The Dean of Big-Band Jazz : CSUN’s Joel Leach Earning Reputation as Tops in the Field

Joel Leach sat cross-armed on a stool in room 159 of the music building at Cal State Northridge, listening to his youthful, 19-piece “A” Jazz Band run through “Smiles,” a big-band tune by Butch Nordal.

Suddenly, the band director waved his arms in front of him, as if he were doing the breaststroke, to stop his charges.

“I hear a lot of people playing parts, but no one cares what the ensemble sounds like. Blend! Balance!” Leach, 46, chided the players (five reeds, four trombones, five trumpets and five rhythm instruments) in a firm but hardly angry tone of voice.

During Leach rehearsals--which take place Tuesday and Thursday during the school year--the band gets stopped a lot, so that errors can be pointed out, explained and rectified. It’s this kind of “attention to detail” that is central to Leach’s reputation as one of the finest big-band directors in the country.


With a “Here we go, one, two, ah, one, two, three,” Leach--now in his 20th year at CSUN and 18th at the helm of the jazz band--kicked the number off again. After letting the five saxophonists wade through a tough section, he again called for a halt.

“Oh, sloppy rhythm in the saxophones,” he said. Then the director, whose neat-as-a-pin short-sleeved-shirt-slacks-and-tie appearance was in marked contrast to his jeans-and-tennis-shoes crew, sang the part the way he wanted to hear it.

But Leach, who also teaches percussion and studio orchestra--"That’s the student equivalent of a recording orchestra"--wasn’t always as matter-of-fact when he was working the kinks out of a tune. After listening to 19-year-old tenor saxophonist Mike Bagasou’s lengthy, well-constructed solo on “Tenor Time,” a fast tune written by local composer/arranger/saxophonist Don Menza, Leach jokingly told the tenor man that he pulled the sheet music out of the library “just for you, and I’ll probably put it back, just because of you.”

Later, when a version of Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” was dragging, Leach bent over and mimed as if he were using a hand air pump to get the rhythm section up to the proper tempo.


“I try to keep it light,” he said in his office after rehearsal, “but the guys know that masked behind that is the idea that they damn well better fix something. The rapport is all-important.”

Leach must know something about rapport, the way he attracts young jazz talent from near and far. Bagasou, a Northridge resident, has heard “almost every ‘A’ band concert since I was in junior high school. That really motivated me to go to school here,” he said. Trumpeter John Chudoba, 20, from Chicago, played at Disneyland over the summer and then enrolled at CSUN. He said he talked to many people and that all of them said CSUN had “the best jazz program.”

The quality of the program is reflected in the number of “name” working professionals who have attended CSUN and played for Leach--whose ‘A’ band is just one of the school’s three big bands. Among those professionals are guitarists Grant Geissman, Mitch Holder and Dan Sawyer; saxophonists Gordon Goodwin and Glen Garrett; keyboardists Randy Kerber and Greg Mathieson, and drummers Dave Tull and Billy Hulting. Collectively, they’ve worked with jazzmen such as Chuck Mangione and Maynard Ferguson and pop stars such as Bette Midler and Barry Manilow.

Through the years, Leach’s bands have traveled throughout the United States, competing at dozens of college jazz festivals. His office is lined with trophies and plaques awarded to his bands--both the first, 1972, and the most recent, 1988, are from the Pacific Coast Collegiate Jazz Festival, a Berkeley-based event that CSUN bands have won nine times.

But this year’s band is green--there are only three returning members--so the rehearsal he conducted was designed specifically to get the ensemble prepped up for its first concert.

Leach, who holds a masters degree in music from Michigan State University, is used to the problems new students have. “They miss a lot of basic concepts,” he said, “like not holding out notes, not listening to their lead players and or phrasing like him. And they’re not listening to each other.”

The leader is confident he can work things out. “I’m fairly well-organized,” he said. “I know where I want to be and I know how to get there. I’m always prepared. They’re never left standing there, wondering where we’re going. A lot of jazz directors, because it’s jazz, keep it loose. In rehearsal, I know what I want to get done in those two hours. It’s not ‘Y’all just pull out your fiddles and strum.’ ”

It’s not easy to get on the roster of Leach’s band. There’s a difficult audition process, and “out of that we can pretty much select the ‘A’ band,” he said. “But there are some players who are very close, so we take those and let them play and settle it that way.”


Most of those who don’t make the grade, even veterans--"it’s harder where someone who’s been in the band is knocked out by someone who outperforms them at the next audition"--take it in stride, only vowing to work harder to pass the next audition, one of which is held at the beginning of every semester. “The players just know that they got cut by somebody else,” Leach said. “There’s a very professional attitude here.”

It’s an attitude that Leach spends a lot of energy cultivating in his players. “I’m trying to get the kids to be sharp and alert musicians, and fulfill the needs of the people out there who hire you,” he said. “See, I’m the last guy that will bitch at them, their college band director. Then they try to be pros. And in the professional world, a pro doesn’t turn to another pro and say, ‘Your tone is bad.’ He simply fires him and doesn’t hire him again. I have the last chance to shape them up for a professional career.”

According to Leach, playing at CSUN has taken on some meaning in the professional world. “Now going here amounts to part of your credentials, at least in this town, whereas in the past your only credentials were experience with name bands,” he said.

“I’ve heard the band on several occasions and it always sounds good,” said Bill Holman, the Grammy-winning composer/arranger who’s written for Stan Kenton, Woody Herman and most recently, Doc Severinsen. “My impression is that CSUN is a good place to go to school.”

Deep down, Leach doesn’t care whether the band wins contests or whether his players turn pro: Basically, he just likes working with the students. “I’m a people person,” he said. “I always tell them, ‘This isn’t a religion; it’s just music. But while you’re here for two hours, I want your attention and I’ll try to give you mine.’ And if we play well out of this, that’s the reward.”