saxophone with The Notables since it started. “There's a lot of long-standing relationships in the band and people care for each other.”
The other bands seem to be full of close relationships as well — even though they play the same type of music to the same people, there doesn't seem to be competition between the bands and many of their members play for at least one other group.
“I've made about 60 to 70 new friends since I started this,” said Wonzer, who's heading to Sturgis, S.D., this summer with a bass clarinet player from the Cascade Horizon Band who shares his love for motorcycles.
The relationship also exist between the band members and their fans like Swanzy and Williams, who often fill whatever room the bands perform in and travel great distances to see their concerts.
“It's an amazing thing,” said Gorman. “It's more than just music; it's a whole experience.”
If you go
This month marks the start of the Cascade Horizon Band's summer concert season. Here are some places where you can see this band and others like it perform.
The Cascade Horizon Band
• 9:30 a.m. Saturday in the Sisters Rodeo Parade in downtown Sisters
• 3 p.m. July 4 at the “Sound Forth” concert with the Festival Chorus at the Bend High School auditorium
• 11 a.m. Nov. 11 at the Veteran's Day Parade in downtown Bend
The Alleycats Jazz Ensemble
• Every Tuesday starting at 10:30 a.m. at Bend's Community Center, 1036 N.E. 5th Street. Contact: 541-312-2069
The Mem'ry Makers
• Every Thursday starting at 1:30 p.m. at the Bend Senior Center, 1600 SE Reed Market Road. Contact: 541-388-1133
The Notables Swing Band
• 2 p.m. July 1 at the Bend Senior Center
• 1:30 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Courtyard at the Village at Sunriver
• 2 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Bend Senior Center
• 6 p.m. Aug. 22 at Sam Johnson Park in Redmond
• 5:30 p.m. Aug. 23 at Village Green Park in Sisters