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Toning Up

Pianist Forrest Meyer is the leader of a group that specializes in big-band music--a style that's hotter today than it's been in decades--and whenever he plays live, he draws large and appreciative crowds. But while most of his peers work their brand of brassy magic in smoky nightclubs or theaters largely populated by young people reliving a past they've discovered secondhand, Meyer plays in more unusual locations, for decidedly more experienced audiences. On this day he's at the Aurora Mall, where fans who were around when swing was new are lining up for Cinnabons and coffee instead of shots and beer--which makes sense, since the sun rose just an hour ago. From the back of the stage to the front of the decaf line, nearly everyone present is sporting gray hair, glasses and membership in the AARP. Scanning the scene, Meyer says, "This will be a good gig--even though it's early and we haven't had our transfusions yet."

Such is life for Meyer and his mates in the Geritones, an act that's carved out a unique niche in the local-music scene by targeting the very folks who use the product to which the band's name pays tribute. Since the group was founded in 1989, its members (Meyer, tenor saxophonist Arnold Brandes, saxophonist/clarinetist John Lawrence, trumpeter Don Novy, string bassist Tom Severino and drummer/vocalist Bill Watkins) have quietly become stars of the area seniors' circuit, playing at rest homes, retirement centers and any other locale in which the elderly congregate. The entertainers can identify with such listeners; their age range starts in the early fifties and moves up rapidly from there. Asks Meyer, who's in his late eighties but looks twenty years younger, "How many guys do you know my age who are leading a jazz band?"

The answer, of course, is none. But what makes the Geritones even more noteworthy is their generosity: They do their thing primarily as a public service to the older generation. "It's not because we need the jobs," says Meyer, a congenial gent with a fondness for jazz-man lingo. "We're together strictly for the senior citizens. We provide a service to the older people. See, there's nobody doing what we do, with the shtick and all that. What we do is bring back the real memories of the big-band era."

Joan VaNoske, 63, wholeheartedly agrees. She's a mall-walker who stays in shape by circling the shopping center with friends and neighbors of a similar vintage before most of the businesses are open, and when she learns that the Geritones are putting on a show this morning, she's giddy with excitement. "I didn't know they were going to be here," she bubbles. "I just happened to recognize a couple of them as I walked through. I can't believe it. You're going to hear the best music in the world."

The band's opening number, a velveteen version of a Harry James number, launches VaNoske into motion. As she rocks in her chair, slapping her thighs and beaming brightly, a handful of elderly couples hits the floor, gently holding each other as they spin. Watching them transports VaNoske back to a better time. "In the old days, people cared about each other and we said kind things to one another," she notes. "It was a nice time to grow up. We didn't have all the problems of today."

During the next ninety minutes, trials and tribulations don't stand a chance. When representatives of Secure Horizons, the health-care operation that's sponsoring the show, aren't handing out promotional literature, they're encouraging the attendees to keep dancing, but there's no need: The glorious, iron-rich sounds of the Geritones ensure that anyone physically able to sway will do so. The musicians roll through satin-smooth tunes by James, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Lawrence Welk in a vigorous but understated fashion that's built to last. The rhythm section of Severino and Watkins delivers just the right amount of push for the tasteful soloists up front, and Watkins's singing is rich and relaxed. Meyer's cotton-candy piano fills add the proper finishing touches. After he finishes a nimble solo, Annette Meyer, his wife of 52 years, smiles in appreciation--and she's not the only one.

Unlike many swingers-come-lately, Meyer knows the music inside and out. Born and raised in Fort Collins, he started playing as a kid and assembled his first band in high school. When he was a student at what would later become Colorado State University, he led a group that made a mark in state radio history with a 1933 turn at the National Western Stock Show; the performance, heard on NBC's National Home and Farm Hour, marked the first time a broadcast by Denver's KOA-AM was aired nationwide. The program was memorable for Meyer as well. As he sits in the den of his southeast Denver condo, he recalls, "We were backed by a bunch of chickens and turkeys."

Meyer subsequently attended the University of Colorado-Boulder, spending his free time playing in dance-friendly groups for frat parties and other events. National combos furnished the same type of thrills elsewhere in the area, and at bargain rates. "You could go out to Elitch's and dance to Dorsey and Benny Goodman or any of the big bands for a dollar an evening," Meyer says. "Over at Lakeside, it was ten cents a dance. I remember all that."

After leaving CU, Meyer relocated to California --and during a return visit to Colorado, he learned that even big band's greats had shows they probably wished they could forget. "I saw Benny Goodman here at Elitch's when he flopped. He was on his cross-country tour, and he almost gave up the band after that. Back then, Denver was a dead town when it came to entertainment. There was no appreciation for music, and he did a new swing style. The people were like, 'What is this crazy sound he's got?' There wasn't any response to it. We weren't hip back then, and entertainers hated to come to Denver in those days. We were a cowtown." Immediately following his return to California, Meyer caught a Goodman show that couldn't have been more different. "When he hit the Palomar, they went wild," he says. "The kids began jitterbuggin' all over the place. They were in awe of the music."

A few years later, Meyer returned to Denver, but before he could get too comfortable, the world went to war for a second time. The thirty-something private was shipped to Australia--and when his commanding officers found out about his music background, his stock shot up immediately. He was asked to form a camp band, and the outfit went on to participate in USO shows and radio broadcasts for American soldiers stationed Down Under. Meyer was next sent to Papua New Guinea, where he oversaw supply operations and fronted a group that performed at the Jungle Palace, a makeshift outdoor theater with bomb racks for seats. "One night right after watching a movie, a Charlie flew over and dropped a couple of bombs," Meyer says. Pointing at a photo of the theater with an enormous crater in front of it, he adds, "Here's the theater the next day. There were 900 guys sitting there just hours before that happened."

Following the war, during which he earned a Bronze Star, Meyer returned to Denver and set up an advertising firm. His main musical outlet during this period came when he put together jingles for clients: "I kept my music up for my own amazement," he says with a wink. But upon his retirement, after 35 years in the ad field, he met someone who inspired him to get back on stage again: Frank Carrol, a former bassist with the NBC Symphony and the original Tonight Show band. After Carrol, who died two years ago, moved into Meyer's building, the pair became fast friends, jamming for hours at a time around Meyer's piano. These sessions eventually led to the creation of the Geritones, which they co-founded with saxophonist/band manager Brandes. "We picked up different guys, and then people began to hear about us," Meyer says. "So we decided, yeah, we can do a job here and a job there. Next thing you know, we were getting calls and we formalized it. Should we start a band? Yeah, why not?"

Today only Meyer and Brandes devote themselves solely to the Geritones, who next appear live on Saturday, September 19, at the Virginia Village branch of the Denver Public Library (call 303-757-6662 for more information). Their bandmates pad out their gig books by playing with other jazz and swing acts in the metro area. The proliferation of such combos, as well as their newfound popularity, pleases Meyer. "People seem to have an appreciation again for the intricate arrangements of the big bands and the way they arrange for four or five brass instruments with these tremendous combinations. And that's good, because this is a wonderful form of music that needs to be perpetuated. You see, people don't get old, and neither does the music or the times, if you keep it young at heart."

A handsome woman at the Aurora Mall sees the truth in these sentiments. "My husband has Alzheimer's and doesn't know who anybody is," she says, "but he's a great dancer." She's right: With the sextet contributing the music, she plays a tender game of follow the leader with her mate, whose face bears a look of odd satisfaction. His expression gives even more meaning to the Geritones' well-chosen finale--"Memories of You.


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