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Iconic musician Johnny Nicholas heads up the All-Star Big Band Bash every year. Photo by Phil Houseal

The All-Star Big Band Bash takes place Saturday, Nov. 12 at 8 p.m. at the Pioneer Pavilion in Lady Bird Park. At this time, only general admission tickets remain available, at $25. More information is available at www.hilltopcafe.com or by calling 997-7182.

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Big Band Bash

by Phil Houseal
Nov 9, 2005


Safe to say, not many high school students in Texas get to trade licks with Grammy Award winners and former members of Asleep At The Wheel.

But thanks to a local man’s vision, this weekend some of the industry’s biggest icons will inspire Fredericksburg students while entertaining Fredericksburg fans at the 8th Annual Big Band Bash at the Pioneer Pavilion.

Prime mover of this unique collaboration between the worlds of public education and soul-stirring music is Johnny Nicholas. Already a legend from a stellar blues career and four-year stint with Asleep At The Wheel, Nicholas moved to Fredericksburg in 1981, where he and his wife, Brenda, built the Hilltop Cafe into a delicious destination.

Around 1998, Nicholas stepped in to help the high school music program raise extra funds. He called in a few friends from his music days to help. Unlike those of us in mid-management, Nicholas’s friends include the likes of Marcia Ball, Flaco Jimenez, and Ray Benson.

Since then, Nicholas has raised nearly $30,000 to support the arts in school. This is more impressive when you realize collecting cash may not be Nicholas’s prime motivation.

“My thing is exposing kids to different styles of music,” Nicholas said. “There is this huge core of roots music of all kinds. That is what I call real music as opposed to pop. These kids will be listening to Fats Domino from now until the end of time, but they won’t remember today’s pop stars.”

Nicholas makes sure local kids are involved at every level. In past years theater students helped handle lights, sound, and staging, while music students sang backup for Marcia Ball and sat in with the horn section.

Artistic synergy ripples beyond the Bash itself. Top musicians put on master level workshops for the jazz and concert bands, artists have shared tips with budding songwriters, and the likes of Ball and blues legend Carol Fran stop by to sing with the high school choir.

After a few years of spearheading the Bash, Nicholas partnered with Carol Reeh, Coordinator of Community Education for the local school district. Being deeply involved in Community Education at every level myself, I love to see this school/community action. I’ll also wager this is the only community education project in the nation boasting such a star-studded musical lineup. This year’s Bash features Ball, Greg Piccolo, Augie Meyers, Joe King Carrasco, Joel Guzman, Cindy Cashdollar, Floyd Domino, and Redd Volkaert.

Reeh’s focus has been to build a scholarship fund for students pursuing the arts. They granted their first $1000 scholarship last spring.

“All of us have a niche, something special that we are good at,” Reeh said. “Most of the kids probably won’t play at a professional level. But knowing how to play gives them self-confidence, leadership and social skills. I think it makes them better students and better people.”

For Nicholas, the Big Band Bash works on many levels. But there is no doubting where his heart lies.

“The kids really dig it,” he said. “We’ve had some go on to jazz band and other music studies. You never know what kind of effect it will have. I know what going around real players did for me - it was inspirational. I hope it gets to them. I hope it gets in their soul.”

For the rest of us, it’s about what Reeh calls “an awesome party.”

“We want people to just come and have a good time and dance,” Nicholas said. “I’m not on a crusade here. The bottom line is it is a great show and gives something back to the community. And we love getting together to do it.”