Formed about five years ago — pinning down an exact date remains sketchy — the Beef Manhattans bring together four men with busy lives and careers who are keeping the jazz flame alive as a labor of love. Singer Mike Conley, known throughout town for his solo work, and upright bass player Dave Nelson are both business owners while keyboardist/trumpet player Todd Phillips and drummer John Moss are both music teachers in local schools. Having all run into each other in the Fort Wayne music community, they saw the time was right to form a group that was as timeless as the music they wanted to play. In fact, they’re all so tuned into the music that they seldom, if ever, rehearse.
“Everybody knows their parts,” said Conley. “We’ve all played with a bunch of groups so whenever we add a song, we just pass it around to everyone and we can figure it out and be ready to go.”
“Sometimes Mike and I will get together to work out the keys so it’s not too high or too low,” said Phillips. “But that’s about it.”
Response has been very welcoming, and although they sometimes play in venues which lend themselves to the jazzy persona of the Rat Pack (places like Club Soda, which has martinis named after Pack members), it has been the stage at Mad Anthony’s, where they have played the most and will visit again April 14. In that atmosphere the songs of Sinatra and Tony Bennett go over big, but a surprising take on a Radiohead song also gets a great reaction.
“Jazz musicians have a reputation for being a little tight,” said Conley. “We take a much looser approach. We have fun while still respecting the music.”
The appreciation for that musical genre is clearly eternal. Phillips and Moss both see it in their students who play in marching and jazz bands and enjoy current artists like Michael Bublé and discover the Rat Pack-era songs on YouTube. Conley sees the success of the Beef Manhattans as testament to the friendships in the band and the popularity of the music.
“I always say this is the nicest band in town. We’re all good friends and can just continue to play what we’re playing into our 80s. Wherever we play, we want people to say, ‘That was fun, let’s see them again.’”
Nelson agrees. “I can see us still playing together in 20 years. No matter how much time passes, we’ll be playing because it’s not a stressful thing. It’s just a lot of fun.”