The final road trip

For 27 years, Jim Bochnicek and the rest of the Jimmy B Orchestra have loaded onto a bus and traveled from small town to small town, playing big band classics in crowded ballrooms. As the band plays its final dance, it pays homage to a passing era as Jimmy B gets ready to retire his drumsticks.
By Michael Kelly | World-Herald columnist | Photos by Matt Dixon

By Michael Kelly / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, July 30, 2016


The Jimmy B Orchestra plays its final Omaha dance today, celebrating the 53-year music career of its bandleader-drummer. But before hanging up his sticks, Jim Bochnicek wanted to make one last road trip, just like the old days.
So last Sunday at the Tara Plaza in Papillion he loaded up his drum set, instruments and other equipment and joined fans and bandmates on a bus to the Lake Robbins Ballroom, northwest of Des Moines.
“I remember when we played in Canada one weekend,” said Bochnicek, 70. “We left Omaha on a Thursday morning, played Friday, Saturday and Sunday, and got back late Monday or early Tuesday morning.”

Jim Bochnicek performs with his band, The Jimmy B Orchestra, at Lake Robbins Ballroom on Sunday, July 24, 2016, in Woodward, Iowa. Bochnicek will be retiring after the band and their final performance will be held today at the Sokol Hall.

Lots of big bands once traveled widely to play at ballrooms, often in small towns and drawing good crowds. Now attendance is dwindling, and an era is passing.
Last week’s trip, each way, was 150 miles and 2½ hours. On the bus, just as he is on the bandstand, Jim was a genial host. Bus riders got a bit more: He passed out fruit, sausage and crackers and engaged them with wisecracks and his cackling laughter.
“Jimmy is gregarious, always connected with his audience, said Janet Staley, in her 15th year as his band’s female vocalist. “He is one of the most honest, genuine people I’ve ever known, just a really good soul.”
There’s much more to being a musician than playing music, especially if you’re the leader of the band: booking gigs, lining up musicians, creating playlists, setting up the stage and more. And if there are any problems or questions, they come your way.
For a year and a half there’s been no question that Jimmy B was winding down — he kept it no secret — and he planned this trip well. The bus arrived more than two hours ahead of the 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. gig at Lake Robbins, where his band in recent decades has played about three times a year.
The unloading and the setup began. And there was Jim, on his hands and knees, hooking up sound wiring. Others helped set up loudspeakers and places for members of the 11-piece band.
As showtime neared, the leader changed into a tux, adjusted his bow tie and made sure everyone was ready. Drumsticks in hand, he told the band: “OK, let’s hit it!”

Jim Bochnicek chats with friends and fans during a bus ride with his band, The Jimmy "B" Orchestra, on their way to perform at Lake Robbins Ballroom in Woodward, Iowa.

Today from 3 to 7 p.m. the Jimmy B Orchestra will hit it for a final home-turf performance at the Sokol Auditorium, 13th and Martha Streets.
It’s his last Omaha show, the finale for ballroom dancing under the Jimmy B name. He also leads the polka-music Jim Bochnicek Orchestra, and its finale is next Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Starlite Ballroom in Wahoo, Nebraska.
That will be it. Afterward, he says, he will nail his drumsticks to the ballroom’s wall. Literally.
Jim has played dozens of Nebraska ballrooms, including the Oak in Schuyler, the King in Norfolk, the Flying V in Utica, SAC in Bellevue and Pla-Mor in Lincoln, and many in Iowa and beyond. Omaha venues have included South Omaha Eagles, the German-American Club, the Millard Legion, the Ozone, the Roam Inn, the SumTur Amphitheater and the old Peony Park Ballroom, with its overhead mirror ball.
Sokol holds a special place in his heart, and not just because of his Czech heritage.
“I’ve always been in love with that Sokol Auditorium,” Jim said. “It has the most beautiful acoustics, as well as the overhead chandelier and that big curtain. Nobody else has a curtain like that.”

One Sunday a month in recent years, the band has drawn people there for dancing. Sokol, meanwhile, does a brisk business with bands that attract younger crowds.
A couple of years ago, the Jimmy B Orchestra played upstairs at Sokol, with such older dance tunes as “Moonlight Serenade” and “In the Mood,” while heavy-metal bands prepared for a show that night in the Sokol Underground.
A 20-year-old rock singer came upstairs, surveyed the scene of dancing elders and respectfully said, “This is something you don’t see at our gigs. I can’t dance like that.”
Some folks can, and they have rarely missed Jimmy B gigs or other ballroom-dancing opportunities.
Dick Browns of Omaha said he had “two left feet” before he and wife Carol took dance lessons in 1992, and have followed Jimmy B ever since.
Jerry and Mary Murphy took lessons at the YMCA about four years ago, and are avid dancers at Omaha-Council Bluffs venues, recently learning the tango.
Both couples, married 49 and 46 years, respectively, said the dancing helps them stay fit, and they enjoy the music.
The Kavans feel the same way. “It’s happy music,” said Richard. Added Leona: “It gets you moving.”

Trombonist Ron Halvorson sorts through music worn from years of use before performing with The Jimmy B Orchestra.

Jim Bochnicek grew up on a Sarpy County farm, walking bean fields and baling hay to earn money for a drum set. In high school he played in a “country and light rock” band, and joined a polka band on New Year’s Eve 1965.
He later played in the Eddie Janak Orchestra, and became a polka DJ on KOTD in Plattsmouth.
Jim formed his own polka band in 1976, playing for his aunt and uncle’s 25th anniversary. The band traveled to Iowa, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, made three tours to Canada and recorded multiple LPs.
In 1987, Bochnicek purchased the 400-tune big-band library of ballroom music from the estate of the late bandleader Skippy Anderson. Two years later, the Jimmy B Orchestra was formed.
In the late 1990s, swing music attracted young people, and his orchestra often played at the Stork Club. In 2003, Jimmy B and his musicians played in front of 2,000 at the Glenn Miller Festival in Clarinda, Iowa. The orchestra released a CD.
Though ballroom music appeals more to an older crowd, Jim says he is pleased that the Omaha Jitterbugs bring in lots of young people for fast-paced dancing on Friday nights at the Eagles Club downtown.
After he retires his band and his drumsticks, he says, he will enjoy other bands with his longtime “lady friend,” Annie Koenig, whom he met on the dance floor at Peony Park. A favorite of theirs is Mike Gurciullo’s Las Vegas-style band that plays Monday evenings at the Ozone Lounge at Anthony’s Restaurant, near Interstate 80 and 72nd Street in Omaha.

Left: Jerry and Mary Murphy hold hands between songs as the The Jimmy B Orchestra performs at Lake Robbins Ballroom. Right: From left, Marcus Nunez, Janet Staley and Allen Valish perform at Lake Robbins Ballroom.

Jimmy B said his current band is his best, and it ranges in age from trombonist Ron Halvorson, 77, to saxophonist Skye Junginger, 19 — not the first young musician he’s hired.
Others scheduled to play today are sax men Ken Janak, Mark Benson and Andrew Janak; Jim Schulz, bass; Roger Anderson, piano; and trumpeters Ryan Vander Helm and Marcus Nunez. Band alumni returning to play include trumpeters Jon Yates and Curtis Pelster and keyboardist Joan Allen.
Nunez, for one, is a full-time musician, playing in various bands. Some others are part time and hold non-musical day jobs.
Jimmy B’s musicians are paid $75 to $100 per gig, but vocalist Staley, who also has sung with small combos for 25 years, said money isn’t the attraction in performing ballroom music. In her own case, she said, “I get to sing beautiful tunes, surrounded by skilled musicians playing fabulous arrangements reminiscent of my parents’ era.”
Besides solo ballads, including Latin tunes, she leads a harmonizing trio in a lively “Jump, Jive an’ Wail.” Jimmy B himself sings an occasional novelty song, such as “Who Stole the Lock on the Henhouse Door?”
In the past two years Allen Valish and Bob Fields have added vocals, the latter often singing “Mack the Knife.”
Jimmy B always dedicates that song to Gus Polito, 93, a Marine veteran of the Pacific in World War II. A former carpet salesman, Gus on the dance floor can still cut the rug.
For the trip last Sunday to Lake Robbins, Gus hopped on the bus and sat next to the bandleader. Said Jim: “Gus is like a father to me.”

Bochnicek packs up his drum kit after performing.

Fans have seen lots of bands and their leaders come and go. Peony Park long ago held “Over 28” dances, but now some of those Over-28s are over 78. Time moves on, and so do musical tastes.
Bochnicek says he has hired 322 musicians in 40 years as a bandleader. In all, he says, his polka band, ballroom orchestra and smaller combos have played 2,200 performances.
He has enjoyed it, but says all the organizing, setups and tear-downs are wearying and time-consuming. He got home from last week’s trip about 2 a.m.
Jim doesn’t expect to shed a tear today — unless it’s because of the pride he feels when grandson D.J. Bochnicek sits in on drums for a swingin’ “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
With his late wife Lorraine, Jimmy B raised sons Chris and Tim and daughter Michele (Gleason), and he has nine grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. Amid all the music and travel, he carried mail for five years and worked 40 years as a press operator for Continental Can Co., which became Crown Cork and Seal.
His fans hope he’ll play again, but he says when he’s done, he’s done. He’ll still enjoy music, sure, but won’t pick up his sticks — so folks will have to just let Jimmy be.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1132, michael.kelly@owh.com

Share your thoughts