Jazz Educators Gather for 4 Days of Jamming at San Diego Meeting

Just when you wondered whether 1989 was going to be a ho-hum year for big-time jazz in San Diego, the 16th annual National Assn. of Jazz Educators comes honkin’ and screamin’ into town.

During four days at the Town & Country Hotel in Mission Valley, beginning Thursday, 3,000 jazz musicians and fans are expected to take in clinics, equipment displays, jam sessions and nightly concerts in the Atlas Ballroom, featuring such top talent as Bill Watrous, Red Rodney, Joe Williams, Charles McPherson, U. S. Army Blues, Rob McConnell, Snooky Young, the Count Basie Orchestra and the Michael Brecker Band.

Local musicians also are getting involved.

Pianist Mike Wofford, bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Jim Plank have signed on as the house rhythm section for the convention. Alto saxman Richie Cole, coming for the convention, will play Diego’s Loft on Friday and Saturday nights in an open jam session. San Diego State University’s jazz ensemble, which did not snag a place as a finalist in the Southern Comfort-sponsored collegiate band competition, will open the show for the stars on Thursday night.


The NAJE, which drastically increased its national student membership from 720 to 2,100 during a drive last fall, comes to town with a mission in mind. Even though compact disc sales of reissued jazz albums mark a renaissance of sorts, certain aspects of the music haven’t yet been done justice in academia.

“We want improvisation to become more prominent as an art form in the schools,” says Bob Curnow, NAJE president.

Curnow, a one-time trombonist with the Stan Kenton band and current director of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra (yes, a hip town of 300,000 can support it), estimated that there are 25,000 to 30,000 young people studying jazz at various school levels.

“The irony here,” he says, “is that, in the professional world, the things we value, the things we remember, come from the creative part of jazz: improvisation.”

Some historians have noted that jazz, with its roots in the rhythms and oral traditions of the African slaves brought to this country to work the plantations, has long been treated as a bastard cousin of classical music, with its written music and more formalized training.

But Curnow doesn’t think the lack of emphasis on improvisation in high school and college music programs is racially based.

“I think the problem is that, in any given situation, if you have 20 people in a collegiate jazz band, many of whom go on to teach, very few are improvisers,” he says. “It’s a difficult thing to teach if you haven’t done it.”

Can improvisation be taught? Or were the Gillespies and Parkers of this world in large part born with their talent?

“I don’t believe I was born with the ability to improvise,” says Curnow. “I worked very hard at it, spent money on records, tried to play along with guys like Curtis Fuller and J. J. Johnson. Skills, modes, chords, basic theory--these things are not intuitive, they’re taking care of business.”

Curnow’s other major goal early in his two-year term is to start an annual convention in Europe, possibly tied with the Montreux or North Sea jazz festivals.

The NAJE was formed in 1968 by a group of jazz musicians who felt a need to move jazz into the classroom.

“It’s been very successful in that campaign,” says Bill McFarlin, executive director of NAJE. “There are more than 100 colleges offering jazz majors now, and that’s probably about 100% more than there were when we started.”

McFarlin says that NAJE’s founders encountered a lot of resistance to jazz from music departments steeped in the classical European tradition. For them, jazz was too close to home, too raw to be embraced as an art form. But the support eventually came and the barriers went down. NAJE’s current 6,000 members include educators, musicians and students, as well as serious jazz fans.

“For the first time, we’re trying to get more professionals involved with conventions and clinics,” McFarlin says. “For example, the Basie orchestra has developed a new clinic called ‘The Basie Way.’ Someone like Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie or Art Farmer--they’re all wonderful working musicians who have a place in the classroom.”

Music won’t be the only thing in the joint that’s jumping. There will be a trade show with exhibits of the latest in musical instruments and equipment. On Saturday (3-5 p.m.), three college jazz bands will face off in the Southern Comfort collegiate band competition.

The finalists, whose 20-minute audition tapes of pre- and post-'50s jazz treatments won them the trip to San Diego, include bands from Berklee College of Music in Boston, the University of North Texas, and William Paterson College in Wayne, N.J. The winners will receive $1,000 individual scholarships, plus a national tour set up by the NAJE.

Jazz fans can sit in for part or all of the NAJE weekend. A four-day pass, including the cost of NAJE membership, the evening shows and the symposium events, is $107 ($59 for students). Individual tickets, available through Ticketron, are $10 for the evening shows and $5 for Saturday’s college jazz competition.

On Thursday only, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., the convention is open free to the public.

The evening concert lineup (all shows start at 8):

Thursday: Charles McPherson Quartet; Bill Watrous Quartet; U.S. Army Blues; SDSU Jazz Ensemble.

Friday: Red Rodney New York Quartet, Rob McConnell Band, and The Count Basie Orchestra performing “The Count Basie Jazz History Suite,” with Joe Williams and Snooky Young.

Saturday: Take Six; Branford Marsalis and the Southern Comfort winners; Count Basie Orchestra playing current material; Michael Brecker Band.