What started by saxophonists Fred Nimmer and Ray Cummings as the Swingtime Orchestra, the all-volunteer band played big band jazz standards that were kept in an old suitcase. Today, the band has "evolved" into the Evolution Big Band that performs from a library of more than 6,500 classic and modern arrangements of big band jazz standards for audiences throughout the Lowcountry.
Band membership has changed over the years, but top musicians in the area continue to assemble weekly to rehearse and play concerts for no pay keep big band music alive and thriving.
This section will share some of the stories about the early years of the band, as well as some photos of former band members and concerts. Please check back periodically as we continue to add memories!
The Early Years
By Guy Bettarelli
Ray Cummings was born in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He lived about two block away from the Atlantic City Boardwalk, which was the main tourist attraction in the Northeast region at that time. Ray grew up helping his dad who had the franchise to provide beach lounge chairs and beach umbrellas on the Atlantic beach. His job was to sand and varnish the lounge chairs as they became dull. This gave Ray and his friends a lot of time to explore all the opportunities that Atlantic City offered. The main pier, which was called the Steel Pier had a large pavilion or convention hall that attracted all the big bands that were popular in the 30s and 40s. Las Vegas did not exist at this time so the Steel Pier at Atlantic City was the popular spot for all the bands to play. Ray knew the pier well, and how to get into seeing all the big bands play without paying. This is how he began his love for big band music.
Ray went on to become a music teacher and taught music at the high school level. His first horn was not a saxophone that is noted for but a trumpet. He always had a concern in playing the trumpet that as he got older he believed his lip would give out and he would no longer be able to play. So he switched to saxophone, and excelled in it. He always said that he could play the sax right up to the time when he passes away. As it turned out he did play the sax until about a year or two before he passed. Ray moved to Hilton Head and his first house when he retired was in Sea Pines. He was very popular on the island and played all the restaurants and clubs that were available at the time. He cut a CD with Bob Alberti another famous musician on the island. It was called “Just For You." Ray sings and plays the tenor saxophone on this CD.
When a hurricane hit close to Hilton Head Island, it took Ray several hours to get off the island. He decided to leave Hilton Head Island and move to Sun City so if another hurricane hit he would be able to escape quickly. Ray at this time started to play with the only big band in the area and it was called Swingtime Orchestra and it was managed by Fredrick Nimmer. The band included some of the finest musicians and vocalists in the area. This was in 1988. Ray decided to start a band in Sun City to play the popular arrangements of the big band era. He contacted Dudley Lowden and Jack Fletcher in 2004 to help him start the band. Dudley Lowden provided Ray with big band arrangements from his brother Bob Lowden, who was a musical arranger for many Big Bands of the era. The Stardust Orchestra was born and Ray recruited 17 members in the area to participate in his new big band orchestra. The members in the Stardust Orchestra in 2011 were:
Ray Cummings, Tenor Sax & Vocals
Dave McMullen, Alto Sax & Clarinet
Frank Schindo, Tenor Sax
Guy Bettarelli, Alto Sax & Clarinet
Bob Cloutier, Baritone Sax & Clarinet
Penny Peterson, Vocals
John Emerson, Keyboard
Alan Hodgkins, Vibes
Dennis Cardinale, Electric Bass
Mike Riegel, Drums & Vocals
Larry Williams, Trombone
Jim George, Trombone
Larry Katz, Trumpet/Flugelhorn
Dave Simpson, Trumpet
Dick Hoff, Trumpet
Rick Hungerford, Trumpet/Flugelhorn
Walter Davis, Trumpet/Flugelhorn
John Pella, Trumpet/Flugelhorn
I was invited to join the Stardust Orchestra around 2006 to play second alto saxophone when the second alto player moved to North Carolina. Ray at this time played first alto; Dave McMullen played second tenor ;and Van Kelly played first tenor. Ray would always say there were two problems with sax players: they always played too loud and out of tune. Ray not only played alto and tenor sax at different times with Stardust but he also had a great voice. He singing always brought down the house when we played. He also had a great memory for all the great musicians of the big band era. He would play guessing games with the audience to see who could name how many wives Artie Shaw had. The audience loved him!
Here's how our music library was started. One practice around 2010, Ray came to me with a beat up old suitcase that he brought in. He told me if I could bring some kind of order to the arrangements that Dudley Lowden had given us. What I did not know was all the arrangements in the case were completely mixed up over the years. It took days to sort out all the pieces by instrument, and by arrangements. We also had a guitar player by the name of Ron Perry at this time who had an extensive collection of big band arrangements in his computer that he put together over the years. Ron would bring in one or two arrangements every so often and I would make copies for our library and pass the second copy out to the band. We eventually grew our arrangements with Ron’s help to about 100 arrangements. Ron left the band and gave us a CD of numerous arrangements which increase our library into the hundreds.
Eventually Walter Brown, our trumpet player, took over being Librarianship from me, and he digitized all of our arrangements. I turned over 12 file boxes of paper arrangements to Walter who did an outstanding job of inputting all these arrangements into the computer. When David Fleming took over as conductor the band purchased many new arrangements and these would also be computerized.
Stardust performances almost always sold out, especially our yearly concerts for the Lions Club Charity Fund in Sun City. There was, however, one time when things did not work out so well. Ray decided he would like to give a charity concert for the Boy’s and Girl’s Club in Ridgeland and decided it to his old musician friend, Freddy Nimmer. Ray always called him the grass man because he owned Nimmers Sod Farm in Ridgeland. Freddy lived in Ridgeland and he was well known in the area. The only problem was the management at the Boy’s and Girl’s Club, for whatever reason, never advertised it. So here we are at the Ridgeland High school auditorium with a full band in tuxedos and a singer ready to kick off the concert. When the curtains opened up the only folks sitting in the audience was Freddy, his wife, and his daughter and husband plus two other individuals. Probably a total of about seven folks. This did not stop Ray. We played the full gig and had Freddy come up with his alto and play two arrangements with us. It was a blast. Not only that, but the news folks came out and gave us a full page photo op of our no show concert.
Stardust not only played charity concerts but we also played for a lot of dinner dances. The money collected for all of these gigs went directly to the church we practiced, to local charities and to the Wounded Warriors program out of Marine headquarters in Quantico Virginia. The Wounded Warriors program was our main charity for several years. All the money sent to the Marines went directly to the wounded Marines versus the national wounded warrior’s charity. The Baptist United Church in old town Bluffton was the location where we practiced every Wednesday from 10:00 AM to 12.00 PM. Ray was a member of this church and it was the only location we every practiced in until 2021. We would have a concert each year at the church and provide all the collected proceeds to the church to help pay for our rent each week. Bluffton was a great location and central for all the musicians who lived on Hilton Head Island or Sun City.
Once Ray could no longer direct the band due to health issues, Dave McMullen, who at the time was playing first alto was elected to direct Stardust. Ray stilled played tenor in the band and would continue to do so almost up to the time when he passed away. Dave expanded the arrangements that he would select, however he keep to the big band format of arrangements. One thing that Ray always told me was you have to play arrangements that are familiar to your audience’s ear. That was what made Stardust concerts sell outs. We always played tunes that were familiar to our audience.
We continued to use Penny as our main vocalist, both when Ray directed the band and Dave. Penny had a way of singing and dressing to fit the big band arrangements we played. The audience loved her style, and she was a great hit at our concerts. She also had a group of two ladies she sang with in the style of the McGuire sisters. When Ray directed the band we never knew what arrangements we would rehearse until he got to the practice. Then he would take out an arrangements and tell everyone what the number was and we would pull it out of our book and practice it. The only problem was, Ray would take all these arrangements at the end of the practice and put them in a pile, in no order then take them home. The next week he would sometimes take the out the same pile and start playing them all over again the following week. Dave started a process where I purchased a white board and the morning of practice Dave would advise me what he wanted to practice and I would put them on a white board. As everyone came in they would look at the white board and pull out the arrangements for that practice. At the end of the practice all arrangements would be put back into our books. Eventually, as everyone started to get familiar with computer we were able to email everyone what our practice arrangements were for the week.
Dress code for Ray and Dave when playing any concerts was always formal wear (Tuxedos). They wanted to stay true to the big band era in not only playing the arrangements from the big bands but also to follow their lead in how the band appeared. Appearance was very important especially in how the band was presented. Ray at first had us use plain music stands at our concerts. It did nothing to advertise who we were and did not give the band a good impression when the band was elevated from the audience. All you saw were stands and legs. We decided to have drapes made on who we were and hung from the top of each stand. They were easy to transport and set up and did not need a lot of set up times. This was OK for a while however as we found out as we used them at gigs was that everyone had their music stands at different heights. This did not make for a uniformed look. So we progressed to stands made out of cardboard that mimicked the stands the big bands used in the 40s. They took more time to set up and transport, however they advertised who we were and hid everyone’s legs and they were all the same height.
The Evolution of Stardust Orchestra to the Evolution Big Band
by David Fleming
I joined the Stardust Orchestra in the Fall of 2010. I was new to the Bluffton area and was looking for playing experiences with my trumpet. At 63 years old I was one of the younger members of the group. The Orchestra was basically a rehearsal band playing few concerts each year. There were some excellent musicians in the Orchestra at that time: Dave McMullin on alto sax, director Ray Cummings on tenor sax, Jack Fletcher on trombone, and Van Kelly on tenor sax to name a few. We parted ways after a year, as I was involved with other performing groups.
In December of 2012 Dave McMullin took over the leadership of the group from Ray Cummings. In addition, some of the older musicians retired and I was asked to rejoin the Orchestra. In 2013, I took on the responsibility of Assistant Director. In the Fall 2014, Dave McMullin resigned as Director, and I stepped up as Director.
After thinking about the opportunity, I became excited about some changes that I felt needed to be done for the future success of the Orchestra. I knew the changes had to be gradual and we had to be responsive to our audiences.
When I first met with the Orchestra, I indicated that my initial goals were to find more performing opportunities, and to add some newer musical selections to our library. In the past it was said that the Orchestra would not play a concert for less than $1,500. I told the group that I wanted to perform for FREE and asked the audience to make a donation to the Wounded Warrior Foundation. There was some doubt by members that this would work out well. Guy Bettarilli played tenor sax in the Orchestra and had a connection at the Hilton Head First Presbyterian Church. We were able to secure a concert date in late January of 2015 right after a Church dinner. The church was packed for our concert, and we raised a little over $2,000 through donations. This was the beginning of many future concerts at many venues where we asked for donations. It became very successful.
The second goal of adding newer and more challenging musical arrangements was also successful. I think one of the first ones added was a tune made famous by Buddy Rich Big Band, “Big Swing Face.” The response of the band members was nothing short of WOW. They felt excited that they could play this type and caliber of music.
Over the next two years we phased in musical arrangements performed by Michael Buble’, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, Diane Schurr, Bobby Darin, music from the Big Phat Band, Tony Kubis, Matt Catingub and more. The audiences we performed for enjoyed hearing these new arrangements of some of the older tunes. The transition was beginning to happen. The Orchestra members worked on their music at home and, as a result, the overall performance level of the Orchestra increased. The band members were excited, and the audiences were impressed with the new energy!
In early 2016, Jeff Shawd joined our Band on lead trumpet. That summer he took over the position of Assistant Director, and for the summer successfully rehearsed many new selections for the Band.
In early 2017 it was decided we needed a name change. Members of the Band submitted suggestions and we chose Evolution Big Band. It seemed so fitting for now and for the future of the Band. The name change was announced at the First Presbyterian concert in 2017. Jeff’s marketing background helped us greatly with a new logo, new shirts, and development of a website.
Over the years we also expanded our vocal selections with the band to add variety. The following vocalists sang with the Band; Penney Petersen, Mike Schwarzkopf, Huxsie Scott, Bobby Ryder, Robin Peters, Levon Stevens, Candice Skingley and Candace Woodson.
Over the years we were very fortunate to have many of the members volunteer to help with the various needs of the Band: Guy Betteralli and Rick Eckstein as librarians, Walter Brown as librarian and wardrobe, Larry Williams as equipment manager, David Hershey and Bill Gwynne with Sound, and Jeff Shawd as Assistant Director and Marketing Director.
It was a wonderful opportunity for me to rehearse and direct the Evolution Big Band. For the future, it is my hope that the Evolution Big Band will continue to entertain audiences in this jazz style.