Mesa Musings: The day martial music died at OCC

He always referred to me as James, never Jim.

The only person to call me that was my mother. Whenever I was in big trouble, she used "James" in combination with my middle name.

His demeanor was aloof and formal, somewhat unusual for a jazz artist.

He was Charles Rutherford. Known to everyone as "Doc," he taught jazz at Orange Coast College for 31 years. Doc died last month at the age of 85. A concert and memorial at 11 a.m. Saturday in OCC's Robert B. Moore Theatre will honor his legacy. An alumni jazz band composed of Doc's finest students will perform.

A native of Hayden, Colo., Rutherford earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in music at Colorado State University. He also completed a bachelor's in physical education, and was a Colorado State quarterback.

Doc joined OCC's faculty in 1967. He was hired ostensibly to direct the college's acclaimed 100-piece marching band, replacing John Williamson, who went to Foothill College in the Bay Area to head its fledgling music department.

OCC president Robert B. Moore and Fine Arts Dean Paul Cox, who served as marching band director before Williamson, did the hiring. Doc hadn't been on the staff long when he informed Moore that he was giving up the marching band.

Martial music died at OCC that day.

But jazz music began to flourish there. In fact, Doc Rutherford — officially a professor of instrumental music — built OCC's jazz program from scratch into the finest on any community college campus in the nation. He headed up several OCC jazz bands every semester.

Doc retired in 1998, at age 73.

During his tenure, Rutherford established the OCC Jazz Festival, which ran from 1969 through 1986. The fest brought the finest jazz musicians to Costa Mesa, in addition to thousands of high school and college musicians.

President Moore wrote in the 10th anniversary festival program: "It seems only yesterday that Chuck Rutherford, using all his strategies — begging and borrowing — got the OCC Jazz Festival off (to) a shaky start. Fortunately, the students, the college and our community have continued their support through the years."

That's how Doc kept his festival going for 18 years — begging and borrowing, and employing his considerable wiles. He was an absolute maniac for jazz education. But the festival would have died long before it did had it not been for his capable assistant, Virginia Woltz.

Doc used to let me hang out backstage during the festival, where I got to rub elbows with Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzie Gillespie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Maynard Ferguson, Gerald Wilson, Stan Kenton, Bill Watrous and Don Menza. They were generous to Stage Door Johnnies like myself, and they jammed magnificently before packed houses in Moore Theatre.

Master of ceremonies each year was Jimmy Lyons, founder and general manager of the famed Monterey Jazz Festival. Jimmy, a great guy, telling me that he always looked forward to the OCC fest. He loved associating with student musicians.

Famous jazz critic, Leonard Feather, also attended.

The festival finally died of its own weight. Doc was able to attract the biggest names in jazz because they knew and respected him. But he was a musician, not a bean counter. Despite Virginia Woltz's great oversight, logistical details became more unwieldy and ponderous. The college could no longer fund the fest.

But, while it lasted, it had a great run!

"Doc played an important role in cultivating the careers of many young musicians," says Paul Navidad, a former Rutherford student who replaced his mentor as OCC's assistant professor of jazz and commercial music. "I wanted to be a professional musician, but he steered me into teaching — something I hadn't previously considered. I'll always be grateful for his guidance."

After he retired, Doc became president of Jazz Pacific, a grass-roots organization aimed at boosting jazz music's profile in Orange County. He also compiled an important personal legacy of nine CDs of original compositions and arrangements.

Many who are involved in the jazz scene today are there because of Doc Rutherford. He impacted thousands of lives.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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