Early Learner


On a recent Thursday, Woody James sat on a stool at Casey's Tavern in Canoga Park, his trumpet pointed slightly downward, his eyes closed as he played succulent, ear-enticing improvisations with Lloyd Hebert's Blue Lagoon Jazz Band on everything from the traditional jazz classic "Louisiana" to the modern jazz die-hard "Blue Bossa."

In his distinctive work, touches were heard of such great modern trumpeters as Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro and Chet Baker, James' favorites all.

How does a man with expressive, modern-leaning qualities also play traditional jazz with such authenticity and emotion? In James' case, he learned it from the cradle: His dad was a professional jazz trumpeter in Biloxi, Miss., James' hometown.

"He led a band on the Rendezvous Pier, and my mother and I would go down and hear him," recalled James, who lives in Reseda with his wife, singer-music contractor Susan Morse. "He played with [famed Dixieland guitarist] Eddie Condon, and he gave [clarinetist] Pete Fountain his start."

At first, James, who picked up trumpet in the sixth grade, followed in his father's footsteps by working in his band and admiring the likes of the wondrous Louis Armstrong. Then at a summer band camp in Raymond, Miss., the youngster was told by an older student to "play bebop, not Dixieland," said James, a youthful-looking 62.

"That hurt my feelings, so I started to modify my style by listening to Miles Davis, Conte Candoli, Chet Baker and others."

James' flexible approach adds real spark to the Blue Lagoon band, which includes Hebert on piano and trombone; Al Viscovo, banjo; Don Felix, bass; and George Edwards, drums. And the broad musical format is ideal for James.

"We play some Dixieland, which I love because I grew up with it," said the trumpeter. "There are swing tunes like 'Stompin' at the Savoy,' which feel so good, rhythmically. We do some bossa novas like 'One Note Samba' and then the modern jazz tunes."

When he was in his late teens, making the shift that led him to embrace bebop, James found that his concept of right and wrong notes changed as well.

"I started to see that if you went for a note and missed it, it's not a mistake," he said. "A mistake is when you're not going for the honest truth in music."

Also a full-time instructor of music at Valley College in Burbank, James is where he is today, as a player and teacher, because of an early focused vision. "I always had a compulsion to be a musician," he said. "I never wanted to be anything else."

* Woody James appears with the Blue Lagoon Jazz Band tonight, 8:30 to 11:30, at Casey's Tavern, 22029 Sherman Way, Canoga Park. No cover or minimum. (818) 992-9362.


Quick Hits: The innovative arranger-composer-bandleader Gerald Wilson, who turns 80 in September, keeps cranking out his mostly memorable tunes--some hard-driving and boisterous, others ethereal and tender--as if he were in his 40s. On Tuesday, at 8 and 10 p.m. at the Moonlight (13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; no cover, $25 minimum; [818] 788-2000), Wilson celebrates the release of his jazz orchestra's latest CD, "Theme for Monterey," which includes the lengthy title track, a suite premiered last fall at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Expect many of L.A.'s top musicians in the lineup . . .

The sizzling drummer Sherman Ferguson is also enjoying an avocation as a journalist--his interview with fellow drummer Albert "Tootie" Heath appears in the March issue of Bird Magazine. Ferguson leads a fiery straight-ahead trio tonight from 9 to 1 at Chadney's (3000 W. Olive St., Burbank; no cover, one-drink minimum per show; [818] 843-5333) . . .

Trombonist-violinist Dan Weinstein remains one of the Southland's busiest artists. Two of his favorite styles are Latin jazz and its cousin salsa, and those two will be on tap when he leads Viva on Friday, 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., at Jax (339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale; no cover, no minimum; [818] 500-1604.)

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World