Angela O’Neill: Achieving the Big Bumpin’ Bad Big Band Sound
By Susan Frances
The big band format is one of the founding fathers of jazz. Its origins can be traced to the turn of the century, during the early 1900s, reaching its peak through the 1940s. The impetus for creating the big band sound spawned from filling the dance halls and ballrooms that emerged in the first half of the 20th century. The music invited people onto the dance floor. Growing up in California, singer-songwriter and bandleader Angela O’Neill was weaned on the big band sound rising out of the nightlife of San Francisco and the Hollywood studios in Los Angeles.
She speaks about her connection to jazz through her childhood, examining, “I think I’m attracted to jazz because I was very impacted by my parents’ taste in music. In the afternoons, after school at our house, my Dad, Emmett, who was a history teacher, would be correcting papers, and every afternoon he was the family DJ!! He played Buddy Rich and Stan Kenton, and Errol Garner and Judy Garland.”
“My Mom,” she describes, “tended to like the musical theater music more, and my Dad seemed to gravitate to the more edgy jazz sounds. They both came out of the San Francisco jazz clubs in the 1950s, where they heard Buddy Rich and my Mom’s fav, Carmen Macrae, in jazz clubs in the City. Later on, when I had the chance to sing jazz, all of those artists felt very familiar to me, like long-lost friends.”
“I have always loved singing,” she admits. “My family calls me LALA to this day. I never stop humming. I played guitar when I was a kid and sang. I would sing with neighbor’s bands in my teens.”
“I ended up in Music,” she explains, “because in 3rd grade, I started playing the oboe, and I played classical music well into my 20’s, and music is an easy mix with acting. Ironically, those singing opportunities were more available than oboe playing at that time, and I found that my storytelling/acting skills could be applied as a singer. That was so satisfying.”
Her jump into the jazz milieu was solidified during her time at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) when she entered the college’s theater program. She documents how she made the transition. “UCLA’s theater program is soooo amazing,” she remarks. “I still cannot believe that coming from a small town in Northern California, I got into that program. I think studying theater and performance would enhance what anyone does for a living. Being relaxed, speaking in front of people, especially if you Zoom a lot these days, is a really helpful skill.”
Discovering what made her soul thrive set her on the path to forming her own big band, an octet dubbed the Octrageous8, ascending in 2014. They released their debut recording Live at the Mixx in 2019. Their debut was followed by three more offerings, Quarantunes in 2020, Home for the Holidays also in 2020, and Light at the End of the Tunnel in 2022.
She looks back at what motivated her to become a lead singer supported by an octet. “A couple of years ago,” she begins, “while living in Los Angeles, I was approached by a company to sing at convalescent homes for free for those places that didn’t have a budget for entertainment. I loved the idea of entertaining older folks, and that is actually what started me on my Jazz Journey and also where I met Al Timss.”
“After that,” she earmarks, “through the players that I volunteered with, I discovered 17-piece big bands and started listening to them. Finally, sitting in with them a terrifying experience at first, but I really liked the feel of that kind of music. To me, Big Band is the Rock and Roll of Jazz. It is just SOOO BUMPIN’. I love that sound!”
The pursuit to create a big bumpin’ bad big band sound was born. With this goal in mind, O’Neill took steps to achieve her objective, recalling, “During the course of sitting in with the Big Bands, I had been talking to a few of the guys, and I was fascinated by the history of those players. People who played with Ella, with Ray Charles, and toured with Stan Kenton…unbelievable. I was in AWE, and I was shocked to know how few gigs the big bands actually got today and how few paid.”
“That was the same moment that I actually ran into Harry Smallenburg,” she cites, “trombone player/arranger/producer for the Outrageous8! I adored a couple of arrangements that he had created for the Big Bands, and we got to talking. I asked him if we should put together a smaller group to fit into the venues and hopefully pay the musicians!! And, really, it just kept rolling from there.”
She recollects, “Sam Morgan, on tenor, was the next player I approached. He loved the idea and became our Musical Director. The name of the band was inspired by those cool bands of the 50s and 60s that had very Vegassy names like that. It just had a nice alliterative feel for me, and frankly, I wanted to be a bit OUTRAGEOUS!”
“As far as why we didn’t choose the oboe in the octet,” the classical instrument she learned to play in grade school, she responds, “the oboe is a really specialized sound. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen one in a Big Band, and I chose the instrumentation in the 8 octet, by that desire for that Big Bumpin Bad Big Band sound.”
O’Neill stayed true to a specific image she had for her octet, illustrating, “Instead of having a 2nd trumpet as many octets do, we have a baritone sax, which gives it that Big Bottom played so wonderfully by Richard Walker [who is] also, a founding member of the band, along with Ron Cyger on alto and Paul Litteral on trumpet. All those folks were at the very first rehearsal in 2014, along with Al Timss, who is our male vocalist and live sound engineer.”
With her accompaniment in place, Angela O’Neill had to decide the songs she would sing, which demanded she had arrangers who could bring out her vocal strengths. Trombonist Harry Smallenburg and keyboardist Rocky Davis stepped forward to co-arrange tracks with her while tenor saxophonist Sam Morgan accepted the role of Music Director. Rounding out the octet is “Hollywood Paul” Paul Litteral on trumpet, Ron Cyger on soprano saxophone, clarinet, and flute as well being the band’s librarian, Rich Walker on baritone saxophone and flute, Phil Romo on electric and upright bass, and Tony “Boom Boom” Pia and Michael Rosen alternately on drums.
“It is beyond a euphoric experience,” she stipulates, “being a part of a new arrangement with Harry Smallenburg and with Rocky Davis. The workflow we have is, if they feel inspired by a tune, they approach me, and we talk a little bit about key. If I’m inspired, I approach them and ask if they would be interested in trying an arrangement.”
She adds, “They also arrange for Al Timss, Jackie Gibson, and Kathryn Hopkins.”
“When we began,” she recounts, “we truly ONLY had like two Harry arrangements and the rest were take-downs of other artists’ arrangements. Over the course of the years, we have eliminated almost ALL of the non-Harry/Rocky arrangements.”
“Harry and Rocky are soooo talented and so prolific,” she praises, “they are truly sublime. Arrangements you’ll only hear played at the A08!”
“The job assignments in the A08 are pretty loose,” she proclaims. “Everyone in the band is soooo eager to help. And so inspired, and so talented, and SOOO hardworking, it feels easy.”
She addresses, “Sam Morgan is the Music Director, and I work very closely on the set lists. He advises on tempo. He has the loudest snap in the biz. He works on our dynamics. He rehearses the band through difficult passages, gives input on potential adjustments to arrangements, and runs the live shows while I’m upfront talking and shaking down the club owners for payment,” she chortles.
“Part of the fun of the Outrageous8,” she admires, “is that it truly is a team. Al Timss and I sing a lot of duets, and our other guest singers, Jackie Gibson, who is also our booker, and Kathryn Hopkins, who is also our marketing manager, make it a really fun ensemble experience.”
“Anna Armstrong, Rich’s wife,” she notes, “sells our merchandise at our live shows. It is our musical family, and I’m so lucky to have such a fun family who gets along, and loves, and supports each other.”
On December 11, 2022, O’Neill and the Outrageous8 performed in a local Los Angeles restaurant, Vitellos. The circuit of supper clubs and nightclubs around Los Angeles have proven to be fertile ground for the band, as she characterizes, “The musical culture in Los Angeles is very inspiring. When you think about the acts through the ages who have played in this City and the bench of talent is soooo deep in LA, I’m blown away.”
“So many great bands, so much great music of ALL kinds,” she propounds about the LA music scene. “I have had some not-so-good experiences, but I’ve also had some miraculous experiences.”
Combing through her memory bank of lives shows that stood out for her; she regards one that, against the odds, fate worked in her favor, as she provides some background information about the experience, “When I was first sitting in with Big Bands, I used to sing with Dr. Woody James Wednesday Big Band, which played at a convalescent home in Van Nuys. I adored Woody for that opportunity, but he liked to turn his phone off, and I did not have the correct address of the gig. I had escaped from work for just an hour to sing with the band.”
“I was sobbing and horribly lost and now LATE for the band,” she remembers. “I had NO phone numbers for anyone. And no way to find the spot. I really don’t like getting lost,” she confesses.
“In desperation,” she thinks back, “I Facebook messaged the trumpet player in that band, Bill Bodine, whom I had only met ONCE. Bill calmly and clearly explained where they were and chuckled at Woody’s penchant for turning his phone off. I’ve never forgotten that simple act of kindness and compassion. Bill didn’t know me and had no reason to help me, but he did. I was and am so grateful.”
“In a fantastic turn of events,” she raves, “Bill Bodine is now my producing partner at Outrageou8 records and produced Light at the End of the Tunnel, which took FOREVER. Thus, the name with #daboyz and I, with his son Bchill Bodine doing the vocal production. Harry Smallenburg and Bill Jackson are producing along with us. Al Timss was also one of our producers on Home for the Holidays.”
Prior to releasing Home for the Holidays and Light at the End of the Tunnel, Angela O’Neill and the Outrageous8 recorded Quarantunes, a recording spurred by the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 restrictions worldwide. She prefixes, “March 13 is my birthday. But, March 13, 2020, is the very day that Covid shut everything in Los Angeles down. I’ll forever remember that on my birthday.”
“I mean, nobody has practice in dealing with a global pandemic,” she observes, “and it was very scary. I remember calling the band members to talk about how to go forward. Finally, one of us might have been Ron or Kathryn, who recommended Zoom. So every Wednesday night at 7 pm, during the entire shutdown, the whole band jumped on Zoom, and we talked about our projects and how to push through with no contact!”
“Firstly,” she details, “we would email out the arrangement to the 8. Then, we’d discuss with Michael Rosen how to record on our phones from home. Then, how to technically accomplish that. Then Michael took those cell phone tracks. He’s a SUPER genius,” she complimented, “and separated the audio and mixed it. And then, he took the video and cut that into a video.”
“PHEW,” she exclaimed, “it was exhausting but kept us happily busy during the shutdown. Then, Michael and I mixed those couple tunes with a couple of remixes into a record that we entitled Quarantunes.”
She imparts, “What we learned as a band about ourselves is that there is not a weak link. Everyone in team Outrageous8 is dedicated, cares about their fellow bandmates, and through all of it, there was no in-fighting. We spoke honestly with each other and made sure everyone was taken care of and safe.”
Also in 2020, the band released their holiday effort Home for the Holidays. She classifies, “The Home for the Holidays record was truly a democratic process. I mean, we started working on our Christmas book in 2014, building originals to play live. Everything that we record, we workshop repeatedly at rehearsal, then perform in live and rehearse it ten more times, and then as a group. If we decide it resonates and there’s magic there, it gets chosen for the record that truly was the workflow on this one.”
“When we think about Christmas music,” she discerns, “I think the classic piece are ALL big band and jazz. It’s kind of a natural for Jazzy Big Band to do Holiday music, and Harry’s and Rocky’s original arrangement makes it one of a kind Xmas experience.”
Turning to the band’s latest release in 2022, O’Neill provides, “Light at the End of the Tunnel was recorded live in Al Timss backyard, prior to any of us safely doing music inside. It was a hot two weeks of rehearsal prior and a very hot three days of recording, where we struggled against the elements to record and not expire from the heat.”
“Every tune on the record somehow has a theme about surviving Covid,” she shares. “I figured people became a little TOO ‘accustomed’ to each other’s faces during Covid.”
“‘Come Rain, Come Shine,'” she singles out from the recording, “well, can you love each other under the worst of circumstances, etc.?”
“The theme is surviving difficult circumstances,” she embraces, highlighting the track “In A New York Minute,’ in particular, [is] a tribute to a friend that died from Covid, Mary Ianichhierri, who was an incredible friend to the band. Always brought the band food, loved to sit in on our rehearsals, LOVED LOVED music! Brought her grandkids to our shows and danced around in the back. The whole band adored her. I had heard she was sick on a Sunday. I texted her. She said she was feeling better, and she passed that Wednesday morning…in a New York minute. She was there, and then she was gone.”
“The lyrics of that song,” she expresses mindfully, “are scarily relevant with a heartwrenching arrangement by Rocky Davis and trumpet feature by Paul Litteral, and tenor played by Sam Morgan. I’m so thankful to have known Mary, and to remember her in music is something she would have liked.”
“I adored my friend Mary Ianichierri,” she professes. “We were close friends, and she was such a generous and joyous spirit, and that cut is dedicated to her and her deep love of music.
She explores how she discovered the song “In A New York Minute,” specifying, “I heard Don Henley cover his song, and was soooo struck by the beauty of those lyrics. An absolutely brilliant treatment to me of so much we find in modern times. People feeling so unsupported and alienated. This arrangement by Rocky Davis and the lyrics just resonated so deeply with me. It feels like all the compassion in the world in one song. We have to watch out for each other, really look in other’s eyes, really care, because they could be…gone.”
“It was a hard and jarring experience for me,” she reveals. “When we went into the studio to re-do that vocal, I didn’t do a great take on the live track. I was entirely dependent on Bill Bodine producing and his son Bchill Bodine engineering and mixing that track. The three of us met, and I explained the emotional meaning of this cut. When they looked at me, I knew they got it. Bill pushed me, as a vocalist, to really capture the emotional moment…thank you, Bill.”
She illuminates, “Bill is married to lauded angelic vocalist Beth Andersen, so he has a deep understanding of how to produce vocals.”
Another track from Light at the End of the Tunnel that continues the theme of surviving difficult circumstances is “Gonna Live Til I Die,” featuring singer Al Timss. She purports, “Al Timss has a great feel for swingy Big Band tunes, and ‘Gonna Live Til I Die’ is NO exception. Jackie Gibson dubbed him THE DUKE OF SMOOTH, and he truly is. As I noted above, Al and I met volunteering to sing for rest homes, and we’ve been singing together ever since.”
“Also, please note,” she adds, “a GREAT track of ‘On A Clear Day,’ an amazing arrangement by Harry and sung by Bill A Jones! We are so lucky to have Bill and Jackie singing ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’ on this record.” Each tune follows the theme of surviving difficult circumstances by holding onto hope and optimism.
“I couldn’t have done any growing,” she concludes ardently, “without the participation of the Outrageous8. It is a team sport. Music is, and I’m so inspired by all the musicians that I work with, their talent and hard work.”
“I’ve grown to realize,” she determines from working with her bandmates and being exposed to their talent and hard work, “I really just enhance that. As a frontwoman, I’m so grateful to those folks who truly support music. I’ve grown in my awareness of our incredible fans and audience. That is what I’m thinking when I look out into the audience. How much effort and money it takes to go out to a live show, to get yourself together and show up.”
“I don’t think I used to have such a deep understanding of that from the clubs that struggle to stay afloat in these difficult times,” she considers. “To each person who shows up, I hope to create an entertaining and REAL, and sometimes deep experience, for all of those involved.”
“Also, as a front woman,” she asserts, “I feel very protective of the singers and players. I’m not sure that people realize how expensive it is to be a musician, and I really try to create a culture of respect for musicianship. It is hard work to be at the great level of playing that #daboyz are. As we say, no magic, just practice, EVERY WEDNESDAY.”
When Angela O’Neill is not working on her music, her leisure time is spent “Makin movies!” She declares, “I started Propmastering 27 years ago, after I segued out of acting because of my fascination for how movies are made. I’m still fascinated to this day!”
She affirms, “I adore my family, my sister Macella O’Neill, my brother-in-law Charlie and my Mom Cara. Cara is still listening and enjoying the music. I love tennis and the ocean, which brings me great peace, serenity, and cleansing.”
The big bumpin’ bad big band sound called to Angela O’Neill in her childhood and remains a visceral part of her soul. Her roots in California fostered an affinity for jazz, and her solo efforts solidified her place as a striking jazz vocalist. Her pursuit of the big bumpin’ bad big band sound strengthened her resolve to overcome struggles and has carved a place for herself and the Outrageous8 on the big band landscape in perpetuity. Surviving difficult circumstances is a theme of O’Neill and the Outrageous8’s music, and their ability to lift themselves out of the storm continues to be a relevant theme in their big bumpin’ bad big band sound.
About Susan Frances:Born in Brooklyn, New York and raised in eastern Long Island, I always enjoyed writing and made several contributions to my high school literary magazine, The Lion’s Pen. Influenced by writers of epic novels including Colleen McCullough and James Clavell, I gravitated to creative writing. After graduating from New York University with a BA in Liberal Arts, I tried my hand at conventional jobs but always returned to creative writing. Since 1998, I have been a freelance writer and have over three thousand articles to various e-zines including: Jazz Times, Blogcritics, Yahoo Voices, Goodreads.com, Authors and Books (books.wiseto.com), TheReadingRoom.com, Amazon.com, Epinions.com, Fictiondb.com, LibraryThing.com, BTS emag, BarnesandNoble.com, RomanticHistoricalReviews.com, AReCafe.com, Hybrid Magazine, and BookDepository.com. In 2013 and 2014, I was a judge in the Orange Rose Writing Competition sponsored by the Orange County chapter of the Romance Writers of America located in Brea, California.