Big-Band Sound Leads Way to Jazz Educators Conference : Music: This year’s theme is ‘A Tribute to Bird (Charlie Parker).’ Talent and information abound.
The big-band sound of a muscular brass section kicking butt echoed through the central lobby of the Anaheim Hilton on Thursday afternoon. Crisp, powerful blowing that instantly made one wonder: Basie? Herman? Kenton?
But wait a minute. A closer look raised another question. Could those hot and heavy sounds really be blasting out of the horns of that baby-faced crew, those high school, or maybe college, kids on center stage?
They could, and they were.
The 22nd annual conference of the International Association of Jazz Educators is drawing nearly 5,000 attendees to Anaheim this weekend from every part of the world for an open, largely unstructured exchange of ideas, music, information, teaching methodology and business cards via seminars, clinics and performances, as well as a general session and the granting of awards to individuals who have advanced the cause of jazz education. The conference theme is “A Tribute to Bird (Charlie Parker),” and most performances include works written or performed by the legendary saxophonist.
At Thursday’s opening session, the place swarmed with educators, agents, artists, music business professionals and merchandisers. Big-name performers such as Roy Hargrove, Nancy Wilson, Eddie Daniels and Charlie Haden were scheduled for evening concerts, and Friday night Ray Brown, Roy Haynes and Horace Silver received NEA Jazz Masters Awards of $20,000.
But it was the young talented musicians, working in every imaginable combination of ensembles, who first captured the attention. And it was the big bands, performing one after the other, that were the headliners. They came in acontinuous parade: the swinging Regina (Saskatchewan) Lions Jazz band, the energetic groups from Mt. Hood Community College and Western Michigan University, closer-to-home bands from Cal State Hayward, Hemet High School, Cal State Northridge and San Diego State University. All playing with a poise, professionalism and skill that belied their relative youth.
“The quality of the performances and the level of individual playing has increased by leaps and bounds over the last few years,” said I.A.J.E. President Chuck Iwanusa. “And one of the many great benefits of these meetings is the opportunity they provide to allow young musicians to meet and spend time with each other.”
A ponytailed trumpet player from one of the ensembles put it even more succinctly: “Man, it’s just so cool to hear all these different players!”
And Zbigniew Kobak, a South African (by way of Poland) music educator was even more awe-struck by everything he saw and heard. “We don’t have anything like this in South Africa,” he said. “There is a love for this music, for jazz, but we need teachers and instruments and everything else. But now that I see what can be done . . .,” he concluded with an optimistic smile.
A stroll around the Hilton Thursday was like a walk through a jazz supermarket, with an array of eclectic musical goodies on all sides: In one room, jazz guitarist Peter Leitch--a veteran of gigs with Milt Jackson, Oscar Peterson, Pepper Adams and others--was intently describing his “Zen and the Art of the Single Note Line.” The ultimate goal for the creative improviser, he explained, “is a kind of ‘unconscious consciousness’ or ‘doing without thinking.’ ”
In another, bassist Chuck Israels--best known for his work with pianist Bill Evans--used a series of recorded examples to analyze whether or not a symphony orchestra “can swing without a rhythm section.”
Performances were everywhere, with many of the venues providing opportunities for talented, if not especially well-known, artists to be heard. Local singer Kate McGarry, for example, sang ballads in which her cool-sounding voice was superbly integrated into the music of her accompanying quartet. A bit later, Portland singer Nancy King, brought astonishing subtlety and range to the art of vocal improvisation.
Perhaps best depicting the sort of creative symbiosis that is often generated by jazz, the Jazz Tap Ensemble--working with a quartet that featured trumpeter Stacy Rowles--found common ground in the virtuosic rhythmic correlations between jazz and dance.
Another large area, devoted to the music merchandisers, was filled with the cacophonous sounds of live and taped music, instrument demonstrations and outright pitches for products ranging from sheet music and instruction books to shiny new trumpets, trombones and saxophones.
In yet another area, identified as “Music Technology,” various teaching aids, mostly computer-associated, were on display. Scott McCormick of Temporal Acuity Products displayed computer software designed to help students of jazz hear complex harmonic alterations. One wondered how the young big-band players on the center court stage would deal with the program’s complex analyses of “passing diminished” and “unprepared diminished” chords.
Which, in turn, raised at least a couple of the questions hovering over the I.A.J.E. meeting: Can jazz, an art form germinated by unschooled musicians in bordellos and nightclubs, and brought to maturity in the intimate, handing-down relationships between older mentors and younger rebels, be squeezed into an academic format? Will jazz, as it becomes America’s classical music, lose its soul in the process?
“I feel,” said Dr. Willie L. Hill Jr., vice president of I.A.J.E., an educator from the University of Colorado and a busy saxophonist, “that skill and talent are essential to any art. But training and education are important, as well. And it just doesn’t seem correct to me to suggest that jazz is going to lose anything at all by being taught in a way that thoroughly examines and explains what it is all about.”
“I mean,” he continued, “just look at what you’re hearing around here. Does it suggest that teaching jazz in an academic setting has reduced the quality of the music?”
Given the remarkable assortment of sounds and the almost universally high caliber of the music at the meeting, Hill’s point seemed well-taken.
But some nagging questions remained. Both Hill and Iwanusa acknowledged that the participation of African American and Latino educators and students in the event was below what they would have preferred.
“We’re working on it, I can promise you that,” said Hill.
Further, given the relatively few employment opportunities for jazz musicians, it’s difficult to imagine what the end point will be for a growing stream of increasingly adept young players.
“I understand the problems of making a living with jazz, but this process, as I see it,” said Iwanusa, “has to be viewed as an expansion of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. We are hoping to educate these students not just as jazz musicians, but as whole people. What they do with their education beyond that is, of course, up to them.”
* IAJE events, including most of the big band performances, takingplace in the lobby of the Anaheim Hilton & Towers, Anaheim, are open free to the public today (Saturday). Tickets for this evening’s concert, which features Eddie Daniels & Mike Garson, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, the Louis Bellson Big Band, and the I.A.J.E. Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Young Talent Winners, are available from all Ticketmasters outlets, $25.