It started with a dilapidated cardboard box filled with big band and early jazz CDs. Ryan Sheehan found inspiration in the Great Depression-era melodies borrowed from his college roommate. He said the big band groups from that time period embodied a unified spirit and character that is hard to find today. Sheehan wanted to do something different and decided to start his own big band.
“Those guys were so good that they didn’t have to think about playing anymore,” Sheehan said. “It’s like they were just talking. They were carrying on a musical conversation with themselves and with the audience.”
Sheehan graduated from Webster University in December 2013 with a degree in music education. He said he hopes to teach music at the middle school and high school levels. Currently, he owns and manages The St. Louis Big Band, which he formed.
The St. Louis Big Band is a 17-piece band for hire that plays a wide array of music.
“I think I was crazy. I don’t know what I was thinking. It sure would have been a lot easier to run a four-or-five-piece band,” Sheehan said. “I just really wanted to do something different and try to do something a lot of people weren’t doing.”
Photos by Clair Staples/ The Journal
Sheehan said the group performs more recent musical compositions, as well as 1930s and ‘40s style pieces made famous by bands such as Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey Orchestras.
The group offers different services based on customer requests, such as a smaller band called The St. Louis Variety Band. Sheehan said the company books around 65 performances each year, including weddings, private events and appearances at the St. Louis Casa Loma Ballroom. Sheehan said audiences range from around 16 to 35 years of age, but then drop off until 65 and up.
Sheehan developed the idea of starting a big band as a college freshman at Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) in Cape Girardeau. He was involved with the jazz program at SEMO but felt there were more opportunities in St. Louis. His sophomore year he enrolled at Webster, where he said he found his heart and soul.
“If it wasn’t for Webster I don’t think we would be where we are,” Sheehan said. “It’s the campus community and the music department being an old house. Even though I have graduated, I still feel like I can go back to the (music) house and everybody will know you. People are just really friendly here.”
Video by Holly Shanks
Sheehan began putting The St. Louis Big Band together in 2010. The first few members were musicians Sheehan played with in other local bands. He took out newspaper ads and placed signs calling for auditions around the campuses of Webster and other colleges with music departments. The newly-formed band met once a week and played one gig its first year.
Sheehan said Professor Alan “Papa” Shiller was one of the largest influences for him at Webster. Something the professor said during a class lecture resonated with Sheehan.
“(Shiller) said that if someone does not understand something, you say it is always your fault,” Sheehan said. “This has stuck with me through all of my teaching experiences, with children and adults alike. Whenever I get frustrated, I just think about his words and look for a different way to communicate what I am trying to say.”
Shiller was an adjunct professor in Webster’s School of Education for more than 20 years. He passed away due to complications from heart surgery in December 2013.
In high school, Sheehan began learning how to manage a band when he played music for tips outside of Busch Stadium. He said that experience was where he “cut his teeth,” allowing him to do what he does today. He has since sought mentors to gain knowledge about leading a professional band in St. Louis.
Tim Callihan is a Boeing engineer by day. But at night, he is a 46-year drummer and a 17-year band leader. He said he has “cracked the code” to being a band leader, and it is hard work.
“A band is not just getting on stage and playing music,” Callihan said. “To make the band really work, it’s a business, and that’s the message band leaders have to understand.”
Callihan said he helps Sheehan with questions, such as how to respond to clients and different marketing aspects. He also mentioned one of the biggest responsibilities for a band leader is keeping a band active and booked. He said to keep the best musicians, a band has to stay busy.
“Sheehan seems to be someone who is willing to invest the work to make music not just a hobby, but a career,” Callihan said. “So it’s something he is going to invest a lot of effort into.”
Sheehan said he would love to develop a touring big band show reminiscent of a 1930s review. He estimated an average of 50 hours of behind-the-scenes work is required for every hour of music presented on stage. While he does not always enjoy the tediousness of running a business, Sheehan said it is necessary.
Sheehan’s parents, Michael and Kathy, help him with The St. Louis Big Band business. Michael Sheehan said he comes up with new ideas for the band, such as a device that produces smoke that comes out of Ryan Sheehan’s saxophone as he plays. Kathy Sheehan helps keep the music paperwork organized.
Michael Sheehan said it is a beautiful thing to watch what his son does and the hard work that goes into creating the music. Ryan Sheehan lives at home and his dad often hears him playing music late at night.
“It’s contagious, and it’s really been inspirational to me,” Michael Sheehan said. “I work all night sometimes, and I’m able to listen to his wonderful sounds that he puts together.”
Ryan Sheehan’s father, a lawyer, said his son has always been torn between being an attorney and a musician. As a child, Ryan Sheehan would go to work with his father and spend time in the court room watching him practice. However, Ryan Sheehan also spent time with his grandfather on his mother’s side of the family who played the organ.
Ryan Sheehan said he has not ruled out going to law school in the future. Studying intellectual property rights and specializing in creative trademarks is an area that interests him.
One of The St. Louis Big Band’s favorite songs to play is “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which the Benny Goodman Orchestra made famous. Ryan Sheehan said he thinks the real spirit that made big band music popular during the Great Depression was the musicians’ need for work during that era. They had to rely on their musical skills to earn money.
“I almost feel like today there are so many other opportunities out there that a lot of talented musicians overlook music. They think there just isn’t enough opportunities out there to make a living,” Ryan Sheehan said. “I tell everybody…that there are opportunities in music, but you have to create them. The more people who are creating opportunities the better the scene will be for everybody.”