“Oh when the sun refuses to shine
I'm going to sing as loud as thunder
Oh when the saints go marching in”
- song, “When the Saints Go Marching In”

Louis Armstrong must have known the exact feeling of singing and playing this ever-so popular spiritual song on his cornet in 1938 enough for it to be considered today as the top lead song of any big band across the world. There is something quite metaphysical about the big band and marching bands. At a moving time in history during the early 1900s when race separated societies from each other, people expressed their agony, desire and liberation through dance and music. While jazz traveled from New Orleans to Chicago and to New York, the suave rhythms accompanied the foxtrot, Lindy hop, jitterbug or swing. If you ain’t dancin’, you ain’t marchin’ with a band—is what most people would say then.

Audiences always love the big band because the escalating energy from all the multiple instruments fills up an entire ballroom like titillating magic. Likewise, when a marching band parades on the street, you would never find a person along the sidewalk not swinging his hips to the cries of the saxophones, trumpets, trombones, French horns, timpani, drums, double bass or guitars. The marching band is one entire family of harmonious spirit emulated in songs and footsteps.

Such a big family band, the Italian marching band called Funk Off is waiting to storm Tokyo on September 25 out on the streets outside Otemachi Place, and September 27 at the Blue Note Tokyo. The Funk Off band hails from the classic artist Giotto’s hometown, Vicchio, Florence. Composed today of a 15-member band: 3 trumpeters, 1 percussionist, 1 cymbal player, 1 bass drummer, 1 snare drummer, 1 sousaphone player, 2 tenor saxophonists, 2 alto saxophonists, and 3 baritone saxophonists including the master band leader, Dario Cecchini, the marching band is coming to Japan for the first time after delighting audiences across continents (Australia, China, USA, South Africa, and Brazil) with over 900 concerts. It has been Umbria Jazz Festival’s official marching band, and is largely reputed for its unique diversity of musical patterns, from jazz, Latin, blues, soul and other music genres.

Dario Cecchini, the band’s leader is proud to lead this upbeat assembly of merrymakers, and more so, to be able to impart his own music in the deepest sense to spectators of all ages.

How did you first conceive of forming the Funk Off Band?

Dario: When I was teaching in school around the 1990s, I had an idea to start playing my own music, jazz, but also funk, soul, and other mixed genre with a lot of energy. At first, I was afraid this idea wouldn’t work because it wasn’t jazz but mixed, but later I realized with a marching band my idea could work. So, I put up a big band that played my music, and I started to work with some guys who are playing in Funk Off today. I created Funk Off around early 1998. Since our first rehearsal, I have been emphasizing to the band, “Play with your heart. Believe in the music that we are playing and in what we are doing. Be more involved in the music.” I encouraged them to dance, to combine steps with the music.

What ideas did you have to make the band unique from the others?

I had some ideas with the dance movements mixed to my music. It was my philosophy for the musicians to be more involved in the performance. At that time, I was also playing with several jazz musicians and in a big band for the RAI Television, so I was playing at a high level. I was around 34-36 years old. However, the way the music was being played wasn’t really the way it should be played, I thought. I wanted it to have more heart, more soul, so I created this marching band and instilled my ideas as part of my intuition. How could music be played in another way? Funk Off became the solution.

How challenging was it to put the band together?

We started with about 14-17 members, and now have 15 members in the band. Most of them are also from Vicchio. We have joined many festivals in Italy, France, Spain, all over Europe, and in Brazil, South Africa, Australia, and the US, and more. We became the official marching band for the Umbria Jazz Festival since 2003; thus we have been playing for this festival for 15 years now. All the songs we play are my compositions and arrangements.

Rehearsing with 15 musicians is not an easy task for that big number—finding that method of harmonizing all instruments, like in an orchestra, but it is important for each band member to find inspiration. For this reason it made sense to find band members from my hometown, Vicchio. The city government gives us opportunities to rehearse in the theatre. Those who are not from Vicchio come from nearby cities, like Florence, Prato, and others. Some musicians have their own bands as well. Their ages range from 25-55. It is a wide range. Only four came from the music conservatory, but I don’t think formal education is necessary. The only requirement to play with Funk Off is to rehearse a lot and to know how to play, what to play, how to move, and to be able to play everything with one’s soul—to believe in what you play!

Was Funk Off largely influenced by the marching bands in New Orleans?

There are some influences from New Orleans, or a kind of parade music, but also funk and soul music from the U.S. like Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang, jazz in general (my first love), and soul like Marvin Gaye or Bill Withers—mixed influences. I always had a lot of jazz music in my home since I was born because my father liked jazz music. I was born in the 60’s; thus, I grew up listening to funk and soul music, and going to the disco for dancing! I always looked for free music, with a deep soul and without walls, borders, and rules. Even today, I don’t care what kind of music I write. I only care about liking what I write. I don’t care if it is more of jazz, funk or soul, or whatever it is.

Marching bands have a strong history in Italy as well, but we are the only marching band with such a wide variety of music: Latin jazz, funk, and others, even though now there are a lot of bands inspired by Funk Off in Italy and also abroad. For instance, regions like Puglia also have their own marching bands inspired by us.

Tell us about yourself and your musical career.

I came from a musical family. My father was an amateur drummer, pianist and trombone player. When I was a boy, I found my father’s drums in the house and I started to play them when I was around 4. Then, when I was 14, I was asked by “The banda of Vicchio” (my town) to learn the saxophone, and later on, I also studied the flute. In 1991, I decided to focus on the saxophone and writing and doing arrangements at the same time. Thus, I began my studies at the Conservatory.

Well, I started as a freelance musician before Funk Off was born. But, I also played in other big bands. I recorded CDs and performed all over Italy, playing with the big band for RAI Television for about five years between 1996-2001. RAI Television Big Band was located in Rome, and so I thought that I would have to stay in Rome, but I decided not to because I wanted to continue working with Funk Off in my hometown in Vicchio, Florence, and so, eventually I stayed in Vicchio. I still teach jazz saxophone in two universities: at Mascagni Conservatory in Livorno and at Venezze Conservatory in Rovigo. Two of the young musicians who sometimes play in the band were my students.

What important philosophy do you instill in your band members?

As a bandleader, I often tell the band that we need not only to play the right music, but also to play with the heart! “Go to the soul of the music.” The members understand this way about me.

And, this is your first Japan tour, yes?

Yes. It is my first time and the band’s to play in Japan. We are looking forward so much to this event. After Japan, we will head to our fourth tour in China for eight days. Umbria Jazz Festival will bring us to Japan for two concerts: one, an outdoor parade in Otemachi on September 25 and the other in Blue Note Tokyo on September 27. I hope Japanese will like the music we play, which are all my original compositions, and the way we conceive the show that expresses a lot of musical influences, energy, passion and movements.

Funk Off Band in Tokyo: Dario Cecchini (band leader, bs), Paolo Bini (twp), Mirco Rubegni (tp), Emiliano Bassi (tp), Sergio Santelli (as), Tiziano Panchetti (as), Claudio Giovagnoli (ts), Francesco Felici (ts), Nicola Cipriani (bs), Giacomo Bassi (bs), Glauco Benedetti (sousaphone), Francesco Bassi (snare drum), Alessandro Suggelli (bass drum), Luca Bassani (cym), Daniele Bassi (per).