By Dee Dee McNeil
June 1, 2021
Tomas Gargano – 2006 from Dee Dee’s personal photo collection.
It was so good to speak to my longtime friend and gifted bassist, Tomas Gargano last week. As we chatted, I discovered some little-known facts about his life and musical career. Always in celebration of the history and legacy of jazz, Tomas was inspired early-on by his father, a man who initially had aspirations to become a saxophone player.
“The first instrument in the family was the piano and my sister was taking piano lessons from an old Italian lady down the street in Detroit. We lived on the East side; Six Mile and Gratiot, when I started messing around with the piano. Then, my father bought me a cheap, eighteen-dollar guitar. I started playing that. My father also played Count Basie in the house, relentlessly, at a very high volume. (laughter) One of the things I remember most is holding my father’s big calloused hand, ‘cause he was a blue collar worker, and going to see the Count Basie band. I was seven years old. My father was a frustrated saxophone player. In fact, I started saxophone lessons when I was seven years old, same time he took me to see Count Basie’s band. It’s seared into my memory. I kept asking him, dad – what’s that big thing back there (pointing to the upright bass). He’d be saying; listen to the saxophone. So, I played saxophone until I was sixteen years old.”
From that seven-year-old moment, staring up in awe at Marshall Royal and the Count Basie Big Band, Tomas Gargano fell in love with the bass instrument. Even though he dabbled at piano and studied saxophone for several years, he was infatuated by the sound and application of the bass in a musical setting.
“There was a place on Gratiot Avenue, by my house, where I actually got to hear James Jamerson, the legendary, great, Motown bassist. He was playing upright at the time. I would walk up the alley to the back of this place, The Peppermint Twist Club, and listen to him play through the window. I was a little fourteen or fifteen-year-old kid. I’d stand there and listen to Jamerson play through that back window. They called him the Funk Machine even then and he was playing upright. He’s one of the most influential musicians in my life,” Tomas sang the praises of a man credited with helping create the Motown Sound.
It’s important to remember that the Motown Sound, for the most part, was played and created by jazz musicians. James Jamerson had deep roots in jazz, like many of the seasoned musical veterans around Detroit at that time. Tomas followed his dream of becoming a working musician. He sought out those elders who could inspire, teach and enhance his goal.
By that time, he had put down the saxophone and picked up the bass.
“My first bass teacher was Ed Pickens. He was playing bass with Stevie Wonder. Later, I was at Wayne State University; but then Oakland University started a Jazz Series Study Program. So, I started driving up there. It was about a 40-mile drive to Rochester, Michigan. The instructors were pianist and arranger, Harold McKinney, trumpeter and arranger, Marcus Belgrave and tenor saxophonist, Sam Sanders. Those masters were my teachers,” Tomas Gargano recalls his formative years in music.
When he was just nineteen years old, word spread about his talents on bass. He was called to play a church gig with none other than the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin and her sisters, Carolyn and Erma. It was a three-night fundraiser at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. There, Tomas met Herbie Williams, who played trumpet and drummer, George Davidson. By 1975, Tomas was gigging steadily around the Motor City. Out of the blue, he got a call to go to Japan and work at the Tokyo Playboy Club as part of their house band. He had planned a move to New York City and live with a cousin, but when this unexpected opportunity cropped up, he snatched it.
“I was the house bassist at the Playboy Club in Tokyo for almost a year. I was on a flight back from Japan and supposed to arrive in San Francisco and then return from there to an apartment in New York on East 24th street. But there was a bad storm that made the airline divert their flight. We landed in Los Angeles. I had a few friends in L.A.; so, I called them,” Tomas explained how he relocated to Los Angeles by accident.
“It was 1979. As for Los Angeles, I checked it out, but I was still determined to get back to big city life in New York. I love a big-city- feel like Detroit, Chicago and New York. But just before I was supposed to leave for NYC, I met Duke Burrell and George Reed. That became a thirteen-year relationship. Once I made peace that I was staying in Los Angeles, it made me think, maybe there was a deeper reason. I remember I was reading the Charles Mingus book, ‘Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus.’ Mingus mentioned Red Callender. So, I thought shit, if I’m here in L.A. I should look this man up. Studying with Red Callender was the greatest thing in my life! It was such a productive, warm relationship that I’ll never forget. He was so much more than a bass teacher. He was a friend and a mentor. He gave me life lessons,” Tomas sang the great bass players praises.
Tomas Gargano’s affinity to surround himself with the elders of jazz and music continued with his long-term association as part of drummer, George Reed’s Trio. Tomas was the baby of their group and George Reed and pianist, Duke Burrell took him under their wise wings to nurture and support his talent. Reed grew up in Harlem and played with Charlie Parker, Red Allen, Marian McPartland and Buddy Tate, to list just a few. Born September 2, 1922, George Reed’s mentors had been Count Basie, Freddie Green and Jo Jones. So, the polished drummer had a wealth of knowledge to share. Duke Burrell was also historic. Born in July of 1920, his roots were in New Orleans, Louisiana. Duke had played with Louis Jordan, Fletcher Henderson, Johnny Otis, Barney Bigard and even Louie Armstrong. So once again, Tomas was surrounded by jazz elders and cultivated by their wisdom. He loved it!
“We worked seven nights a week for a couple of years at Mr. Robert’s Club,” Tomas reminded me. “I think I met you there.”
THE GEORGE REED TRIO
Drummer, George Reed, pianist Duke Burrell and bassist, Tomas Gargano.
Tomas continued his jazz legacy by working consistently with a long line of legendary Los Angeles Jazz cats. He spent several years being the bassist of choice for reedman, Teddy Edwards, vocalist, Ernie Andrews, the amazing Betty Bryant, Linda Hopkins and even myself. Like those iconic musicians, I love the way Tomas Gargano plays his bass!
“I was thinking about this last night; all the musicians you introduced me to,” Tomas Gargano surprised me with that comment. “Through you, I met Rickey Woodard, Charles Owens, Bobby Pierce, Dwight Dickerson, James Gadson, Mel Lee, George Bohanon, Quentin Dennard, Kenny Elliott, Lanny Hartley and so many more of the L.A. cats.
“I remember one gig with Teddy Edwards,” Tomas reminisced. “I think it was his 75th birthday and it was when they used to have those ‘live’ broadcasts from the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. I didn’t know the pianist on the gig. So, we were sitting there at the bar, talking. I asked him casually where he’d been gigging. He told me he’d just came off the road with Wynton Marsalis. To my surprise, it was Eric Reed,” Tomas chuckled.
“Then there was Johnny Kirkland, the drummer, who would call me for gigs. He’d say, be on time. Oh, he was a task master. One day he said, Tomas, come on over to my house, have dinner with me and my wife and then we’ll go up in the attic so I can show you my train set. Those are the most memorable things I treasure about Los Angeles; those personable moments. Those friendships. Another time, I got a call from Bill Douglas to do a gig at this popular Country Club. It was with Gerry Wiggins, (the Wig) on piano, myself, Bill Douglas and Marshall Royal. He was the saxophone player I had heard when I was seven years old at that Count Basie concert with my father. I couldn’t believe I was playing with this man some thirty years later. I flashed back to when I asked my dad, what’s that big thing being played in the back of the stage. Even then, I wanted to play that bass. My father wanted me to choose the saxophone. So, I called my dad and Marshall Royal spoke to him. He was so gracious and such a gentleman to my father. I remember, he said to my dad; your son made the right choice, referring to my choice of instrument. That was a great moment.”
Tomas Gargano’s bass playing has been one of the favorite choices of vocalist, pianist, composer, Betty Bryant for years. He participated, as bassist, on almost every one of her album releases. In summer of 2018, he flew into Los Angeles to be a part of her 88th birthday studio session.
“I also recorded with Teddy Edwards. It was a small, small compact studio. Fritz Wise was on drums, Red Holloway on sax and Harry “Sweets” Edison. I was so proud and humbled to be with those incredible musicians. After the session, we all went out and had Chinese food,” Tomas laughs that joyful laugh that twinkles his eyes and brightens his face.
Adam Marino, James Gadson, Tony Guerro, Betty Bryant, Robert Kyle & Tomas Gargano – 2018
“When I first got to L.A., I remember going to an event called a Taste of L.A. in Santa Monica and I saw three people performing there. I said to myself, I’m going to work with them. It was Ernie Andrews, Poncho Sanchez and you. You were the three stand-outs to me that I wanted to work with and I accomplished that!”
Nine years ago, Tomas packed-up his Los Angeles home and he and his wife Jill relocated to New York City. Before he knew it, he was playing gigs and meeting more jazz royalty.
“Our upstairs neighbor, for two years, was Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame. He lived on the 31st floor. We live on the 27th floor. He saw me years ago rolling the bass to the gig. He said; Hey Mr. Bass man, bring that bass up to my place and let’s do something. I got to know him. Just being in his presence was inspiring. I’d go up and play, he would just sing and what it made me think about was, for me, the most beautiful work I’ve done is with singers, spoken word and poets. There’s something about the intimacy of the voice and the bass that’s always just moved me to be my best. He was the most dapper gentleman. Even in the last part of his life, when he was in a wheelchair, he was just so generous with his spirit.
“Playing the Apollo Theater was really something. I was with Billy Kaye’s trio and a poet. You come out and you rub the stump, you know. To do that was really something. I’ve done a lot of gigs with poets here in New York. Actually, I’ve worked with the Dean of NYU, Robert Gibbons, who’s a prolific poet. One of my most memorable gigs was with former L.A. resident, Dwight Dickerson and Greg Bandy. Greg was the drummer with Pharoah Sanders and we were the house trio for quite a while, playing at Dwight’s Harlem jazz spot that he opened. Mr. Ron Carter walks into the club one night. I remember distinctly we were playing Jitterbug Waltz in B flat. This tall elegant man bows to the band, comes up to the stage while we’re playing the song and he says to me, may I? Ron Carter wants to sit-in and play my bass! Naturally, he proceeded to play the shit out of that song. After the set, he complimented my instrument and we talked bass talk. Before the pandemic, I also worked a lot at Paris Blues Club, on 123rd and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. I worked there for years with several different groups. My favorite group was Melvin Vines’ Harlem Jazz Machine with Noriko Como on piano, Charles Davis Jr. and Elliot Pineiro on tenor saxophones, Jeremy Donson on alto sax and Malik Washington on drums. I toured Europe with them. The Paris Blues Club owner died early during the COVID pandemic; Sam Hartgris. One of the nicest men I’ve ever known in my life. I think he owned the whole block. He’s one of those guys who sponsored the local soft ball teams in the community. He never looked it, but he was in his eighties. This elegant black man, always in a three-piece suit and a Fedora hat, was the coolest cat in the neighborhood. He encouraged me to bring my own band into his club, but I never did it.
“One of my favorite places in New York City is a four-story brownstone. It’s 3-doors west of 130th and Lenox. It is the New Amsterdam Musical Association and it’s basically the Black Musicians Union, founded in 1903, incorporated in 1906. People think it’s the oldest Musician’s Union in the country. Just a joyous place, because everybody’s welcome. Don Byron, he’s a well-known saxophone player and clarinetist; his father is Don Byron Sr. and he’s 94. He was the house bassist at the New Amsterdam Musical Assoc. (NAMA). Monday nights were my favorite nights of the week, because I’d head up to the 802, that’s the local New York Musician’s Union, where the Jazz Foundation had jam sessions from 6pm to 10pm. Then, I’d jump on a train and go up to NAMA. They had a Monday Night Jam session. Finally, I’d come down here and finish out the night at my regular gig with Billy Kaye. I’d get home about four-o-clock in the morning. I believe NAMA is the heart of the Harlem community. Recently, Don Sr. said to me; Boy, it’s your turn. You’re next. Just like Duke Burrell said it to me. That’s when I became their house bassist at NAMA.”
Drummer, Billy Kaye & Tomas Gargano after the Monday Night Jam Session at Local 802.
“Currently, I sit on the jazz committee of the Union 802 in New York alongside people like Buster Williams, Jimmy Owens, Rachel Z. Hakim, Gene Perle and quite a few people. It’s something that I hold dear. There’s been no work over the last year, but it’s an organization where we’ve rallied, marched and protested for the benefit of the jazz community. I’m very grateful to be on that panel and proud of the work we do.
What’s the difference between the L.A. Jazz Scene and the New York Jazz Scene, I ask Tomas.
“Commuting!” he tells me. “I remember when I was living in Los Angeles, you have to leave 3 hours ahead of the gig to get there on time. Here, I spend about 20-minutes on the subway. In L.A. you’re stuck in your car on the 405 or the 91 freeways for hours. In New York, it’s person to person. There’s a people connection. Mass transit makes it more personal here.
Tomas Gargano has found, over his career, that ‘personal’ is the magic word. His relationships are personal, his music is personal and his love of the bass is personal. He’s performed worldwide and lived in the Midwest, moved to the East Coast and settled on the West Coast. He’s played his instrument throughout Europe and Japan. This busy bassist finds there are great musicians everywhere and he’s rubbed shoulders and stood on bandstands with some of the best in the business. Inspired by the jazz elders, Tomas recognized early on that you have to appreciate and respect music history in order to flourish in ‘the now’ and bring historic relevance to the present. When he’s not fighting for musician’s rights or organizing union groups, he’s working in clubs and concerts, building his own rich, bass legacy.
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By Dee Dee McNeil May 1, 2021
The Los Angeles area is stuffed like a giant pinata with talent galore. After all, Southern California is a hub for the film and television industry, has a thriving theatrical community and also boasts a bodacious jazz scene. It’s easy to overlook some of the outstanding players who sparkle in our very midst. Leslie Baker is one such musician, whose diamond talent and positive energy brightens any bandstand where she plants her big, bad bass.
As a female in the music business, she is proficient in playing both upright and electric basses. Consequently, Leslie Baker has made an indelible imprint on the Los Angeles music community, whether it’s performing in the string section of the Dave Matthews band at the famed Hollywood Bowl or pumping her bass at Colombo’s club in Eagle Rock for the past seventeen and a half years. She’s a dynamo! Another plus, Leslie can easily cross genres of music. She’s got one foot solidly planted in jazz and the other, knee-deep in the blues. In other words, Leslie Baker plays a bass for all seasons.
As a native of Los Angeles, Leslie grew up listening to her father, Dick Baker, playing piano. He was a professional pianist and vocal coach, who encouraged his talented little girl to begin playing piano at age six. Once she mastered the rudiments of music, Mr. Baker suggested Leslie learn to play the bass. She started off playing the upright bass. By the time she was twelve, the young lady was proudly performing as the bassist on her dad’s gigs. At twenty-years-old, Leslie Baker was a self-supporting, very busy musician.
Always striving to be better, she studied with some legendary bass icons. One of her main influences and greatest mentor was the amazing Red Callender. She told me a little bit about that time in her life.
“Well, first of all, Red was so generous and open with me that he pretty much made me feel like a family member. I met Red at a benefit for Willie Bobo at the old Musician’s Union on Vine Street in Hollywood. When I first met him, I walked up to him and said, you’re Red Callender. I LOVE your tuba playing on the James Taylor record, “Everybody’s Got the Blues.”
The legendary bassist, Red Callender, must have been surprised by this excited young woman standing before him and complimenting him on his tuba playing.
“I told him that tuba line just touched my soul. It had me dancing around my apartment,” Leslie told him.
“Then I explained to him a problem I was having. I played only electric bass from age sixteen to age twenty-six. When I discovered the electric bass I said, well why bother with this big cumbersome instrument? I had to go to the gym to keep my strength up and I had to carry the thing home on weekends and to practice. It was a big, awkward deal. For ten years I played nothing but electric, and then, I started yearning for the sound of a string bass where I could bow it. It was the sound I could not get from my electric bass. So, I purchase this double bass. I get it home, play it for five minutes and I feel like my arm’s going to fall off. Then I start reading music on it. I’m reading an Etude and playing it on my new bass. The Etude starts in the key of F and by the time I got done with it, I’m in the key of G Flat. I go, Uh Uh! I need some help. Amazingly, Charles Owens had just corralled Red into teaching. Red had never been a teacher before. He was a career musician. Charles said to him, let’s start our own school. We’ll call it the Wind College. This is what’s so beautiful! His emphasis was on how to play the upright bass in tune. Incredible! He was a great person and I’m glad I got to make that connection. I used to pass by Richard Simon, Karl Vincent and Tomas Gargano when I came and went from lessons with Red Callender. They were studying with him too.”
Baker has been on the bandstand with numerous music masters and learned from each one of them. One such legend, often referred to as the inventor of Rock and Roll, was drummer Earl Palmer. He was not only a great jazz drummer, but also a sought-after studio musician who played on a number of big hit pop songs and rock and roll records. Earl Palmer played on every single Little Richard hit record, on the Righteous Brother’s classic, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and all the Fats Domino hits. That landed him in the Rock & Roll Hall of fame. What a blessing for Leslie Baker to be the bassist who locked into a groove with this master musician! She has learned from the best in the business. For example, she was part of the Al Aarons L.A. Jazz Caravan that was packed with legendary players.
(L to R: Terry Evans, Thurman Green, Gildo Mahones, Count Basie trumpeter, Al Aarons, receiving award for their band, the L.A. Jazz Caravan, Leslie Baker, Carl Randall and the most incredible drummer Earl Palmer! What a band!)
Leslie Baker on bass with Earl Palmer on drums.
Another jazz legend Leslie Baker worked with, was the unforgettable hard-bop drummer, Billy Higgins. As Leslie grew musically, she recognized that one of the best educations you can get is actually performing and playing music with others. Each time you have an opportunity to work with musicians of high caliber, you learn more than any academic situation could teach you.
It wasn’t long before Leslie’s bass talents and her ability to dig down deep and play healthy doses of the blues, attracted famous artists like the legendary blues singer and composer, Willie Dixon. She recorded with Dixon and also performed with the famous, Harmonica Fats. Leslie recalled her session with award winning composer and blues man, Willie Dixon.
“It was some production he was working on at his home in Glendale. Willie Dixon was not in good enough health to play the bass himself. I got referred to him by bass man, Henry Franklin. He was used to using the Skipper and the Skipper told him to use me this time. Maybe Henry had something else to do. I remember Cash McCall was on that session, but I don’t really recall what we were playing. I can’t say if it ever came out on an album,” Leslie told me.
One day, Floyd Dixon scooped her up and took her on the road. Leslie Baker spent sixteen years backing up this Rhythm and Blues man who wrote such hit records as “Hey Bartender” and “Operator 210.” Their music garnered a John Handy Award for their “Wake Up and Live” collaboration. Another highlight of her affiliation with Floyd Dixon was when they performed at the famed Monterey Jazz Festival. That resulted in a recording “Live at Monterey.” Leslie Baker also performed with the legendary bluesman, Lowell Fulson, and Bill Doggett of “Honky Tonk” fame.
Baker’s love of jazz continued to lead her back to playing with master jazz musicians like pianist, Marty Harris. She and Marty recorded several songs together and Leslie features them on her website as a tribute to the late, great musician. www.LeslieBakerWebsite.com
“He was a character, as we all know,” Leslie laughs warmly. “He once told me that when he was called to do a gig, all he wanted to know was who was the bass player. He didn’t care much who the drummer was. To Marty, the drummer was the flavor of the day. But he really wanted to know who was playing bass, because it was about the changes.”
You can hear how beautifully Baker and Marty Harris blended on this sample of their recording.
She also enjoyed the challenge of working with a bass choir that was founded and established by the late James Leary.
“Oh James, he was so beautiful! And the way he wrote those five bass parts, the bottom part was the typical bass line; the top part was the melody or what was up in the higher range, and in the middle, he took the three basses that were left and we were the big chord makers in the middle. We were making the harmony. It was me, Richard Simon and James Leary. That’s where I always wanted to be, either 3rd or 4th chair. I found it extremely fascinating to be in that middle section. In other circumstances I would always be playing something else. But playing in the middle and making those harmonies was very interesting. It really made me work at what Red had taught me; that intonation is so critical. Leary’s love was for that bass choir and also for the vocal choir he wrote for. He was a dear friend for many years.”
When the legendary Buddy Collette was alive, he began an after-school program for middle school and high school music students, ‘JazzAmerica.’ Leslie became one of his educators at the inception of that program, along with bassist Richard Simon and many other talented Los Angeles jazz musicians. Her love of music and her desire to pass on the jazz legacy to a younger generation has her waving her magic bow across the strings of her double bass and inspiring young players. She is also part of a program sponsored by Los Angeles Jazz Society called, “Jazz in Schools” along with trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and various other L. A. jazz cats.
When she’s not performing or teaching privately, Leslie Baker is rushing out for studio work. She’s added her bass excellence to various movies and television shows. Leslie’s been part of the backing band at “The Voice” television show featuring Kelly Clarkson, Josh Grobin & Craig Wayne Boyd. She’s also made on-screen appearances in a variety of show biz jobs like, “Star Trek TNG,” on the “Frasier” TV series, “The Addams Family Values,” “Bones,” and the film “Red Dragon,” to list just a few. Leslie’s ability to play various genres of music and to read charts quickly and proficiently have opened many doors for her talent. She’s also produced her own album projects. Forming a group called, “Askew” in 1997, she released an album of the same title. It was a sweet memorial for her father. This project featured Phil Wright on piano, (who has also been a mentor to the talented bassist); Steve Fowler on flute, Terry Evans on guitar and Billy Paul on drums. Earl Alexander contributed guitar and vocals. In
1998, She released “Askew Too” with a larger ensemble. Sadly, Steve Fowler had gotten sick with Lou Gehrig’s disease. So, this time she added Robert Kyle on saxophone, Ron Muldrew on guitar, Suzanne Spinoza sang on Baker’s original composition, “Rain Dance” and Robertito Melendez played percussion. In 2002, she released “Askew Blew.” It was an experiment for Leslie and the final piece of an Askew Trilogy.
“We were at Nolan Shaheed’s studio. I was beginning to have fun singing, instead of just playing bass. I challenged my vocal abilities on this project. It’s a blues album. This time it featured players from our live gig at Colombo’s; Eric Ekstrand on piano, Doug MacDonald on guitar and Frank Wilson manning the drums. We were well rehearsed, ‘cause we’d been doing this gig for about a year at the time of the recording. The gig lasted 17- ½ years, right up to stay at home orders on March 15, 2020. It’s the longest gig of my life,” her laugh resonates like an exclamation point.
In 2017 she released the album “Good Vibes” with Tyler Combs on vibraphone and Ken Park on drums. Somehow, Leslie Baker also finds time to manage and run her own studio in Silverlake, California. It’s called ‘Ranch Cabin Records.’
“Because of the pandemic lockdown, for over a year, it’s given me time to study and improve my skills with the software that I use for writing, recording and to coordinate with musicians remotely. I have a YouTube channel. You can search LeslieBakerDuo and you’ll be on your way to finding out more about what we do,” Leslie shares.
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
April 1, 2021
Sitting in front of the television set one evening, a small boy named Bobby Rodriguez found himself fascinated by the sound of a trumpet. Harry James and his band were appearing on some variety show, and while watching that performance, young Rodriguez fell in love with the horn. While attending Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School, he discovered the band. At that time, Mr. Bill Taggert was the band master. Rodriguez was ten years old when he signed up to play the trumpet.
“I have four brothers and sisters. Three of them were already gone by the time I was ten years old. They were older, married and on their way. So, it was really just my older sister and myself and my mom. My parents divorced when I was seven years old. So, it was just the three of us. Fortunately, my elementary school had a thriving concert band and I just went in and said I wanted to play trumpet. It took a long time for my mother to embrace my decision, because it cost $5 a month for the lessons and $5 a month to rent the instrument. So, that was $10/month. After a year, it was adding up. We finally bought the trumpet, once I showed my mom I was practicing and serious about it. My first instrument cost a hundred dollars. At that point, it was a major commitment. When I discovered jazz radio, that really opened the door. My first musical influence was Dizzy Gillespie, then Miles Davis, and everybody else followed,” Bobby Rodriguez recalled.
Dr. Bobby Rodriguez is a native Californian and grew up at 4133 Hubbard Street in East L.A., a block away from Calvary Cemetery. It was a tough, no nonsense neighborhood.
“Yeah, it was tough, but you learn the rule of the streets right away. Stay away from this. Don’t look at that. Just go about your business. If you see something coming, you cross the street. There I was, carrying my little trumpet case, ten years old and no one messed with me. Plus, I didn’t have any desire to hang out at night, hangout in alleys; start fires or steal stuff. Both of my parents were very good and they kept me straight and thinking about good things. The trumpet occupied my time. I always say, if any child is in a practice room, it keeps them out of the street,” Rodriguez shared good advice.
By the time Bobby Rodriguez was a teenager, he had turned professional, working gigs around the Los Angeles area with various groups. Then he landed a job with Quincy Jones, as part of his band, and ultimately that led him to work with the popular Brother’s Johnson. They had hit records on the A&M Record label and Bobby played trumpet on all three of their Platinum best-selling records.
“I toured with Quincy for six weeks. When that tour was over, I was invited to join that Brother’s Johnson band, ‘cause I was part of Q’s big band and The Brothers Johnson and I knew each other. They invited me to replace their trumpet player who was leaving the band to return to school. In those days, you might not have recognized me. I was wearing spandex and platform heels on my shoes. I looked a lot taller,” Bobby chuckled.
“So, I joined the Brothers Johnson band. In four years, I saw those two Brothers Johnson, (George and Louis), get rich. They were buying homes and cars and stuff. I think the most I made was $700 a week. It’s funny how in two, three, or four years, folks can explode and then are never heard from again. It’s the publishing that counts. I learned, you have to hold on to that publishing money. Being on the road was a learning experience, but it was sickening after a while. Some of the people just get so involved in ‘where’s the connect’ to keep the party going; party, party, party! I wanted to practice and keep growing and improving. When I came off that tour, I went right to a trumpet teacher and tried to put all the pieces back together and move forward. The teacher I went to was Don Ferrara. I studied with him for about a year and he helped me a lot. Then, I went to Uan Rasey for about five years. He really put me on the track I’m still on. Every time I open my case, I think of Uan Rasey.”
Bobby recalled leaning more towards jazz after he left the Brother’s Johnson. But He stayed busy in the studio, playing on the Maurice White produced project called, “Emotions Album” and Lalo Schifrin’s “Boulevard Nights.” He played on a Warner Brother’s movie sound track featuring Gerard McMann that became the “Defiance” album. Around that same time, he cut and produced albums on himself. One was called “Simply macrame” released in 1973 on the Jazzmen Record label and the other was titled “Tell an Amigo” on the Sea Breeze label. Happily, his own career was blossoming. He was embracing a Latin jazz format.
Around this same time, Rodriguez began producing other artists. For the Southern California based label, Discovery, he co-produced Ed Jones & Familia.
Next, he produced the HMA Salsa Jazz Orchestra for Sea Breeze Records. He was productive and busy.
In 1990, Rodriguez produced jazz vocalist, Maxine Weldon. The album was titled, “The Singer,” which was quite appropriate for the dynamic Ms. Weldon.
“Well, John Bolivar hooked me up with Maxine, because he was in her band. She was going to Bern, Switzerland every year. She would do a six-week concert at Jaylene’s. Jaylene’s was a club there in Bern. Washington Rucker was the drummer in the band. he and I were very good friends. And then someone said, we should make a record. Why are we just going there and don’t have product? So, we made a record. I produced the record and organized it. It came out real nice! Then, after four-years or so, I don’t know, she just stopped singing. I think she went into acting. But I did see her at some event. I forgot where it was, maybe an award’s show honoring Maxine. I was there to introduce her and I played a song for her. She would always sing, “But Beautiful”. It was very nice to see her again. As always, she looked beautiful and she was always very kind,” Bobby shared wistful memories of Maxine Weldon, a former bandmate and terrific jazz vocalist.
Dr. Bobby Rodriguez is not only a trumpet master, producer, educator and arranger, he’s also a proficient composer. His latest effort, titled “Freedom” was recently released.
“My latest CD, is something I began to record before my two operations,” Bobby told me. “I’m slowly rehabbing. I feel that I’m not completely there, but my first conversation with the doctor, after the operation, was can I drive and when can I play my horn? I had open heart surgery; you know. But I started playing right away. I’d say three weeks later. At first, I was blowing very gently into the instrument; very gently! Just trying to get a tone and just trying to recoup and see what was available. I didn’t know if this would be the end of my trumpet career. I see now, I did the right thing by going very slowly; playing three, four, five days a week. But I started this record before all that. We pored over the title for the record, because it was so important. Finally, we came up with the name “Freedom.” It represents the American freedom, of course, but also jazz freedom. Jazz is a music that was once hated because of the revolutionary freedom it expresses.
“I composed five of the songs with family members in mind. One little song, I created for my newest grandson and it’s called “Little Henry.” It’s got a little African, rhythmic jazz content. On this project, I’m writing music that I feel is reflective of who I am today. I wrote another song that I think is a classic. It’s called “Mia’s Lullaby,” and it’s written for my oldest grandchild. She’s thirteen now and I wrote it about five years ago. It was revived in the recording process and I think I’ve got something that’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a ballad, a lullaby, but not in the traditional sense. After that, there’s a couple of little bouncy tunes and then I wrote one for my wife which is called “Yvonne.” We created a video for that one that’s a representation of her life. The song is gorgeous. Another one, I originally wrote about seven years ago, is called “Robin Star” and that’s for my daughter; the daughter that’s giving me all these grandchildren,” he chuckles.
The man with the trumpet has two children, Robin and Robert. When he’s not parenting or being a proud grandpa, Bobby Rodriguez is a gifted author and educator who has dedicated his life to promoting music and inspiring youth. His “ABC’s of Latin Jazz” was his first textbook. The latest textbook is titled, “ABC’s of Brass Warm-Up.” As a jazz musician and trumpeter, Rodriguez stays very active in the community. His expertise has been invaluable as a member of the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) and he acted as president of the Hispanic Musicians Association for twenty-two years. We talked briefly about his love of teaching.
“In 1990, I was teaching at Cal State L.A. County High School for the Arts which is inside Cal State L.A. I did ten years there and then I went to UCLA in 2000 and did eighteen years teaching there. At the same time, in 2003 I was teaching at UC Irvine, which I’m still there one day a week taking care of the big band and the combo, which is really good. It’s contributing to my pension. Little did I think about that when I was wearing spandex.” (laughter)
For a while Dr. Bobby Rodriguez was Director of the LatinJazz Ensemble at Pasadena City College and leader of the Jazz Adventure group, as part of the Music Center’s Los Angeles outreach to public schools and music students. He was a member of the City of Los Angeles Jazz Mentorship Program and a performing member of “Jazz Goes to School” for several years. Bobby also was a teaching member of Buddy Collette’s Jazz America program.
Exemplary in all his music, Bobby Rodriguez has a way of making music fun. His accomplishments as a recording artist extend from the early seventies to present day. He has released ten albums as a bandleader, including his Grammy nominated “LatinJazz Explosion” CD. He was a part of Gerald Wilson’s historic “Detroit” album on the Mack Avenue Record label and co-produced Cuban vocalist, Candi Sosa (“Cuba … Me Corazon Te Llama”) and Bill Laster’s “Shades of Jade IV” album. He recorded with Billy Mitchell and John Bolivar on their USA Record, “Live” and has worked with a plethora of legendary musicians like Kenny Burrell and Alex Acuña, who were featured on his “Trumpet Talk” album.
In spite of his recent health challenges, Bobby Rodriguez continues to compose and is busy promoting his latest album of music, “Freedom,” that reflects the freedom he has found over the years. With each performance, he displays a freedom that flows profusely from the bell of his horn, along with a dedication to educating, inspiring and entertaining young and old alike. Bobby Rodriguez is a Doctor of Music, who served our country in the U.S. Army and returned to gain a college education. After twenty-one years, he set an example by returning to school and completing his Bachelor’s degree at Cal State University, Long Beach; his Master’s at California State University, Los Angeles and his Doctorate, in 2006, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Not only does Dr. Bobby Rodriguez talk the talk, he walks the walk!
“If Dr. Bobby can do it, so can you,” he tells his students.
“So, jazz it up,” he proclaims his mantra to me. As we end our phone call, I’m smiling and feeling inspired.
By Dee Dee McNeil
March 1, 2021
New Documentary ‘Billie’
On cable television’s Prime Channel, you will find a compelling look at the life of BILLIE HOLIDAY, using old interviews from some of the people who knew her best. It’s fascinating stuff! The reel-to-reel tapes spin off several very personal details of Lady Day’s life. It’s a New Black Film and Belga Production project, that reveals to us a young, jazz lover, consumed by revealing the real truth of Billie Holiday’s life and death. The slender, Jewish journalist, Ms. Linda Lipnack Kuehl, uses a reel-to-reel tape recorder to interview a host of people who knew and loved the iconic Ms. Holiday. You will hear the voices of Tony Bennett, Billie’s cousin John Fagan, a local pimp named Skinny Davenport and the great Count Basie. It seems that Basie and the twenty-something journalist struck up a very close friendship as she worked on this autobiography. Pigmeat Markham spoke of meeting and hearing Billie Holiday sing at the Apollo Theater, when everyone in the audience was smoking reefer and Ms. Holiday was doing the same in her dressing room. Pigmeat said she stood regal, in a green spotlight, and mesmerized the crowd.
We sometimes hear Billie Holiday herself speaking on tape, extricated from a historic radio interview she made. Billie tells the listening audience, “I always wanted to sing like Louie Armstrong played.”
You’ll hear opinions about the iconic Lady Day from her friend and sometimes roommate, Rubie Davies, who said some folks called Billie ‘Mr. Holiday’ because she could easily have her way with women or men. Philly Jo Jones, the famous drummer who played with Count Basie’s band, recalls when Billie was their frontline singer. Jo Jones said that John Hammond fired her from the band when she refused to sing the Blues songs he wanted her to sing. John Hammond comes right behind him (on tape) and denies that accusation. Count Basie says he can’t remember what happened to make Billie leave.
Artie Shaw recalls going on tour with Billie as his lead vocalist and how, in the Southern States, the white bandmembers were given hotel rooms and Billie would have to sleep in the bus, because they didn’t allow blacks to stay in those Southern hotels. During these tours, Billie’s friend Mae Weiss says that Ms. Holiday always ordered an extra hamburger and stuck it in her purse. This was to insure she would have food if they came to a restaurant that refused to serve people of color. Barney Kessel said he heard her soul when she sang “Strange Fruit” and Charlie Mingus said she exposed racism in this country with that same controversial song. The sorrowful ballad brow-beat white audiences and was gut-wrenching for African Americans. Although most audience members were intrigued by the song, some club customers walked right out, complaining that the poignant lyrics made them uncomfortable. Billie Holiday was one of the first jazz singers to include protest songs in her repertoire. Jimmy Rowles, legendary pianist said he met her when he was just twenty years old and she loved singing with the man she dubbed, “Prez,” Lester young.
In 1947, the Philadelphia police department shot up her Cadillac. You see the car with giant bullet holes in its frame. In an interview, the police chief said they resented her wearing full length furs and diamond earrings, and had been told, by higher-ups in the police department, that the “Feds” wanted her off the streets and in jail. Some said John Levy was behind her arrests, because he wanted to put her in prison so she could get clean from her drug abuse. But many believed it was because of her song, “Strange Fruit.”
Bobby Tucker, the pianist who accompanied her for four years accused her manager, John Levy, of being a pimp and a parasite. He said he once saw John Levy knock Billie Holiday to the ground in a very violent way. Historic trombonist and arranger, Melba Liston also recalls being on tour with Billie Holiday and saw her and John Levy get into a big fight on the tour bus. Melba said, when they got to the hotel, after the concert, Billie cracked Levy’s head open with a coca cola bottle that sent him to the hospital. She had to go to the hospital for her injuries as well.
Born April 7, 1915, Billie Holiday died in a hospital on July 17, 1959. She was only forty-four years old. She lived hard and died young, but left us a legacy of incredible music. When I listen to her recordings, she pulls every emotion out of me. Her voice is one-of-a-kind. She says, in her documentary, that the one song she wrote that sums up her life best is “Don’t Explain,” yet here we are, still trying to explain and make sense of her life and music.
Sadly, the young woman who was writing this biography on Billie Holiday (Ms. Linda Lipnack Kuehl) was found dead before she ever completed her project. Linda’s family said her life had been threatened for asking too many questions. The police report read she had jumped from a Washington, DC hotel window and ruled it a suicide. However, none of her friends or family believed it. This is a documentary with many facts about Billie Holiday’s life and Linda Lipnack Kuehl’s short life, that may surprise the viewer.
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ANDRA DAY stars in the Lee Daniels motion picture production that is currently airing on HULU Cable. Her voice strongly resembles Ms. Holiday in tone and phrasing. Notably, actress/singer, Andra Day even has her mannerisms locked into place, right down to the way Billie once arched her left eyebrow. Impressive! Casandra Monique Batie took the stage name of Andra Day by cutting the Casa off of her first name and adopting Lady Day’s last name as her own. She’s been a fan of Billie Holiday since she was eleven years old.
Lee Daniels, who directed “The Butler” motion picture and also the, award winning “Precious” film, continues his winning streak with this production. His ability to capsulize a picture of black-America, using an African American view point, is what makes Mr. Daniels genius at what he does.
In this film, he focuses on the continuous African American struggle against systematic racism and inequality during Billie Holiday’s lifetime. He spotlights her fight to use music to both protest and make a difference, i.e.: the song “Strange Fruit.” In this song, about lynching, Lady Day poignantly called attention to the wicked ways and the sins of the South, when it came to people of color.
Andra Day said she didn’t want to take the role because she wasn’t a seasoned actress and, in fact, had never acted. She was terrified of not being able to become a believable character. No worries. She obviously conquered her fears. The fledgling actress idolized Billie Holiday and Diana Ross, who played Billie in Berry Gordy’s 1972 Biopic, “Lady Sings the Blues.” Andra said she didn’t want to put a stain on either the legacy of Billie Holiday or the Ms. Ross depiction of Lady Day.
The soulful singer heard Lady Day when she was just a teenager. In preparing for this role, she read every book, looked at every documentary and movie about Billie Holiday and sat for long talks with Lee Daniels. He had a specific idea of how he wanted an actress to portray Billie. Ms. Andra Day wanted to be authentic in the role. She praises Tasha Smith, her acting coach, for giving her the tools she needed and to rise to the occasion. Andra expressed surprise at how diligent the FBI went after Billie for singing the song, “Strange Fruit.”
I will be absolutely shocked if Andra Day’s performance is not celebrated with multiple awards, including for her original song that she performs at the end of the film. This is a must-see motion picture, that gives Andra Day the role of a lifetime and gives the audience an entirely fresh look at the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, who the film dubs, Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.
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By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist
February 1, 2021
It’s Black History month and I was thinking about Donald Dean and his long history in jazz music. So, I gave him a call and interviewed him. That’s when I discovered some surprising and amazing things about Donald’s life and legacy as a jazz drummer.
Donald Wesley Dean was born in Kansas City, Mo on June 21, 1936. This is a midwestern city that has birthed a number of incredible and legendary jazz players including Mary Lou Williams, blues singer Big Joe Turner, Buster Smith, Ben Webster, Lester Young, bassist and bandleader Walter Page, famed pianist and bandleader Bennie Moten, Jay McShann, Count Basie and trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page. Our very own Los Angeles legend, Betty Bryant, (singer, pianist and composer) is from Kansas City and also, Burt Bacharach. He’s not a jazz player, but we sure enjoy playing his songs. I asked Donald about his musical roots.
“My mom was a great lover of jazz and my dad also. She would take me to every concert that came to town. My dad was a hard worker, loved his ball games and smoked a pipe. He was a blue-collar laborer and worked more than one job to support our family. I had one sister, but she died young. I miss her to this day,” Donald told me.
“I took piano lessons for two or three years but I wanted to play saxophone. My dad was a great lover of Louie Jordan. My mom took me to see Louie Jordan in concert and he had all these fancy clothes on and he was smiling; all the girls were around him and I said, Ooo – I want to play saxophone. But, when I got to school and got the opportunity to play music, they were out of saxophones. So, they put me into the percussion section of the school band, until they got an available sax,” Donald recalled the reason he started playing drums.
NOTE: Louis Jordan was a popular songwriter, saxophonist and bandleader who had eighteen number one hit records on the Billboard R&B Charts. One of the most famous was “Caldonia”. His song lyrics and stage presence were often tinged with a little comedy.
“I attended R. T. Coles Vocational Jr. High School in Kansas City, MO. I was in the 8th grade, and Leo Davis was the musical conductor there. They stuck me into the percussion section and this girl, Shirley Edmunson, was quite a great drummer. I was very disappointed to be stuck in the drum section, to be honest with you. I showed my resentment and she said, well – can you do this and can you do that? She played the drums and put a ‘roll’ down and said, let’s see if you can do that. She challenged me! I immediately left school and got a drum teacher to teach me how to play a roll. Dave Burdell was my teacher. I loved him. He taught a lot of us drummers around there. So, I learned to ‘roll.’ Then I went back to school and showed Shirley I could roll,” Donald chuckled.
“But I still didn’t want to play drums. However, my drum teacher encouraged me. Maybe he saw something in me. He said, hey man, you should stick with this. I said Ok, I’ll do it on the side. One drummer that came up in my neighborhood was James Gadson. Surprisingly, when I went to school, my teachers put me in the band playing mellophone, which is like a French Horn. Strange, all through school I ended up playing French Horn and trumpet. I played my drums outside of school, because when the music teacher heard that I had a little success drumming, he wouldn’t let me play drums. He said it was because I was playing professionally. See, at that time, I was lucky enough to get recruited by a band led by a famous piano player and singer. His name was Amos Milburn and he was a popular rhythm and blues artist in the 1950s.
“Amos Milburn came to town and this girl recommended me to him. I knocked on his door and he looked at me and said what the Hell is this? He was shocked, ‘cause I was fourteen years old. He told me, well, come on. I can’t change it now. So, we went to the gig. He was so impressed, that we all left the gig that night and the band came over to my house. Amos and his manager begged my mother to let me go on the road that summer with them. They promised to take good care of me. So, at fourteen I went on the road with Amos Millburn. I was so young, my mother had to write a note to permit me to play with the band. She had to have that note notarized. On our breaks, I had to go into the office. I couldn’t hang out in the clubs we were playing. The guys in the band would all get drunk and run out of money. They’d come try to borrow my money, ‘cause I was putting all my earnings away. I didn’t go out and party, because I was too young. Their manager would tell me if I loaned them money I should get paid back with interest. Consequently, I ended up going home with a whole lot of money.
“I was working with some talented people like Willie Smith on alto saxophone, Tina Brooks on tenor saxophone, Wayne Bennett on guitar, a guy they called Sweet Pea on baritone saxophone and later, Donald Wilkerson on baritone Sax took Sweet Pea’s place. It was a great training ground for me. On That trip, we were in Cleveland Ohio when I met Little Jimmy Scott. He came over to me and gave me good advice. He was really strung-out at that time and he warned me against drugs. Later in life, we met again in Los Angeles. He hired me to work with him. Even though he was so high the original night I met him in Ohio, he still remembered me.
“After working with Amos Milburn, I went on the road with the Melody Lane Orchestra. I was fifteen. It was a big band. We toured South and North Dakota. I got paid in silver dollars. I will never forget that! I made $35/per night. So, I was making over $200 a week. I didn’t spend a dime. I went home with a drawer full of money. My parents were so proud of me.
“I went to the Navy, after high school, because I wanted to go to college. I went to get GI help to continue my education. In the service, I was placed in electronics. I did secret code work. I worked up and down the East Coast with various bands on my days off. One of the bands was with Gene Barge out of Chicago. He played tenor saxophone.
“I was stationed in Norfolk, VA and later on the West Coast, in Hawaii. After the Navy, I enrolled in the University of Kansas (KU) in the music program. I was studying to be a Music Therapist. That’s when I got a call from trumpeter, Carmell Jones, who wanted me to come to the West Coast and record a record with him and Harold Land Sr.,” Donald Dean explained what brought him to Los Angeles.
It was 1961. Once he arrived in L.A., there was no going back to Kansas City. That record with Carmell and Harold Land Sr. came out in 1962 titled, “Business Meeting” on Pacific Jazz label. You can hear Donald’s tasty drum chops clearly on this song from that album.
“I was working with Marvin Jenkins. We were at the Playboy Club five nights a week. One night, Les McCann came through and, on my break, he said to me, why don’t you come by my house for rehearsal on Saturday morning? So, I went by and after rehearsal he told everybody, we leave for our tour on Monday morning. That was 1967. In 1969, we recorded the historic “Swiss Movement” album for Atlantic Records with Eddie Harris and Les McCann. This was followed by “Much Les” released in the same year.”
In 1970, Donald recorded the McCann album “Comment” and in 1971 the popular “Second Movement” album. There were two more releases in 1972; “Invitation to Openness” and “Talk to the People.” He was on the road constantly and making good money drumming with the Les McCann aggregation. In 1973, they recorded two other albums: “Live at Montreux” and “Layers,” still on the Atlantic label.
“Right after working with Les McCann I started working with Jimmy Smith. This was before he opened his supper club in the Valley. Jimmy and I were great friends. It was his wife, Lola, who I didn’t get along with. Ray Crawford was the guitarist in the group and we were playing all over the place and recording. Yamaha came in and gave us all instruments for us to endorse. They gave me two drum kits. They gave Jimmy an organ and Ray Crawford a guitar. Lola started giving me a hard time, because I had a big following just like Jimmy did. A lot of my friends came around and used to hang out and she didn’t appreciate the women who were giving Jimmy too much attention. I think she blamed me. So, she got pissed off and fired me. Next thing I knew, she wanted the drums back. I endorsed the drums in my name and I wasn’t thinking about giving her my drums. So, she took me to court. Of course, she lost that case. Funny, later on down the road, she called me back to play with Jimmy.”
Donald Dean recorded “Bluesmith” on Verve with Jimmy Smith in 1972. In 1974 they recorded “Paid in Full” on the Mojo label and in 1975 Mojo released another record titled “75.”
“I was also working with Willie Bobo around that time and O.C. Smith. I also worked with Kenny Durham and Dexter Gordon,” Donald reminisced.
In 1988, Donald recorded with the great Horace Tapscott. The album was titled “Live” and released on the Americana label. Later he was on the 2019 Tapscott release of Dark Tree “Why Don’t You Listen.” He also recorded with the late Earl Anderza, on an album called “Outa Sight” released in 1998 by Pacific jazz. I asked him who Earl Anderza was.
“Earl was a very good alto sax man. Unfortunately, he was a drug addict and he couldn’t stay out of jail,” Donald acknowledged with sadness tinging his words.
In the summer of 1988, when I was singing jazz instead of writing about it, this journalist got a four-month gig in Jakarta, Indonesia. I had the pleasure of working with Donald Dean on drums, Spanish bassist, Salvadore on double bass and Dwight Dickerson on piano as my trio. Working with Donald Dean was pure pleasure. Not only was he a master timekeeper, he always had a warm smile, no matter what the situation, and a quick sense of humor. He taught me a good attitude on the road is half the battle.
With the onslaught of the pandemic, Donald hasn’t been playing his drums much. The day I talked to him, he had just taken his second shot of the vaccine. Until COVID19 made everything come to a crashing halt, Donald Dean was offering inspiration to young people in schools by presenting concerts to inner-city youth and giving them a glimpse of jazz history on public school stages around Los Angeles. Speaking of youth, he is proud to brag about his grandson, Jamael Dean who is an amazing young jazz pianist and his granddaughter, Darynn Dean who is a jazz vocalist. I’ve heard them both and they each have exciting futures in the music business. Jamael already has released one album and Darynn is working on recording her debut CD.
Three Generations of Deans: William Dean, Donald Dean Sr., & Jamael Dean
“Have you seen that Lexus commercial on TV?” Donald asks me. Without waiting for my reply he says, “My grandson, Jamael is on it. He’s doing the Lexus commercial and he wanted me to do something with him one day, so I went with him. And lo and behold, I’m in the commercial with him.” Donald Dean’s life is full of surprises!
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
January 1, 2021
As I sit here, writing about the intensity and genius of woodwind master, Bennie Maupin, I’m listening to his album “The Jewel in the Lotus” and admiring the beauty of his music.
Although it was written and released in 1974, it is still as dynamic and innovative in 2021 as it was back-in-the-day. In fact, in 2011, Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer (Berlin-based DJs and composers) used samples of The Jewel in the Lotus as the basis for their track “Rensenada” on a remix album.
Listening to Bennie’s original composition, “Ensenada,” featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, Buster Williams on bass, both Frederick Waits and Billy Hart on drums, with Bill Summers on percussion is another release in 1974; an album by ECM Records titled “Spiritual Jazz Classics.” As I listen to it, I feel as though I should be meditating and connecting to some spiritual place inside my being. Bennie’s music does that to you. It directs you to a higher place within yourself. Another of his beautiful pieces is “Escondido,” that pulls you into a meditative place of peace. His melodies are both hypnotic and rhythmic.
But where did Bennie Maupin’s amazing talent come from? What influenced him? It all started on August 29th in 1940 when little Bennie was born into this world at Edith Kay Thomas Hospital. His parents had migrated from Mississippi to the Midwest motor city of Detroit, Michigan, where his father secured work in the automobile factory and his mother became a domestic worker. Once a week, his mother would take little Bennie to the popular Paradise Theater to enjoy live music concerts by famed entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong. That historic building, that was once The Paradise Theater on Woodward Avenue, is now referred to as Orchestra Hall. It remains a popular concert venue.
“I was born on the East side of Detroit. We lived between Rivard & Russell. The Gordy’s lived practically around the corner from us,” Bennie Maupin told me a few days ago.
“I remember music was always in the air around me; at church, in live concerts and on the radio. I had three brothers and I was the youngest. No one in my family played music, but my mother enjoyed it immensely. There were a lot of musicians in my neighborhood. I think I was a pre-teen; maybe eleven or twelve years old. I used to hear this neighbor named Jesse playing saxophone. He was in a group and sometimes they would practice at his house. I’d stand outside and listen.
“I think one of my first mentors, who really comes to mind was the great Teddy Harris. He served in the Korean war and was injured. When he came back, 1954 or 55, I met him and he invited me to his house to study music. He played woodwind instruments and piano. He groomed me a lot. Teddy had enough skills to copy things from records and write arrangements. He was once musical director for the Supremes. He could play, conduct and arrange. He groomed me in those beginning years,” Bennie recalled.
“Then, there was Sam Sanders who was a little bit older than me. We both attended North Eastern high school. The very first band I ever played in (outside of the high school band) was with Sam Sanders. We both went to the Teal School of Music. Joe Henderson went there too. It was located on Cass street in Detroit. It was a big old house with two floors and a lot of rooms. The guy who founded it, Larry Teal, turned it into a music studio. His son was one of my teachers. I wanted to play in my high school band. The band director, a guy named Rex Hall, told me, if you want to play in my band, you’re going to have to take private lessons. I said, how do I do that? And he hooked me up. He sent me to Teal Music School.
“There was a spot called ‘The Minor Key’. All the musicians hung out there. You could hear greats like Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. My good friend, Sam Sanders, was studying with Yusef Lateef. I got a lot of my music information from Sam, secondhand. I met Yusef later on down the road. Yusef lived in Detroit. We’re talking about maybe 1952. I used to go up to the World Stage in Detroit. It was frequented by Yusef, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Hank Jones, Milt Jackson, … all those great guys who came from Detroit and later moved to New York. Jazz wise, it was happening. Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell, were some of the guys who were pretty savvy in terms of business. They found an upper floor of a furnisher store and they took one of the rooms, painted it, put some colored lights in there and a piano. That was the original World Stage. These were my places to go, because I wasn’t twenty-one yet. No alcohol was sold and I could get in those places as a teen and hear the music. I also used to go to clubs and stand outside to listen. I used to listen to music through the window. I got to hear Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane playing on Twelfth Street at a place called the 12th St. Lounge. I would stand outside the club and listen. The bouncers used to tell me I couldn’t stand in front, but I could go around to the side and listen. So, that was cool. Later, as I started to really listen more, I became aware of Yusef Lateef, also Barry Harris and Kenny Cox. In fact, pianist, composer, arranger, Kenny Cox and I went to high school together.
“I also went to high school with Alice Coltrane. Alice McLeod is her family name. She’s from Detroit and she’s one of my very, very important teachers. She showed me what versatility was all about. She was older than me by three or four years. When I got to high school, as a freshman, Alice was playing the Timpani; the orchestral drums. She played the snare drum too. I discovered one day, at a school assembly, where kids would sing a song or tap dance, just do whatever they could do, Alice came out, sat down at the piano and played that too. She’s my mentor and very, very important to me. She was extremely close to the great Budd Powell. Alice was an amazing person and a fantastic musician. She went to Europe, lived in France, and then eventually she came back to Detroit. That’s when I really got to know her. I think trombonist, George Bohannon, introduced me to her. They had a group, a really good group with Alice, George and a number of other local musicians. I was influenced by watching what they were doing.”
At that point, I asked Bennie Maupin about his relationship to John Coltrane, who Alice would eventually marry.
Bennie explained, “Well, I knew John Coltrane, but I knew them separately. I knew Alice in my earlier years. Coltrane came to Detroit a lot. I was able to get to know him and go hear him. He played where there was no alcohol served at that place called, The World Stage. So, I got to know John and every time he came out, I would talk to him and ask him questions. Plus, whenever he got done playing in the clubs, and doing whatever he was doing, he would go and play out in an area known as Conant Gardens (in Detroit). In Conant Gardens, Joe Brazil had a really nice house. I think he was a civil engineer. He made good money and had a beautiful home with a piano down in the basement. It was in that house that I really got to connect with John Coltrane. Cause the gigs would be over at two in the morning, but John liked to spend time with the musicians; plus, he just liked to play. I got to meet him so many times and experienced so many wonderful moments listening to him and talking to him about what I was doing and what I was working on.
“Looking back, I met everybody that I needed to know, with the exception of a few people, I met them all in Detroit, before I even went to New York. Actually, I met Sonny Rollins in Detroit. See, Detroit is the hub of all of my stuff. That’s where I met Coltrane. That’s where I met Freddie Hubbard. You know, I spent a fair amount of time being able to talk with Coltrane and also Sonny Rollins. Sonny and I are in contact with each other daily. He’s another one of my mentors. By the time I went to New York, I knew a lot of really important people.”
Don Heckman wrote in an article for the LA Times, that Maupin and Sonny Rollins became fast friends.
“Meeting Rollins changed my life,” Bennie told Heckman in 2001.
“When the Rollins group returned to Detroit for a rare two-week run at a local club, it meant I could see and hear him every night, sit and talk about music and mouthpieces and all sorts of things. It was great, and it continued when I moved to New York. Most people are aware of Sonny going up and practicing on the bridge over the East River, but he used to like to go out to New Jersey to practice in the woods too. He’d call me up sometimes, at night, and we’d just head out into the woods to play”
Before The Four Tops singing group signed with Motown, in 1962 or 1963, they were already touring and working venues all over the country. When they offered Bennie Maupin a road-gig that included performances in New York City, New Jersey and Upstate New York, Bennie gladly accepted the gig. He told me about that time in his life.
“My Four Tops tour was only two or three weeks, something like that. During that period, I got to go to New York City for the very first time in my life. On my days off, I was wondering around, just listening to the city; to the sounds, to the smell of it; to the languages. I was fascinated by everything. I somehow, found myself down in Greenwich Village. I got to a place called the ‘5 Spot.’ I read the sign on the window and it said Thelonious Monk would be there that night. I said oh! Ok. Now I know where I’m supposed to be. That’s when I made up my mind. I’m going to move to New York.”
Maupin and alto saxophonist, Marion Brown wound up being neighbors. Everyone around him was experimenting with the new Avant Garde jazz scene. Bennie Maupin wanted a piece of it and it didn’t take long for him to establish his talent. He found himself playing with Horace Silver, Andrew Hill and Lee Morgan. He also met Jack DeJohnette in the ‘Big Apple’. DeJohnette lived on the Lower East Side and so did Maupin. They struck up a close friendship. After playing only 6-months with piano icon, Bill Evans, DeJohnette left the Bill Evans trio to join Miles, at the request of Miles himself. He then told Miles about woodwind player, Bennie Maupin. Miles slipped into a live show one night, featuring McCoy Tyner. That’s where he heard Bennie playing his bass clarinet in a tiny but popular New York City jazz club called, “Slugs.” Not long after, Bennie got a phone call that summoned him to the studio to record with Miles.
“It was like painting. Miles was a painter. He used the studio as his palette and created these beautiful things that came out of that. … The kind of inspiration and what came out of me is just there! He gave me total freedom to be myself. It’s rare that you get a total forum to be like that, so I took full advantage of it. I wasn’t shy about it at all!” 
Bennie Maupin recalled the exciting experience that created “Bitches Brew.” This was the album that shocked and pissed off hard-nosed, conservative, be-bop fans and issued in a brand, new day for jazz. This album created the pot for cooking up fusion jazz and serving it piping hot to worldwide listeners. It was Bennie Maupin’s amazing bass clarinet addition that spiced up that extraordinary Davis ensemble. Bennie went on to record on other Miles Davis masterpieces like “On the Corner,” “Big Fun,” “Circle in the Round,” “Directions,” and the “Jack Johnson boxed sets.” But when Miles Davis asked him to join his tour group, Maupin had already committed to working with and recording with Lee Morgan. Much to Miles’ dismay, Maupin turned down the famed trumpeter’s gig offer. Instead, he recorded “Live at the Lighthouse” with Lee Morgan. Morgan included five of Bennie Maupin’s original compositions in that 1970 release on Bluenote Records. At that point, Maupin was a published composer, pianist and woodwind master. He was growing and flourishing in New York.
In demand, he found himself working with heavyweight champions of jazz like Roy Haynes, Pharoah Sanders, Chick Corea, Eddie Henderson and Woody Shaw. When Herbie Hancock formed his own sextet, he invited Bennie Maupin to become a part of it. That Mwandishi Band dissolved in 1973. Then, Maupin and Hancock formed the famed Head Hunters. It included Harvey Mason on drums, Bill Summers on percussion and Paul Jackson on bass. Their work together led to both Gold and Platinum certified sales of that October, 1973 album release. Head Hunters became the first jazz album to ever sell over a million copies. Later, Harvey Mason was replaced by Mike Clark on drums. I asked Bennie Maupin about that time in his life, going from recording with Miles to becoming part of the Head Hunters and touring endlessly.
“Well – you know, we did a lot of working. So, when a cycle comes to an end, you do need to recharge yourself. I discovered a lot by moving to California and that completely revolutionized my life. I went from New York’s fast pace to Pasadena, California. I was able to develop a family atmosphere and put some of the resources that I had to use. I bought some property,” Benny described his1974 move to a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles in the mountain community of Pasadena/Altadena, California.
However, Maupin let no grass grow under his feet. The Bennie Maupin Ensemble was a result of his close musical association with dynamic drummer, Michael Stephans and percussionist, Munyungo Jackson, along with bassist Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz. In 1974, Bennie Maupin became bandleader and recorded “The Jewel in the Lotus” for ECM. That album remains timeless, as does his amazing work with the Head Hunters group, who in 1976 released their second album, “Survival of the Fittest/Straight From the Gate.” In 1977, Verve Records released Bennie Maupin’s “Slow Traffic to the Right” followed in 1978 by “Moonscapes.” Maupin’s next bandleading mission was recorded in 1998 on the Intuition label, “Driving While Black” which featured him working with synthesize master, Dr. Patrick Gleeson who created loops and creative tracks for Bennie to play his saxophones over. In 2002, bassist John B. Williams and Bennie Maupin united in a project they call, “The Maupin/Williams Project – Live at Club Rhapsody in Okinawa” that displays their straight-ahead mentality and jazz/be-bop roots. In 2003, he released his most recent endeavor, “Penumbra” on the Cryptogramophone label, which is more contemporary jazz. Several overseas albums have also been released, but these I have listed remain the most accessible on YouTube.
If you listen closely to the smooth stylized delivery Maupin has on all his woodwind instruments, you may hear the influence of John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef or Sonny Rollins, but his sound and approach is uniquely his own. I find myself endeared to his work, whether it’s straight-ahead jazz with John B. Williams or fusion jazz with Herbie Hancock, he brings a spiritual sweetness and musical surprises to please and inspire the listener. Bennie Maupin is a master among us, currently working on a legacy book that will delve into the three cities that participated in molding this musician into an iconic exclamation mark next to the word jazz. He is a living tribute and an asset to Detroit, New York City and the Los Angeles jazz community; one who is loved and respected worldwide.
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
Jeff Ellwood is the current Director of Instrumental Jazz Studies at Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, California. After much prodding by his contemporaries, he decided to take a solo journey into becoming a recording artist and bandleader. Ellwood carefully picked the crème-de-la-crème of Southern California’s wealth of jazz musicians. He invited the last drummer to play with the great Bill Evans, Joe LaBarbera and his longtime friend, Alan Pasqua on piano, who also was the person who introduced Jeff to the Southern California jazz community.
Jeff and Alan Pasqua met at the prestigious Henry Mancini Institute when Ellwood joined the very few instrumentalists who were carefully selected, from all over the world, to participate in a month-long musical seminar at UCLA. Alan Pasqua was there to teach an improvisational clinic in 2003 and was completely captivated by Ellwood’s rendition of ‘Giant Steps’ on his tenor saxophone. It wasn’t long before the blossoming saxophonist became part of Pasqua’s band and performed with them for the next seven years. Pasqua is also co-producer of Jeff Ellwood’s new album entitled, “The Sounds Around the House.” Ellwood explained:
“So, I was accepted to the Henry Mancini Institute in 2002 and they asked me to come back in 2003. I was back home, in Southern California, after attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Alan came into the Mancini Institute to teach a master class. He lectured and then he’d have people play. After I played, he said to me, where are you from? I said, I’m living at my mom’s house in Riverside and he was like, you live here? I’m going to call you. And of course, I was thinking to myself, oh sure, you’re going to call me. At that point, I just didn’t think he would really call,” Jeff Ellwood was full of disbelief that someone he greatly admired, a master pianist like Alan Pasqua, would actually call him.
“He did end up calling and I went to his house for an audition. And then, after it was over, he said: Oh, by the way, we have our first gig in two weeks,” Jeff chuckled remembering his surprise and good fortune.
For the next seven years Ellwood was an integral part of the Alan Pasqual band. But it was a long journey to that moment in time. At ten-years-old, young Jeff was diagnosed with severe asthma. The family doctor suggested he take up a woodwind instrument to strengthen his lungs. So, the boy began toying with the saxophone. He taught himself to play and by age fifteen he had joined a rock band and they were playing at Hollywood’s famous Whisky a Go Go. Jeff Ellwood found himself intoxicated with music and he also discovered that girls were hypnotically attracted to musicians. At that point, he had absolutely no knowledge of music theory, but he knew he wanted to be a musician. He explained it in an interview on The Best Saxophone Website Ever with Zach Sollitto.
“In some ways, I have regrets that I never had lessons in high school, but in some ways, I don’t have regrets because it forced me to figure things out and explore playing differently. You have to understand that when I came out of high school, I was awful. I did not know my major scales or how to read music. My first week at community college they made me play lead alto because I had a good sound, but I could not read. I remember the first tune we had to play was a Mark Taylor arrangement of ‘All the Things You Are’ and we had to play that in the 2nd week of school. … I had no idea what the symbols meant on the page. It was a long process for me to learn scales, chords, how to read, etc. and I played a lot of wrong notes during that time. But I knew after high school that I wanted to pursue music.”
Who could have guessed that his love of that famous jazz standard, “All the Things You Are” would inspire him to compose the opening tune for his new CD, titled “U-R.” It becomes a tasty and up-tempo way to open his debut CD release.
Getting back to his story, after graduating high school, the young musician knew he needed to learn more about music academically. Consequently, he attended Riverside Community College and majored in music. That nurturing environment prepared him for his dream of attending Berklee College of Music. Berklee prepared Jeff Ellwood for that Mancini audition where he met Alan Pasqua.
“I was living in Riverside and just trying to carve out a path. To me, the fact that Alan was the first person to recognize that I had a different voice and to appreciate that, it just gave me a little more confidence in believing in what I did. It was coming from somebody I respected and those seven years were a great learning lesson for me. It was like, you know what? We are who we are and not everybody’s going to get it.”
Jeff also called Darek Oles for his recording project. He’s one of Southern California’s first-call bass players and as a special guest, he asked saxophonist Bob Sheppard to join him on track six, a tune written by Dick Oatts (“King Henry”). It originally featured Oatts and Jerry Bergonzi on their “South Paw” album for the Steeplechase label.
“I always loved Dick Oatts. Dick and Jerry Bergonzi are good friends. I happily included that ‘King Henry’ Oatts tune on my album,” Ellwood said.
I asked Jeff about other musical influences and he was quick to again mention Jerry Bergonzi and also Rick Margitza, who played with Miles Davis in 1989 on the Human Nature tour at the Umbria Jazz Festival.
“When I was eighteen or nineteen years old in community college, trying to figure this stuff out, people were telling me to listen to Coltrane and Listen to Michael Brecker. When I listened to them, I just could not process what they were doing. It was something I had to come to later in life. But I remember, I went to a trumpet player friend-of-mines house. He was playing an album by Maynard Ferguson with a lot of Los Angeles cats playing on it; Matt Harris was the arranger. And he featured two young saxophone players, Rick Margitza and another young player, Tim Ries. Maynard was playing a funky version of Body and Soul and I heard this tenor saxophone player come in. Immediately, I said, who is that? That is how I want to play music. The light bulb just goes on. The sound and the phrasing; the approach and everything; I just immediately fell in love with everything about Rick Margitza and I started buying every record I could find. That’s way before you could go on Amazon. I had to go to record stores. I was tracking his stuff down and trying to figure out where he was coming from. I finally found someone who had his phone number and I said, please, can I have it? At that time, Rick was still living in New York. He lives in Paris now. Young, fearless and determined, I cold–called him. I said, I’m in Los Angeles and you’re in New York, but I need to study with you. We agreed, I would mail him a check and a cassette tape of me playing. He would flip to the other (blank) side of the cassette tape and make his comments and send it back to me. He has made a huge impact in my life,” Jeff Ellwood asserted in a firm voice.
“One time somebody asked Michael Brecker what it’s like to be the greatest saxophone player in the world and Michael Brecker said, I don’t know. Ask Jerry Bergonzi,” Ellwood chuckles as he relates that story to me.
“I also spent a lot of time listening to Jerry Bergonzi. I loved his playing and compositions. One day, I just sent Jerry Bergonzi an e-mail and asked him if he would share his lead sheets with me. He was like, sure. He started scanning and sending them. Everything was all handwritten. I said, Jerry, would you like somebody to change these sheets into a music notation software? Clean them up? I wasn’t asking for money to do it. I felt, through his records, he has given me so much. It was the only way I could think about repaying him. I didn’t realize it would turn into 250 some sheets,” Jeff shared.
Currently, he has all of Jerry Bergonzi’s songs on his website and when Jerry has an overseas gig, he refers the overseas bandmembers to that website to pull Ellwood’s neatly penned charts.
While talking to Jeff Ellwood, I recognize his funny, tongue-in-cheek humor. He’s quick to make me laugh. He’s also a humble man with a somewhat precocious personality. Once he sets his mind to something, Jeff Ellwood goes after it, full speed ahead. He and I both understand that choosing music as an occupation is a hard and challenging decision; especially for a jazz musician. He spoke warmly of his family and their loving support of his musical career choice.
“Nobody in my family plays music. Nobody can understand where my talent came from. When I was a fifteen-year-old kid, I was playing in a rock band. We were pretty popular and playing at the Whiskey a Go Go on a Wednesday night. We needed a place to rehearse and my mom was like, oh, go ahead use our garage. So once or twice a week, she’s sitting in the living room just listening to this pounding music and never said anything. Never stopped it. On the other hand, my father said, I’m just letting you know, you WILL go to college. You don’t have a choice in that. He said, you can be anything you want to be. You can choose any college you want to and I’ll pay for it. So, they gave me kind of carte blanche to just do what I really wanted to do. I told them I was going to go to music school and they never said a single thing. They really supported me. I was in my early thirties when I got my first full time job teaching. I remember calling my dad and telling him, you don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
Jeff Ellwood has found himself walking along a pathway of masters and to his credit has played with historic and iconic names like Tony Bennett, Bill Cunliffe, Jimmy Haslip, Dave Carpenter, Darek Oles, Randy Brecker, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Arturo Sandoval and many more. He shared a story with me about meeting the great James Moody.
“When I was working on my Master’s Degree at Cal State Fullerton, the Director of Jazz Studies said James Moody was going to come into town as a guest artist and they were going to go out to lunch. I said please, please, please, let me be at that lunch. He relented and I was just fortunate to attend lunch with Moody and his wife Linda and the Director of Jazz Studies. I kept telling James Moody I wanted to take a lesson with him and later, we’re sitting in a room hanging out. He was 77 years old at that time. He was showing me something and I said, I do a little something like that. I played it and he says, write that down for me. I kind of looked at him and repeated, write that down? And he looked at me and he was like, young man, I’m 77 years old, but I still get up every day and practice and still have the desire to learn and get better and hear something new. I’m sitting there stunned, because he wants me to write down my ‘lick.’ That was a really a profound moment for me. And then, after the lesson I asked, how much do I owe you? Moody says, you don’t owe me anything. The only thing that you owe me is to keep passing this music on.
“I ended up running into him (Moody) at a convention a year or two later. I was like, oh, there’s James Moody. He’s not going to remember me. He meets so many people. But he did remember me. He says, Jeff, it’s so good to see you. Linda, do you remember Jeff? I was like OMG; this amazing man remembers who I am? In my office, behind my desk is a giant picture of James Moody. Also, in my home, my dad found an art print of James Moody and that hangs in my home office. Students who come to take a lesson ask, who is that guy? I say well, sit down. Then, I tell them an amazing story about who James Moody is. It’s a nice way to pass on his legacy.”
On April 13, 2004, a special Henry Mancini Tribute was given at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Among the performers were: Michael Feinstein, James and Jeanne Galway, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Take 6, and Monica Mancini. The Alumni Orchestra of the Henry Mancini Institute was under the direction of Patrick Williams and Jeff Ellwood was part of that Orchestra. I asked him about that experience.
“A lot of the famous people I’ve worked with were at events that I participated in representing the Mancini Institute. I think Julie Andrews was a part of that tribute to Henry Mancini and John Williams. Stevie (Wonder) came out and sang “Moonriver.” Quincy Jones was there too. It was also a Mancini Institute gig when I worked with Tony Bennett. He was doing a thing at the Kodak Theater and they needed to assemble an orchestra to back him up. The nice thing about being affiliated with the Mancini Institute, they’d get calls to do a lot of other things when the Institute wasn’t working. For example, they flew me to New York to play at Lincoln Center a couple of times,” Jeff Ellwood praised the Institute named for famed composer Henry Mancini.
Ellwood’s debut album is a smooth testament to his musical journey, his tenacity in the business, his unique style and creativity and showcases both his saxophone and composer skills. But, in addition to recording and performing, Jeff Ellwood has found a genuine love for teaching. In 2018, Ellwood’s Jazz Studies Program at Mt. San Antonio College won the Downbeat’s Community College Award for Best Jazz Ensemble and in 2019 they came in second place right behind Riverside City College, where Jeff Ellwood once taught for five years.
“When I moved back home, from Boston to California, Riverside City College gave me my first teaching position, teaching an improvisation class. My former saxophone teacher is the Director of Jazz Studies at Riverside College and he gave me the job. I only had a Batchelor’s Degree, so I could only teach the performance-based classes. He pulled me aside one time and said, I think you’re kind of good at this. I think it’s time to go back and get a Master’s Degree. So, I got my Master’s Degree. I remained at Riverside Community College for five or six years and now I’ve been full-time at Mt. San Antonio College for fifteen years.
“I find there are a lot of young musicians who fortunately have a good mind set and are making recordings and videos and getting those things distributed on social media. But what I tell my jazz history class, I don’t want to make the class so difficult for them. However, if you happen to fall down some stairs sometime and you end up in a jazz club, you will at least understand the amount of work, education, blood sweat and tears that has gone into playing this music. You need to understand that a jazz musician is like a classical musician. We have to have all the technical skills of a classical musician. We have to learn to play in all twelve keys and to improvise. We’re not just going up there winging it. It’s like hours and hours of practice time figuring out what to do. So, whether you go out and buy a jazz record, at least you have some kind of appreciation of what goes into it. That’s what I want to do, is to get that fundamental understanding of how deep these musicians are. Like James Moody told me, just pass it on!”
Jeff Ellwood is “passing it on” as an educator but also as an artist. Pick up his newly released CD “The Sounds Around the House” to enjoy the warm, unique sound of Ellwood’s tenor saxophone jazz. It will make a great holiday stocking stuffer!
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
KENNY KOTWITZ & THE LA JAZZ QUINTET – “WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW”- PM Records LLC
Kenny Kotwitz, accordion and celeste; John Chiodini, guitar(s); Nick Mancini, vibraphone; Chuck Berghofer, upright bass; Kendall Kay, drums/percussion.
This album of music is a centennial tribute to the Art Van Damme Quintet. Art was a trail blazer among jazz accordionists. He recorded 42 albums as a leader and another 100 as a sideman and boasted a 15-minute, NBC radio program that ran for 139 episodes (The Art Van Damme Show) back in the 1940s. One of Van Damme’s few students is accordionist, Kenny Kotwitz. Consequently, producer Peter Maxymych reached out to Kenny Kotwitz when he discovered him on YouTube.
“I needed the right accordion player for the project. I heard Kenny Kotwitz play on YouTube and I knew that his style would be perfect for this. After contacting him, I found that he had been a close friend of Art Van Damme, so it all made perfect sense,” the producer explained.
Kenny Kotwitz picked the musicians he wanted to be in the LA Jazz Quintet and did all the arranging for this album. Kenny had fond memories of Art Van Damme.
“When I studied with Art, he would give me an arrangement each week. I would take it home; hand copy it and analyze what was written for the instrumentation. Since they were doing a radio show five days a week for NBC, they had a lot of material. I knew that was the style Peter Maxymych was looking for and I knew that these L.A. master musicians would fit easily into that sound,” Kotwitz shared.
John Chiodini shines on “Estate” (that translates to ‘summer’), laying down a beautiful guitar introduction and amply supporting Kenny Kotwitz during his accordion spotlight. Nick Mancini adds his tenacious vibraphone work to the mix with Chuck Berghofer on double bass and drummer Kendall Kay locking the Latin rhythm tightly in place. This album is a testament to Van Damme’s unique, stylized accordion work and graces each listener with a bakers-dozen of familiar jazz standard songs, played in a sweet, moderate-tempo way. You’ll enjoy these Los Angeles music masters as they interpret “Skylark,” the sultry “Cry Me A River,” and the title tune, “When Lights Are Low,” along with many more you will recognize.
This is easy-listening music, lovely and relaxing, that features Kenny Kotwitz, a protégé of Van Damme, who became a busy studio musician in Los Angeles in 1966 and has gone on to become a master accordion player, a pianist, an arranger and competent composer. In 1983, he even recorded an album with his idol titled, “Art Van Damme and Friends.” With the completion of this project, Kenny Kotwitz imagines Art Van Damme smiling down at this project from heaven and enjoying it, the same way you will.
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DAVID SILLS DOUBLE GUITAR QUINTET – “NATURAL LINES” – Gut String Records
David Sills, tenor saxophone/alto flute; Mike Scott & Larry Koonse, guitars; Blake White, bass; Tim Pleasant, drums.
This is the 17th album release for reed player, David Sills. It features seven original compositions by Sills and tunes by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Davis, Alan Broadbent and two of Sills’ accompanists, guitarists Larry Koonse and Mike Scott. Opening with Scott’s “Minor Monk,” this group swings hard and the catchy melody repeats in your head. This is the sign of a well-written composition. The Sills’ group has a tight, cohesive sound. When David Sills comes to the forefront on his horn, his mellow tone lights up the musical stage. I played this song twice before moving on. You rarely hear a quintet that utilizes two guitars, but it works! David Sills explained:
“In recent years, most of my performances have taken place in venues in which no piano was available, so to fill the role of the missing piano, I began adding a second guitar. This instrumentation seemed to open up many musical possibilities and allowed for an interesting mix of sonic colors. Thus, the idea for this recording, featuring a double guitar quintet, was born.”
Certainly, it helps to use some of the best players in Southern California like Larry Koonse and Mike Scott, who is a founding member of the Los Angeles Jazz Collective. Together, Scott and Koonse create a rich, beautiful rhythm section, along with Tim Pleasant on drums and Blake White on bass. They become a cohesive palate where Sills can paint his silky, smooth tenor saxophone sound. “Sonny’s Side” is a David Sill original composition and it’s another swinging arrangement. I wondered if it was a tribute to Sonny Rollins. When reading the publicist’s promo package, I discovered it actually was. Tim Pleasant colors the music on his trap drums and holds the swing time in perfect place. Half way through, the ensemble give’s Pleasant a time to shine on an impressive drum solo. Blake White, on double bass, locks in with Pleasant and the groove is impeccable.
On the Alan Broadbent tune, “Quiet Is the Star” Sills picks up his alto flute and serenades us. David Sills stays busy as a recording and performing woodwind player, as a composer and an educator. He puts out albums every other year, tours the United States, Europe and Asia as a bandleader and still finds time to perform with David Benoit, The Acoustic Jazz Quartet, the Line Up and the Liam Sillery Quintet. His current project, “Natural Lines” is a whole new adventure, for the first time featuring his double guitar quintet and offering us a dozen well-played songs for our listening pleasure.
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MON DAVID & JOSH NELSON – “D + N + A” – Dash Hoffman Records
Mon David, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano.
Mon David and Josh Nelson balance, with two hands and a rich baritone voice, a dozen classic songs plush with thought provoking lyrics and memorable melodies. Here is a duo that make me feel as though I’m sitting at one of those old piano bars, martini in hand and drooling over the rich, provocative music. The duo opens with a song I’m unfamiliar with; composed by Albert Hague & Allan Sherman and titled, “Did I Ever Really Live.” The lyrical content is rich. Mon David sings:
“You’re born, you weep, you smile, you speak, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall. You stand again and try and then, you walk. You eat, you drink, you feel, you think, you play, you grow, you learn, you know and then one day you find a way to talk. You’re young, you fly, you laugh, you cry, you’re grown, you’re on your own at last. You lose, you win, your days begin to slip away too fast. … is it too late to ask, Did I ever love? Did I ever give? Did I ever really live?”
Those poignant lyrics drive this project. These one-dozen songs delve deeply into the mystery of life and living; gain and loss. One of my favorite jazz ballads follows, “You Must Believe in Spring.” I still remember the first time I heard Cleo Laine sing this song ‘live’ at the Hollywood Bowl. Mon David caresses the lyrics with sensitive vocal strength, while Josh Nelson’s hands work like an artist’s paint brushes. His piano-playing gently strokes the keys and chords to support Mon David’s emotional delivery. They follow this song with several other’s we have come to love over jazz decades. The duo interprets Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary’s candid composition, “Here’s to Life.”
Mon David is multi-talented. He sings, but he also plays guitar, piano and drums. He explained his decision to record a duo album.
“For me, the human voice is the primary instrument for expressing the emotional depth of a song, but the piano is a close second. That’s why I wanted to work with Josh. His solo performances are terrific, but when he plays with a singer or other instrumentalists, his music has an almost symphonic quality. He’s also very spontaneous. He listens so closely. I realized we really didn’t need charts for these songs, because we were able to collaborate and create them on the spot. That’s why I named the album DNA, which is an acronym for David-Nelson-Agreement. It’s a real conversation between the two of us.”
There are moments when Mon David becomes a percussion instrument with his voice, like on their arrangement of “Devil may Care” and at other unexpected moments, his voice bounces octaves to a head-register tone, like a horn-player or a swiftly moving tennis ball. His tenor voice swoops into view and grabs our attention. He scats and purrs his way through familiar songs like “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Blame It on My Youth,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and challenging compositions like “Waltz for Debby” in a medley praising the genius of Bill Evans. That medley is one of my favorites on this production. He also introduces us to newer songs like the Bill Canton and Mark Winkler song, “I Chose the Moon.” This is a vocalist who shows, by his choice of repertoire, that he is confident, courageous, thoughtful, well-prepared and well-lived.
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THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC –“EMERGENCY EXIT” – Wide Hive Records
Matt Montgomery, bass/guitar/piano/songwriting; Gregory Howe, guitar/bass/B3 organ/ synthesizer/ songwriter; Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Mike Hughes & Lumpy, drums; Kasey Knudsen, alto & tenor saxophone; Ross Howe, fender guitar; Mike Blankenship, Farfisa organ/synthesizer.
On Track 6, “Innerspatial Search” this group finally gets my attention. Until then, the compositions were a little lack-luster for my taste. They featured too much repetition in the rhythm section, almost like Rock and Roll tracks that are being prepared for some amazing soloist to come in and overdub on top of. Indeed, that is what Kamasi Washington does throughout on his tenor saxophone, as well as Erik Jekabson on his triumphant trumpet. On track 7, “Rattle Thicket” the group is invigorated with rhythm and they sound very much like a rock band jam session. It’s a brief composition (2-minutes 18-seconds) but its fearless and thunders on the scene with exciting energy. “Art of the Warrior” is more smooth jazz, but as the arrangement unfolds, this song blossoms with increased energy and presence. This
group leans heavily towards rock music with jazz overtones. Sometimes it’s very Grunge-like. Montgomery and Howe are the composers of this music, except Kamasi’s composition, that happened to be the song that finally captured my full attention (Innerspatial Search). The multi-talented Matt Montgomery and Gregory Howe each play numerous instruments, as well as being the songwriters on this project. The resultant material is comprised of productions that have been sitting on the studio shelf from 2001 through 2014. They showcase a young, music-hungry Kamasi Washington, striving to express himself and grow his music. The group seeds of creativity are obvious on this recording, as these musicians plant their feet solidly to express themselves. They have included the past nine recording years, in both the Wide Hive and Fantasy studios, where they created this project. Consequently, it becomes a compilation and history of Throttle Elevator Music’s journey into 2020.
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JIM WALLER BIG BAND – “BUCKET LIST” – Independent Label
Jim Waller, arranger/composer/tenor & soprano saxophones/Hammond XK-5 organ; Chris Villanueva & Andy Langham, piano; Jason Valdez, electric guitar; Jim Kalson, electric bass; Georgie Padilla, congas/percussion; Will Kennedy, drums; Joe Caploe, timpani; Bill King, lead alto saxophone/flute; Adam Carrillo & Matthew Maldonado, tenor saxophone; Brian Christensen, alto saxophone/flute; Dr. Joey Colarusso, baritone saxophone; Libby Barnette, French horn; Karlos Elizondo, lead trumpet; Dr. Adrian Ruiz, Al Gomez, Lee Sparky Thomason & Curtis Calderon, trumpets; Jaime Parker, lead trombone; Gilbert Garza & Mark Hill, trombones; Matthew Erickson & Dr. Martin McCain, bass trombones; STRING SECTION: Anastasia Parker, concertmaster; Dr. Stephanie Westney & Eric Siu, Violins; Yang Guo & David Wang, viola; Ken Freudigman, cello; Jacqueline Sotelo, vocals.
Some might consider Jim Waller an over-achiever. He is a competent player of alto & soprano saxophones, the trombone, organ, piano and is a well-respected arranger and composer. No wonder that he found himself eager to put together a big band to interpret his original compositions and play his arrangements. The “Bucket List” album presents a number of familiar standard songs with five of Waller’s original songs included. You can say this 21-piece Jim Waller Big Band is a big accomplishment from his personal bucket list.
Waller’s first original opens this album and is titled, “Samba for Suzell.” It dances onto the scene and features a spirited tenor saxophone solo by composer/bandleader, Jim Waller; a strong piano improvisation by Chris Villanueva and a spunky drum solo featuring Will Kennedy, (a former member of the Yellow Jackets). The familiar showstopping song penned by Peggy Lee and William Schluger, “I Love Being Here With You,” is well-sung by Jacqueline Sotelo, who adds her scat vocalise to the mix. This entire album offers a delightful mix of Latin, ‘swing,’ blues, waltzes and ballads. All compositions are arranged beautifully and played well.
Jim Waller was born in Santa Barbara, California and attended Fresno State College. He formed a successful surf group who called themselves The Deltas. They recorded two albums in the 60s. In the 70s he changed directions, becoming an important member of the groundbreaking jazz/rock octet called “Los Blues.” They were a popular working group in Las Vegas from 1967 to 1973. Waller arranged their music and produced an album for the United Artists Record label. In 1977, he moved to San Antonio, Texas where he joined a group called “Road Apple.” He also became a sideman for a number of legendary performers like Etta James, Marvin Gay, Bill Watrous, Willie Nelson, Richie Cole, Paul
Gonsalves and Pete Fountain. He’s currently a well-appreciated educator and owns a recording studio where he stays busy producing both music and jingles. With the release of this album, he can cross another accomplishment off of his “Bucket List” and add to his biography, ‘success as a big bandleader.’
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AMBER WEEKES – “THE GATHERING” – Independent Label
Amber Weekes, lead vocal/background vocals; Mark Cargill, string & horn arrangements/producer/ arranger/solo violinist; Josh Nelson, Eddy Olivieri & Tony Capodonico, piano; John B. Williams, Kevin Brandon & Adam Cohen, bass; Nathaniel Scott, Fritz Wise & Sinclair Lott, drums; Jacques Lesure, Doug MacDonald & Paul Jackson Jr., guitar; Andrew Carney, trumpet; Richard Heath & Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Rickey Woodard, saxophone. Nio Wilson, Marcus D. Cargill & JoAnn Tominaga, background vocals; Ernie Fields Jr., bagpipes; Gregory Cook, celeste; Andrew Carney, trumpet.
Amber Weekes has a bell clear voice, perfect for the ten holiday songs she interprets on her debut Christmas album. The gift is ours. Opening with “The Christmas Waltz” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, enhanced by the muted trumpet of Andrew Carney, this is a lovely song that many have overlooked on their holiday albums. Amber Weekes introduces us to the lyrics with her perfect enunciation and pleasing tone. Mark Cargill adds strings and horns, like a satin pillow for Amber’s voice to lie upon. On her rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Amber pulls out every nuance of this arrangement, with tones warm and smooth as Christmas taffy. This vocalist throws in a familiar jazz standard “My Romance” and then continues reminding us of the holidays with songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Silent Night.” She performs “Some Children See Him” by Alfred Burt and it was a new song to my ears, with a lyric about Jesus being visible to the youth. The bagpipes by Ernie Fields Jr., were a pleasant surprise in this arrangement. The title tune was composed by Mark Cargill & Gregory Cook. This melody is catchy and Amber Weekes penned the lyrics. Cargill performs a stellar violin solo. They employ background voices that sound child-like and are sung in unison. I enjoyed Amber’s bluesy arrangement of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.” Her musical ensemble swings on “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow.” Amber Weekes and her Los Angeles musicians offer us a little bit of everything to brighten up our holiday season.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
In the music community, Paulette McWilliams is a recognizable, familiar and respected name. She’s been singing and dancing around the business of music her whole life. She was on Marvin Gaye’s final tour as a performance partner singing the Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye duets to sold-out audiences.
From 1979-1980, she was a member of the Harlettes, travelling and performing with the iconic Bette Midler as part of an energetic, background trio. This is where she first met Luther Vandross, who was the velvet smooth voice singing behind the curtain during the Bette Midler performances.
McWilliams has sung duets with some of the biggest names in show business, like the legendary Johnny Mathis.
This songbird was also a dear friend and peer of the late Luther Vandross, touring with him on multiple occasions and also recording with him for over twenty years. It’s her voice you hear on his chart-topping songs “Wait for Love” and also “Stop for Love.” Her lovely voice has graced the recordings and stages of multiple stars including Michael Jackson. She’s the background vocals on one of Jackson’s biggest hits, “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and on Billy Idol’s #1 hit, “Mony Mony.” Paulette sang backup on the Aretha Franklin hit, “Jump to It.” She has chirped with super stars like David Bowie and Celine Dion. As a professional singer for over five decades, Paulette McWilliams has used her voice to enhance every genre of music. She recorded an amazing rendition of “Too Hot” with R&B crooner, Will Downing, in a smooth jazz setting. That was on a CD Co-produced by McWilliams and Tom Scott titled, “Telling Stories.” But in her heart of hearts, Paulette McWilliams wanted to sing jazz.
You can hear Paulette’s jazzy side when she sang a duet with Bobby Caldwell. McWilliams has a silky voice that can switch from jazz to pop to R&B in the wink of an eye. Her voice is a chameleon. This is a perfect ticket to becoming a well-paid session singer.
For example, you may have heard Paulette McWilliams’ power-house vocals on several, familiar television and radio jingles including the Folgers commercial or encouraging us to buy Budweiser, Michelob and Coors beer(featuring Tom Sellick in the TV commercial). Her voice promoted Diet Pepsi with Britney Spears, McDonalds, Cadillac, Cover Girl, American Express, MasterCard, and even United Airlines among hundreds of others. The McWilliams voice has always been in demand.
Even as a baby, Paulette McWilliams’ mother claims she hummed instead of cooing. Other family members say she sang before she could speak. She sang with the radio music she heard and she sang when she took her first unsteady steps. After all, both her mother and her father had strong, beautiful voices and they always sang around the house. Little Paulette soaked up all the music like a sponge. By the age of three and four-years-old, the whole family recognized Paulette’s God-given, talent. Her home was a hub for the holidays. Paulette’s mom, dad, two older sisters and a little brother welcomed all the relatives, on both sides of their family. Every holiday season, everyone flooded their home to enjoy family and her mom’s cooking. At some point, the call would always echo, “Paulette, come sing. Paulette, come sing.” Shyly at first, the little girl would take center stage in the living room and serenade the family. Gifting her with much applause, they showered the child with silver dollars. That became a ritual, and It may have been that warm, loving experience that enlightened Paulette to the value of her very, special, vocal talent. Subconsciously, she probably realized she could make money as a singer.
At eleven years old, she appeared on the popular Patricia Vance Little Stars competition in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Patricia Vance headed a children’s school and modeling agency in the Windy City. Vance also hosted a talent show called “Little Stars” and young Paulette, with the beautiful voice, sang ‘Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket’. Sammy Davis Jr. was a guest on the show that particular day. Paulette came in second place, but to her surprise and joy, Sammy Davis Jr., approached little Paulette after the show and encouraged her talent. He even gave her his business card. She was a great admirer of Sammy Davis from his roles in movies. His endorsement of her performance helped validate Paulette’s journey to stardom.
“When I relocated to Los Angeles in 1976, I went to Danny Daniel’s Tap School in Santa Monica. Oh, I love tap. I had taken tap in Chicago as a child at Sadie Bruce School and I continued my studies out here. I wanted to incorporate everything into my art and be a great entertainer, because I had watched Sammy Davis Jr. and wanted to make sure I could do everything he did,” Paulette told me.
At thirteen, Paulette McWilliams was a precocious teenager who sat at home wondering why she wasn’t a super star. She explained:
“As a teenager, I was wondering why hadn’t I been discovered? I would get frustrated and go to the yellow pages and look up managers and one day I contacted Don Talty. I was thirteen going on fourteen when Don came to my house after I sang to him over the phone. Don and his artist, Jan Bradley, who had some hit records back in 1963, (Paulette sings “Mama didn’t lie – didn’t lie); they sat in my living room talking to me and my parents. That was a result of me looking Don Talty up in the phone book. Famous guitarist, Phil Upchurch came with them. Don Talty talked to my dad and my mom about maybe doing a record on me. They approved and the next thing I knew, they cut a record on me. (she sings) ‘He’s nothing but a teenage dropout.’ They released a 45rpm record on the Prism label. I wrote the song on the B-side called, “May Cupid Forgive You,” Paulette told me.
Teenage Dropout song was Paulette’s first record release.
“Early on, I hung out with Phil Upchurch. Phil introduced me to Donny Hathaway and Phil Upchurch is the one who mentored me for a long time. He’s about seven years older than I am,” Paulette recalled hanging out with legendary musicians early in her career.
By the time she was twenty, Paulette McWilliams was singing with a popular Chicago group called, “Ask Rufus.” They presented an eclectic repertoire of funk, pop and country-soul. In fact, when Paulette decided to leave ‘Ask Rufus’ she is the one who introduced them to her friend, a very young Chaka Khan. The rest is history.
Afterwards, she spent time working the Chicago hotel circuit headlining her own band, “Paulette McWilliams and the Grip.” She and the iconic Donny Hathaway also started jamming together.
“Donny Hathaway frequented a club called Ratsos as an artist. It was a very well-known nightclub in Chicago. Quite a few times I would go there, sit on the piano stool and sing with him. It was composer/pianist, Tennyson Stephens, Phil Upchurch and Donny Hathaway that took me back into the studio. One of the songs they had me sing is one of the songs on my current ‘A Woman’s Story’ album called, ‘Chasing the Sun.’ In 1974, that song was sent to Quincy Jones by Phil Upchurch. A week later, Q calls me at home. He said, hey baby girl, I just heard your tape. I want you to come out here and sing lead for me on my Body Heat tour.”
Chasing the Sun on A Woman’s Story CD
It was in the mid-1970s when Paulette McWilliams packed a bag, kissed her mom and little daughter good-bye, and headed to Southern California for the Body Heat Tour. The world opened up like an oyster and her voice and reputation was the shiny pearl.
“Q (Quincy Jones) would tell everybody that I was half Aretha and half Sarah Vaughan. He would tell me all the time; you remind me so much of ‘Sassy.’ The last night of our tour in Tokyo, Japan, we were on stage and he was conducting the orchestra. I was singing ‘Everything Must Change.’
(she sang the first line of Bernard Igner’s song to me.)
“While singing the second verse, I heard this amazing voice start singing and I looked up shocked. I was standing on the stage next to Sarah Vaughan, who had suddenly walked in from the wings and joined me. That’s a duet I’ll never forget! Q was conducting the orchestra with tears running down his face,” Paulette recalled the surprising moment when Sarah Vaughan joined her on stage and they sang together.
The Body Heat Tour became a catalyst for work. Paulette wound up being the featured singer on the Quincy Jones follow-up album, “Mellow Madness” for which she co-wrote the title tune. She was also getting lots of studio session work with folks like The Johnson Brothers and then she started getting calls to do jingles again. She had already been recording commercials for television and radio in Chicago, so it wasn’t surprising that Los Angeles would also put her to work. For a single mother, struggling to raise her young daughter, that session work was the gravy on the biscuits.
However, Paulette’s real dream was to become a successful solo artist. Her first album release was “Never Been Here Before” on Fantasy Records in 1977. The next album was for Columbia Music and titled, “Flow”, released in Japan (the same year) where she previewed her composer talents co-writing nine out of the dozen songs she recorded. At the time, she was working steadily with Cannonball Adderley’s nephew, Nat Adderley Jr. on piano, as her co-producer. They became fast friends when she was based in New York. That dynamic musical relationship went on for thirty-plus years. In 1980, a 45rpm single release featured Paulette singing a duet with Johnny Mathis. That release was titled, “I’ll Do It All for You,” From their album “Different Kind of Different.” In 1985, Paulette joined the Disco craze when she recorded a duet album for Atlantic Records, produced by Ollie Brown, titled “Fire Fox.” It was a duo featuring Paulette McWilliams and Toi Overton.
In 2012, Tom Scott Presented Paulette McWilliams on an album titled, “Telling Stories.” On this album, she began to sing some jazz songs, but it was still a mixture of funk, pop and soul. Then there was “Paulette McWilliams and the Beet Brothers” a ‘live’ album recorded in Amsterdam after weeks of touring. On this album she sang several familiar standard jazz tunes.
“We recorded twelve songs in two days and put the best 10 tracks on the album,” Paulette remembered their swift and amazing studio accomplishment.
Finally, in 2020, she has released her solo album titled, “A Woman’s Story.” It was produced by two-time, Grammy winner, Kamau Kenyatta. It was released this year and has tapped into her dream of becoming a jazz/soul solo artist. For years she has admired and listened to vocalists like Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Doris Day, Carmen McCrae, Nina Simone, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn and Aretha Franklin. This album features songs made popular by some of the other female artists who Paulette McWilliams admires. She taps into her jazz roots, exploring melodies that intrigue her and lyrics that relate to her own life experiences. She picked pop and R&B songs, along with the able assistance of producer/arranger Kamau Kenyatta. Under his direction, McWilliams interprets them in her own jazzy way. Even more importantly, this album is a tribute to those amazing influences on her life like Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross and composer, pianist, singer, Tennyson Stephens. For Marvin, she sings “Just to Keep You Satisfied” from his “Here My Dear” album. For Luther she sings, “So Amazing”, interpreting it in her own unique way. It was a pleasant surprise to hear her ‘cover’ the Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen” with an emotional solo by Gregmoire Maret on harmonica. I thought this arrangement took many liberties with both the melody and the chord changes, but the beauty of the song still shines honest and true. She also celebrates Joni Mitchell, singing “Both Sides Now.” However, there is one mentor that Paulette McWilliams greatly credits with her growth and this latest album release.
“The total album is me, in many ways paying homage to Quincy Jones. For someone of that stature to take me around, share musical and historic stories with me, and take me under his wing is something I’ll never forget. This whole album becomes a statement to him that says, look Q, I finally know who I am.”
By Dee Dee McNeil
When I first met Kamau Kenyatta, I recognized almost immediately that he was a deep thinker. Tall, thin and willowy, he ambled over to the piano and started showing me some tune he’d been thinking about that he believed had amazing potential for someone to sing. His long, slender fingers moved nimbly across the keys. He plays beautifully.
“Do you remember this Bill Withers’ composition?” he asks me. “It was on his second album and it’s really interesting and deep,” he elaborates.
Kamau has a way of pulling the best out of music and employing the slightest and most incredible inuendoes and ambiguities to color his arrangements. He loves to reinvent a song and he knows how to inspire an artist. That’s what makes him a prolific producer.
Our paths originally crossed some years ago when Kamau Kenyatta was playing more piano than horn. He’s proficient in both. But today, some thirty-years later, I am taking a peek into his history. Pen poised; I ask him when he first felt a musical calling.
“Well, you know I was very fortunate to grow up with people that really loved music and I would say, in the African American community of the nineteen-fifties, it was almost like a badge of honor to know music. So, my mother, Ruth, my father (John A. Jones) and my Uncle Richard Harris, (who used to babysit me) although none of them were musicians, they took great pride in listening to the music. At that time, I was two or three-years-old and my uncle Richard had an extraordinary vinyl collection with Ahmad Jamal and Miles (Davis), Art Farmer, the Modern Jazz Quartet, just all the people you listened to back then. At only two or three years old, my uncle may have thought that I was sitting there enjoying the music because he was enjoying the music. But hey, I remember I genuinely liked that music! My uncle was so meticulous about his vinyl collection, that if he scratched a record, he gave it to me, because he wouldn’t play anything with a scratch on it. So, I actually had my own Ahmad Jamal album and Miles Davis album when I was three and four years old. I knew who they were and I would put them on the turn-table and listen to jazz.
“My mother and father were listening to people like Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. They talked about Billy Eckstine with a great sense of pride and affection. In my house, I heard them talk about Mr. B. and Sarah, all with first names. Consequently, as a child, I thought they were family members or family friends I hadn’t met yet. They spoke of Sarah, Mister B and Hazel Scott with such pride and familiarity.
“As I got older, my mom started taking me to ‘live’ concerts. She was very, very much into music and still is. She’s ninety-one. Mom exposed me to ‘live’ music. She took me to hear the Northwestern High School Band. That was her Alma Mater and that concert made me think, oh man. I want to play an instrument too. So, that’s what got me into music and jazz.
“I started on the clarinet. I wanted to play the bass clarinet, but they told me I was too small for the bass clarinet. Now, in my Detroit neighborhood, I was already wearing glasses and now I’m carrying a clarinet.”
(We laughed together as I pictured a little boy, looking a wee bit like a nerd, walking down the Motor City avenue carrying his clarinet.)
“So, I was kind-of a marked man. That’s when I asked my parents to please get me something cooler than the clarinet. Get me a saxophone. My grandfather, John Jones, was an electrician. He worked overtime doing side jobs and one job was at a pawn shop. That’s where he got me my first tenor sax. That’s when I started playing saxophone. I was eleven-years-old,” Kamau remembered fondly.
I asked Kamau who were some of his early influences and he recalled his first mentor being a public-school music teacher named Allison Oglesby. Then he skipped to his days at the historic trade high school that has turned out so many amazing musicians, Cass Technical High School, and he listed a few more people who taught and inspired him.
“I got involved with Metro Arts through Cass Technical High School. There, I got to meet guys who would come to the program, like Harold McKinney, Teddy Harris and Kenny Cox. Those were the three I probably was the closest to of all the Detroit musicians. Then there was Pistol Allen, (a drummer at Motown) trumpet legend, Marcus Belgrave and even Lottie the Body.”
(we laugh together again, because we’re both from Detroit and we share and respect the legendary legacy of Lottie “the Body” Graves, a shake dancer and Burlesque queen. She is also a big supporter of Jazz and the arts in the Detroit community. Believe me, she was quite beautiful and stacked-up-from-the-ground back in those days. People of all cultures and colors came to see Lottie dance in Vaudeville shows country-wide. She settled in Detroit in the 1960s and became the act to see at the popular Ziggy Johnson hosted, Paradise Club on the East Side of Detroit and at the popular Twenty-Grand nightclub on the West Side of the City. She also performed regularly at The Brass Rail Grill. Her show was famous for Lottie’s high-class costumes and her exceptional dancing abilities. She even hosted her own club called ‘The Pink Poodle.’)
Kamau Kenyatta continued to reflect on his early life in the music business.
“Being around all of that culture influenced me. You know, characters like Lottie the Body would shout out to you from the audience. We’re talking about late sixties, early seventies, when I was a young musician. I was playing in the black community, when some of those people in the audience (like Lottie) would direct our performances. They’d shout out things like, ‘take your time, baby’ – – ‘You playin’ too much.’ Those ordinary people in the audience, sometimes out of love or pride in our jazz heritage, inadvertently guided a young musician’s performance. They knew the music and they inspired us!”
Detroit, Michigan was a great place to soak up a rich, jazz heritage. Folks like the Jones brothers, (Hank Jones, Elvin Jones, and Thad Jones) represented a family success story in the business of music. Kenny Burrell grew from Detroit roots, as did Tommy Flannagan, Barry Harris, Ron Carter and Yusef Lateef. Donald Byrd grew up and out of Detroit to sparkle the world with his trumpet genius. It wouldn’t take long for Kamau Kenyatta to cross paths with some of these music icons.
“In the 1980s I started doing some touring. I went on the road with Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds. When I auditioned for that gig, I played ‘Cristo Redentor.’ I replaced Allen Barnes on saxophone for that tour. After that experience, I joined Mary Wilson and the Supremes. Teddy Harris (pianist, big band leader and Detroit educator) got me my first job with her. He was their Musical Director.”
This was only the beginning of Kamau’s world-wide touring. Travelling to over twenty countries, he has worked with Carl Anderson (from Jesus Christ Superstar and Anderson’s memorable recording with the great Nancy Wilson). Kamau also worked with legendary composer/performer/activist Oscar Brown Jr., and has played with jazz greats like Yusef Lateef and Earl Klugh. He leant his talents touring with the R&B, gold record girl’s group, SWV; with Silk, Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band and even New Kids on the Block. His experiences were varied and he mastered several genres and various styles of music along the way. These diverse experiences would all further mold this man into the prolific producer he has become.
Kamau Kenyatta pictured (upper left), Vincent Bowens, Ayesha Lateef, Yusef Lateef (center-front) and Ralph Jones; after playing a gig at St. Matthews & St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, Michigan.
“I moved to Florida for a few years and then I came from Florida to the West Coast. I was going to move to Los Angeles, but I wound up in San Diego and things worked out for me to stay here. I got a job teaching in 1999 at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). That kept me grounded here,” Kamau explained how he transitioned from on-the-road gigs to a life in the thriving, upscale community of San Diego, California. This was the place where he met Gregory Porter.
“At that time, I was a substitute teacher at UCSD for George Lewis, the great trombonist/composer and educator, and Gregory Porter was in that class.”
NOTE: George Lewis, a native of Chicago, currently is Professor of American Music at Columbia University in New York City and is also Vice-Chair of the Department of Music.
“Gregory was a football player at San Diego State and he had been injured. It was a serious injury; a career-ending injury. So, he was looking for other outlets for his talents and a new career path. He came to UCSD to audit this jazz class. As soon as I heard him sing, I was excited about his talent. I said come to my house. Come and let’s spend time together. He was born in 1971 and he didn’t live through a lot of the stuff that we’ve lived through. I spoke to Gregory about the rich history of Detroit and Motown. It wasn’t that he was unaware of some of the older music, but we sat together for hours and listened to people like Leon Thomas and Jon Lucien. We talked about visual arts and books and authors and African American painters, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Whatever people think of his singing, people should know that this guy is just a brilliant intellect. I didn’t teach him how to sing. He already knew how to do that.
“I actually took him to Detroit and showed him some of our history. We went to Temple #1 on Linwood Avenue that Mother Tynetta X attended; Sacred Heart Seminary, where during the 1967 rebellion they painted the statue of Christ black. I wanted to share those kinds of scenarios and that kind of history with him. And I think it had an influence on him. My mentoring of him goes beyond music. It has a social and political component. He wrote that hit record, “1960 What?” after our visit to Detroit. He took everything I shared with him and made it better.”
As a mentor, it swells your heart with pride to see your fledgling, talented protégés take wing and fly. As a producer, Kamau Kenyatta worked to bring out the very best of Porter’s talents and in 2014 the reward was when Porter won a Grammy for his Blue Note Record release, “Liquid Spirit” and more recently, they both took home a Grammy for the stellar recording, “Take Me To the Alley.”
In San Diego, Kamau Kenyatta found joy in teaching and inspiring young minds to grow and flourish. He served as musical director for ‘Blues Schoolhouse,’ an educational program for middle-school children at the International House of Blues in San Diego. In the spring of 2007, Kamau embarked on a solo album project that featured him as pianist/composer and artist. He produced his “Destiny” album. In 2009, Kamau joined the Music Department at California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) and served as Department Co-Chair from 2010 to 2011. But more and more, Kamau Kenyatta found himself in demand for arranging and producing in a succession of unexpected projects.
“Hubert Laws had hired me to do some arranging for him. I met him through Greg Phillinganes at Quincy’s house one night. Even to this day, when I work with Hubert, I remember listening to him when I was eleven or twelve years old; listening to his albums in Detroit. I mean, I’m a fan of Hubert Laws, as much as I’ve been a collaborator. He’s such a brilliant musician. They call him ‘Silk’ because he’s so smooth. He is turning 81 this year and he’s still fantastic. He’s probably better now than he ever was. Some time ago, I had done this one project with him called, ‘Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole,’ where I arranged songs recorded by Nat King Cole for him to play.
“Hubert liked the work that I did and called me back to help him when he got the call to do some music for this Fox network documentary that detailed the history of African-American film. He called me to assist him on that project released in 1998. It’s a complete honor to work with him at any time,” Kamau Kenyatta beamed.
Continuing with his success in film scoring and soundtrack arranging, Kamau Kenyatta was approached by film maker Carol Parrott Blue, a Houston, Texas professor and author, who was producing a film about growing up black in Texas in the 1940s. This DVD-Rom, combination book and website, won the 2004 Sundance Online Film Festival Jury Award.
“It was an interactive DVD about African Americans in Houston, written by Carol Parrot Blue. I wrote music and I supervised the period music that we chose for that film. It was another incredible and great experience. Unfortunately, we lost Carol Blue a few years ago.”
“I’ve scored a few film projects at UCSD. There’s a professor at UCSD called Zeinabu Irene Davis. She’s part of the L.A. Rebellion, a group often referred to as Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers. That is a group of filmmakers who all went to UCLA in the late 60s up to the late 1980s. Zeinabu asked me to score a film, “Spirits of Rebellion” in 2015. More recently, in 2016, I did music for this documentary on Gregory Porter called, “Don’t Forget Your Music”, Kamau told me.
The fascinating thing about Kamau Kenyatta’s talents is his ability to interact with a variety of artists and genres. You hear him exhibit those skills in both his arranging and producing. In 2010, he produced the album, “Water” on artist Gregory Porter. This album made the world sit-up and take notice of Mr. Porter and his undeniable talent as a singer/songwriter. The “Be Good” album came next in 2012 and became a big hit both nationally and internationally. In 2013, Kenyatta served as associate producer/arranger on Porter’s Blue Note Records disc “Liquid Spirit” and they won a Grammy in the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” category.
In 2015, Kamau co-produced this journalists’ album, “Storyteller.” It was mainly my original music and pop/jazz.
In 2016 he produced Ed Motta’s “Perpetual Gateways” vocal album and Steph Johnson’s “Music is Art” CD, that featured Ms. Johnson singing her own compositions. It was a pop/R&B/contemporary release.
In 2017, he produced, arranged and played soprano saxophone on the Robert McCarther’s album titled, “Stranger in Town,” that was a straight-ahead jazz album. The same year, Kamau won a Grammy for his co-production and arrangements on “Take Me to The Alley” with Gregory Porter.
In 2018, Kamau Kenyatta produced an album called “Uncovered Soul” by Kathy Kosins. On this project, Kathy and Kamau reinvented familiar R&B songs using more contemporary arrangements. The following year, he produced projects on both Daneen Wilburn and Alicia Olatuja. Alicia’s album was titled, “Intuition: Songs From the Minds of Women.” Both of these singers are strong, soulful vocalists and the material on Wilburn was funk-based and commercial.
“Alicia Olatuja is a singer from St. Louis originally, but she’s based in New York City. Billy Childs did an amazing arrangement on a Brenda Russell tune for us. We did all women composers on Alicia’s project,” Kamau explained.
Then, in the fall of 2019, Kamau found time to produce a solo project titled, “The Elegant Sadness.”
“This album is made up of extended versions of my original music from the “Don’t Forget Your Music” documentary that I scored for the BBC-released film on Gregory Porter,” Kenyatta explained.
“The Elegant Sadness” features: Kamau Kenyatta, piano/composer/arranger/producer; Hubert Laws, flute; Curtis Tylor, trumpet; Brian Clancy, tenor saxophone; Mackenzie Leighton, bass; Richard Sellers, drums; David Castaneda, percussion; Nolan Shaheed, engineer.
Opening with a song titled, “Smoke” pianist Kamau Kenyatta presents a pensive, moderate tempo ballad featuring Curtis Taylor on trumpet and Brian Clancy on tenor saxophone. Kenyatta’s piano style is thoughtful and tender; expressive and lovely. He sets the groove when his piano chords open the composition. Kamau establishes the bass line with his left hand, then allows space, inviting the horns to arrive at the party. The next composition is titled, “Watching and Waiting.” Drummer, Richard Sellers, pushes the horns ahead like a powerful tractor. Originally, all seven songs were produced, composed and arranged by Kamau Kenyatta to accompany a documentary on Gregory Porter entitled, “Don’t Forget Your Music.” These are extended and embellished versions of that music.
Kenyatta’s music is lyrical and melodic. His carefully penned compositions make you want to hum along with them. There is a certain amount of familiarity to his music, even though I realized I had never heard these tunes before, I still felt a kinship to them. That’s a genuine compliment to the composer. I listened and felt connected.
A composition called “Leaving San Diego” features the great Hubert Laws on flute. Hubert adds quality and beauty to this project. As an iconic jazz musician who’s held in high esteem by the jazz community, Hubert Laws flies into my listening space like a smooth, gliding bird. Kenyatta’s solo establishes his melody on piano and improvises on a theme. There is nothing splashy or exciting here, but rather a laid-back production, meandering along at a moderate pace and offering the best of Kenyatta’s composer skills and the mastery of these talented musicians.
Currently, a Teaching Professor at UCSD in the Music Department, in 2020 Kamau Kenyatta is looking forward to several prime projects. He just completed an album with the dynamic vocalist, Paulette McWilliams titled “A Woman’s Story” and is preparing to work on a new project with Allan Harris, who has a warm, velvet smooth voice reminiscent of Nat King Cole. He is mentoring a young singer Kamau refers to as ‘brilliant’ named Laurin Talese, who has recorded previously with Robert Glasper and Kenyatta is also planning to record Hugo Suarez, who will be playing boleros on solo piano.
I have no doubt, Kamau Kenyatta’s bound to wave his magic producer’s wand over these artists with the same individualized concern, creativity and objectivity that he brings to each and every project. That’s what makes him the ultimate and successful producer/arranger he has become.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist
Voices of our City Choir is made up of people who have experienced homelessness in the San Diego, California area. Co-founded by activist, guitarist and singer, Steph Johnson, an emotional rendition of their original song won them the “Golden Buzzer” Award on the popular “America’s Got Talent” television show. They performed a song that the choir wrote titled, “Listen to the Sounds of the Sidewalk”. I have to say that their emotional delivery brought this journalist to tears as I sat in front of my computer. I can’t imagine how moved the people in that ‘live’ audience must have been.
See below: SAN DIEGO CHOIR ON “AMERICA’S GOT TALENT” WINS A GOLD BUZZER AWARD
I had the pleasure of speaking with Steph Johnson recently and this is what she shared with me about how this amazing choir was formed.
“We’re really particular about the way we refer to our unsheltered choir members, because we want to make sure they’re recognized as individuals. Consequently, we refer to them as our Unsheltered Neighbors or people experiencing homelessness.
“About four years ago I got involved with my Unsheltered Neighbors that literally lived across the street from me, right in downtown San Diego. The city had allowed the removal of about 10,000 SRO’s (those affordable housing units) basically to sell the property and make way for condo’s and the gentrification we’ve seen up and down the West Coast. 10,000 people were without a home. They only created housing for about 1500 people, so thousands were facing homelessness overnight. I could see there was no real solution. There was a lack of communication between the county and the city of San Diego. There was a lack of understanding between my sheltered neighbors and my unsheltered neighbors. Did you know, people are being put in jail for being homeless? Once you’ve experienced that level of poverty and the criminalization of that situation, where once you start getting tickets for being poor, and you have no money to get out of that situation, it is quite literally impossible to move out of homelessness. So, I just felt a calling. I have a way of connecting with people and I love people. I wanted to lift up my brothers and sisters that were being so hated upon for basically being in their socio-economic situation,” Steph Johnson explained the situation she witnessed in her community.
To reiterate, she loves music and people. That became the common denominator Steph Johnson used to change people’s lives, one note at a time. As a vocalist, a guitar player and a recording artist, Steph Johnson was comfortable performing and communicating emotionally from stages to her admiring audiences. She used that same gift to communicate with her unsheltered neighbors. Steph Johnson took her love of people to the streets, using Music as a common language. She entered people’s tents, exploring community’s underneath bridges, talking to her unsheltered neighbors and interacting with them.
“Of course, at first they wanted to know who I was and what I wanted?” Steph shared with me.
“They’d say well, who are you with? I told them my name was Steph and I played music. Many were like, oh I play music too, or I sing. I remember I met this woman on the street and when I told her I was into music and I sang, she said well Google my name. I sang in this choir in Chicago. I said OK. I’ll look you up. Well, I looked her up and sure enough, she had been singing in this choir in Chicago. Wow! Here I was doing outreach and meeting these creative types of people. Sometimes I was by myself. Sometimes I took a friend. I’m an advocate and an activist at heart. Music and art created a connection between me and their community.
“Around that same time, I met a gentleman that invited me to sit in his tent. He was telling me about his plight. He smiled at me and said, it doesn’t matter what we say or feel. We have no voice. Right then, I realized how they felt; voiceless! I think it was that very next day when I met this reverend; Rev. Chris Nasis. After a conversation we had, he offered us his church to use, “The Living Water Church of the Nazarene.” They’re located in San Diego’s East Village. He said, yeah, you can come in and do anything you want to do using our church. So, I blurted out, well I want to start a choir. And it was so funny, because I didn’t know that I wanted to start a choir until that very moment. It just spilled out of me. It was like a message from the divine. I remember thinking, ok, so you’re going to start a choir?
“At this point, I reached out to a friend, Nina Deering, to ask her if she wanted to help me start a choir for people who were experiencing homelessness? She said yes. She’s no longer with us, but she was definitely a part of our beginning. We quickly grew from one or two people, to sixty people, and then it was a hundred people. Now we have 250 people in The Voices of our City Choir.”
I can still hear the awe in Steph Johnson’s voice as she shared her incredible success story with me. Her selfless work establishing that choir gave hope to many who were hopeless. It created a vehicle for people to vent their pent-up emotions into an artistic, musical expression. At last, their voices could be heard.
“In 2019, we did a concert with the San Diego Symphony and it was epic. It was just beautiful. We partnered with the Master Chorale on stage at the Symphony by the Bay and we sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ It was really, really touching. Martha Gilmer, the CEO of the symphony, told me, (after we did three shows that weekend) that we should collaborate in a big way. We could do something really cool, together. That’s the response this choir inspires in people.”
“We’re a non-profit but we’re also a social entrepreneurship and we employ people. We generate money from our concerts and with that money, I was able to hire a management team that has helped over sixty people get off the street,” Steph told me.
In 2020, State Assemblyman, Todd Rex Gloria, of district 78 in San Diego, named Steph Johnson as a Woman of the Year. I asked her about that recent award.
“The plan was to go to the State Capital to be honored, and then the pandemic hit. So, we couldn’t go to the California State Capital. There was going to be a ceremony. They were going to fly me up there and have a luncheon with all these other women recognized from across the State for basically making their community better,” she explained.
Even though the State Capital trip was cancelled, she was awarded Woman of the Year, without the fanfare. I found Steph Johnson to be a humble woman. She shared with me how honored she was to be in the company of other nurturing women; women who are working to make this world a better place.
Continuously, her choir has brought attention to the plight of our unsheltered neighbors. So much so, that PBS recently created a documentary about the Voices of our City Choir, coordinating with film maker, Susan Polis Schutz and titled, “The homeless Chorus Speaks,”. The documentary can be viewed on www.youtube.com.
It’s been a rewarding journey for Steph and her unsheltered neighbors, since forming the choir in 2016. At first, she was simply trying to find a solution to a troubling problem in her community. Four years later, she has accomplished far more than she ever dreamed possible.
“We started the choir as a grassroots organization in 2016. By the beginning of 2017, we had started a shelter. A friend of mine opened up her home and took in fourteen choir members. It was kind of an open floor plan. Actually, more like an open warehouse where she would host live-music concerts. So, we got cots and dividers and we started helping these fourteen choir members settle in. Then we started making the film and all the while, we were trying to advocate at City Council with our elected officials. We tried to help those choir members who were being ticketed. We were advocating to get our unsheltered neighbors medical and legal support and also, to try to get them housing. In the beginning, I was their case manager and initially, I was standing in lines with them. We went through the motions together. That started with a few of us. Now, it’s grown into a small team. But thanks to the America’s Got Talent exposure, we’re getting donations. People know about us. That helps with grants, housing and we have a lot of goals ahead. That’s really exciting!”
Meantime, Southern California activist, Steph Johnson, has been in the studio working on her own jazz album. I had the pleasure of reviewing it. Like everything else this energetic little lady does, her recording project reflects high quality and clearly displays the artistic side of this advocate for change. See my review below:
STEPH JOHNSON – “SO IN LOVE”
Steph Johnson, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Rob Thorsen, bass; Chris Lawrence, trumpet; Richard Sellers, drummer.
Guitarist and choir director, Steph Johnson, surprised me when she sang “Lazy Afternoon”. Her voice floated into my listening room, warm and lovely, plush with emotion and she has her own unique tone. When she told me she had an album out, I thought it would be an instrumental recording, featuring her guitar talents. Surprise! The lady can sing. The trumpet of Chris Lawrence compliments her vocals and he offers a warm and inspired solo on this lovely “Lazy Afternoon” song. They’ve arranged it in a very smooth-jazz way that works, putting just a little funk into the mix to keep the old standard young and vibrant. Ms. Johnson is definitely a jazz singer, with her unique tone and adlib qualities on the fade of the song clearly showing her improvisation skill. I receive mustard-yellow, paper bags full of CDs who claim to be vocal jazz artists, like a badge of honor, but who are cabaret singers or pop vocalists or just pretty girls with sing-in-the-shower kind of voices. Steph Johnson happily breaks that mold. She’s the real deal.
This vocalist has chosen some of my favorite songs for her repertoire. Opening with the verse, she sings a song I used to love to hear Little Jimmy Scott sing; “I Wish I Knew.” He recorded it as a ballad, but Steph has another arrangement that’s fresh and she swings the tune. The sign of a true jazz singer is someone who can ‘swing’ and Steph Johnson swings effortlessly. For a while, she and the bass player, Rob Thorsen, perform as a duo. The arrangement is very effective. There is a tasty guitar solo by Anthony Wilson on the fade of the song.
Speaking of guitar, Wilson uses his expert guitar licks to open “Here’s to Life.” With just voice and guitar at the top of the tune, Steph showcases those poignant lyrics that are so wonderfully written. Then enters the band and the blues. “So, here’s to life,” she sings. “And all the joy it brings. Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.” Steph sells the song with Rob Thorsen’s bass walking richly beneath her meaningful lyrics. I believe Steph Johnson when she sings with that little husky undertone to her vocals that’s so compelling and natural. She has a full, rich range, with sweetness in her head register and fullness in her alto voice. You can really enjoy her range on “I Fall in Love too Easily” accompanied by Josh Nelson’s sensitive piano. The “So In Love” tune blossoms as a Latin arrangement. Sometimes I hear shades of Diana Krall in Steph Johnson’s vocals and at another point I hear phrasing that reminds me of Dianne Reeves. That being said, Ms. Johnson maintains her own style and grace. She tackles Betty Carter’s original tune, “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul”and puts her own spin on it. I wish she hadn’t ventured so far from the original melody in places, and this reviewer wasn’t crazy about the arrangement, but Steph shows strength in her freedom and individuality. Steph Johnson has released 4 albums. Her most recent recording (until this one) titled, “Music is Art,” was released in 2016 and produced by two-time Grammy Award winning producer, Kamau Kenyatta. That recording celebrates a unique blend of her jazz stylings with obvious, soulful, R&B roots. She also composed much of the music. With her recent release of “So In Love,” Steph continues her spiral upward towards bright, musical horizons. This may be her best recording to date.
DON LITTLETON CELEBRATES “ELEPHANTS NDA PARK” DURING BLACK MUSIC MONTH
By Dee Dee McNeil
Don Littleton is a Los Angeles based drummer and composer with deep roots in Watts and Compton. I had an opportunity to chat with Don Littleton (during Black Music Month) about his life and music. He was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, but he’s lived in the Los Angeles community for forty-plus years. His father was a military man, so the family moved around. They wound up in Mesa and Phoenix, Arizona and then to Watts in 1959and later to Compton, California in the early sixties. His dad was originally from Shreveport, Louisiana and he played a mean harmonica.
“My dad freaked me out one day. We were sitting on the front porch and he had this harmonica he suddenly pulled out. I never knew my dad could play harmonica like that. He actually blew my mind, because I had never seen him play that instrument. He’s from Shreveport, Louisiana and that’s what they did down there. I guess he learned it as a little kid,” Don Littleton recalled.
Although no one in Don’s family was seeking a musical career, there was always a piano in all the family homes. Everybody played a little piano; especially his aunts and his grandmother. They were all music lovers. It was his mother who got Don interested in percussion. She went to Mexico one day and brought him back a little set of bongos from Tijuana.
“Those bongos were a little cheap, but I’d wet them down and put them over the stove to heat the skins and tune them. My big brother Carl Jr. was so proud of me. He and the family encouraged me to play. I used to entertain the family. There I was, in my pajama’s, playing my little bongo’s, In the family living room, underneath our chandelier. That was my first stage,” Don remembered fondly.
“I would play along to records. That’s kind of how I learned how to play. Then, in June one year while I was in high school, I got my first trap drum set. The first song I learned to play was ‘Song for My Father.’ After high school, I moved back to Arizona and Charles Lewis was my first mentor. I got more into the trap drums in Arizona. I might have been eighteen or nineteen years old. I played in his R&B and Top 40 band. I played a little jazz. I could always swing. We played tunes by Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, that kind of repertoire. It was from about 1970 to 1973.
“My dad said I needed to take advantage of my opportunity to attend college on his GI bill. So, I enrolled in school. I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and attended Southern University, majoring in music. One of my mentors down there was Alvin Batiste. I was a member of a hot band in Louisiana. We opened for a number of popular, name artists. First, we were called ‘Hot Ice’ and later, me and some of the guys from that band started a new band called ‘Convertible World.’ One time, I was recruited by the great Cannonball Adderley to play in his quartet and we did a gig with the Louisiana Symphony. Three years later, I came back to Los Angeles, maybe around 1978.”
Don’s career blossomed and grew like wild, California sage. Once back in California, He began to record extensively on some pretty powerful recordings. His first release was “The Littleton Brothers.”
“I co-led the first record that was recorded here in L.A. with Bobby Watson, the alto player, who played with Blakey. That was the first record and that was the Littleton Brother’s record with my younger brother; (Jeff Littleton – bassist). It was the Littleton Brothers featuring Bobby Watson. It was actually Bobby’s gig and we recorded it ‘live’ at MOCA downtown. We released it in 2009.”
NOTE: MOCA stands for the Museum of Contemporary Art, an art space in downtown Los Angeles that often hosts ‘live’ jazz concerts.
Before the Littleton Brothers release, Don Littleton found himself in a diversity of musical settings. In 1992 he recorded an iconic album with Karl Denson titled, “Blackened Red Snapper.” Karl Denson, a California native, is known for his Acid Funk and straight-ahead jazz saxophone, flute and vocals. When Denson released his “Blackened Red Snapper” album he was 36-years-old and, like Don Littleton, his career was growing. Denson was once a member of the Lenny Kravitz band and currently leads his own groups including, the Karl Denson Tiny Universe band (KDTU) and his own trio. You can clearly hear what a force Don Littleton is as he propels this Denson music, both powerfully and straight ahead.
“We rehearsed man. We rehearsed a lot. Karl Denson had a hot band. John Patitucci played on that record. Munyungo Jackson played percussion. My brother, Jeff Littleton, played bass on most of the album, and Ron Stout played trumpet. Deron Johnson, who wound up playing with Stanley Clark, was also on the scene,” Don Littleton recalled the session.
In 1993, Littleton switched gears and recorded with a Rap group, The Fellowship Innercity Griots. The solid trap drums of Don Littleton hold this music tightly in place and support their hip hop, rap vocals.
More opportunities followed. In 1994 he was part of a ‘live’ recording featuring Solomon Burke and the Souls Alive Orchestra. They were performing at the House of Blues in Louisiana.
“Yeah, that was a live-performance-record at the House of Blues in New Orleans,” Don told me. “That was a four-night gig and we did the Jazz Heritage Festival. That’s one of the biggest in the nation. Unfortunately, that festival won’t happen this year. He had a big band. I think I had to audition for the gig. I actually played percussion and trap drums.”
1998 he recorded on the Derf Reklaw album, “From the Nile.”
“Derf Reklaw’s record, ‘From the Nile’ was mostly World Music. He had some Reggae on there. A lot of odd meter stuff. Derf likes to write stuff in eleven and nine, not your typical 4/4 meter,” Don explained.
in 2001, he recorded with a member of the Freestyle Fellowship group. The album was titled, “Mikah 9.”
“Oh, Mikah 9 (pronounced My-kah) he was one of the members of that hip hop group Freestyle Fellowship. There were 4 or 5 of them. The band was actually the Underground Railroad band headed by Darryl Moore. Darryl is a very fine Los Angeles based engineer.
“Back in the day, I listened to Jimmy Cobb, Arthur Taylor, Billy Cobham and Max Roach. When I was working with Randy Crawford, we played Fat Tuesday’s club in New York. This tall guy dressed in a long black coat walks in. It was Max Roach. I looked up and there was one of my heroes. He came down to see Hank Crawford and Phyllis Hyman. They all lived in the same building nearby. He sat down right next to my drums. James Polk was there that night. We were playing a shuffle and Max Roach started patting his foot. That’s when I knew I had him. Later in life, I ran into Max Roach and I asked him if he remembered me from when I was playing with Hank Crawford in New York. He said yeah. You were swinging hard!
“Roy Haynes is another one I love. When Tony Williams passed away, Roy Haynes was right there to step into his place.
“Aside from jazz, I grew up listening to Motown, Brazilian jazz and island music. I like Cuban and Puerto Rican music a lot and I love Mongo Santa Maria. A lot of people come up to me and say I sound like Mongo. You can hear it on my current Tunapuna song on my recent album release. Tunapuna is a small little town in Trinidad. I hummed that line in my head for a long time before it finally became a song. It has a Calypso feel. On this latest project, I allowed the guys to bring their own music to the table. Some are my compositions and some belong to my band members. We created something as one unit.”
Before I finished the interview, I asked Don Littleton to elaborate on the CD title. That’s when I discovered he’s an animal activist.
“I put on the back of the record that we support elephant conservation and that elephants should not be killed or destroyed for their ivory tusks. I just don’t like the idea of them killing elephants. It’s all about elephant conservation. ‘Elephants Nda Park’ with the park being their home, and not necessarily being in a zoo, but being free; in the Serengeti. The whole Serengeti should be their park.”
If you are searching for some fresh, innovative, hard-swinging jazz and World-flavored music, this newly released album by Don Littleton is bound to please.
DON LITTLETON – “ELEPHANTS NDA PARK” – A CD REVIEW
SWMG (Southwest Music Group)
Don Littleton, trap drums/percussion/composer; Pablo Calogero, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute/ bass clarinet/composer; John B. Williams & Michael Alvidrez, bass; Hideaki Tokunaga, guitar/tres/sarod; Jane Getz, electric piano; Andrew Acosta, udo drum/percussion; Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, steel drums/vibes/electronic MalletKAT.
A tune called “Modal Citizen” opens with a flurry of sticks and drum licks that sets the straight-ahead groove and tempo. The word ‘Modal’ is a musical term based on modes other than the major and minor mode most commonly used in music. Since this is a project celebrating rhythm and drums, that makes perfect sense. When Pablo Calogero enters on his tenor saxophone, accompanied by John B. Williams on bass, they add a melody to Littleton’s inspired drum licks. This tune is propelled by the drummer and features just the trio of bass, horn and trap drums. It’s quite exciting and spontaneous, showcasing the talents of each participating musician in a spotlight of multi-colors. I’ve witnessed Littleton during his on-stage appearances and he is always full of spark and fire. You clearly hear this on their original composition.
The opening tune on this CD is titled, “A Call for All Elephantz” and was penned by Pablo Calogero. It engages the listener with an amazing and compelling use of instruments like the ‘sarod’ (played by Hideaki Tokunaga), with a sort of sitar sound and with Pablo manning his soprano saxophone, reminding me of Coltrane’s improvisational free style. Littleton is pushing the ensemble powerfully on drums. The percussive additions take us into a jungle of sounds and emotions. Gabriel Nobles adds his steel drum/marimba sounds on an electronic malletKAT. We are now in the realm of World Music. In other places, you will enjoy the tasty addition of the ‘tres’ instrument during some of Littleton’s percussive production. The tres instrument is a Spanish Cuban instrument, a three-course chordophone. It resembles a guitar in appearance and usually has six strings and is often played in Afro-Cuban music.
Pablo Calogero picks up his bass clarinet and I hear shades of Bennie Maupin and touches of Yusef Lateef on the Jimmy McHugh’s composition, “Let’s Get Lost.” For this arrangement, bassist John B. Williams joins Littleton and Calogero. Don Littleton and Pablo collaborate on some of the tunes as songwriters. For example, “Sleeping Elephants,” where they reduce the energy and tempo to a lullaby pace. The melody is catchy and pulls the listener’s attention into the whirlpool of percussive drums, bass and tenor saxophone. The Thelonious Monk composition, “Bye-Ya,” is arranged in a similar way, without piano or guitar, but only showcasing the saxophone, the bass and Littleton’s busy and perfectly timed drums. This is a mystical album of mastery and creative expression. It’s full of unexpected surprises. The song, “Tunapuna,” reminds me of South African music and a dish I used to fix for my small children with Tuna fish and noodles. It’s a happy-go-lucky Caribbean crusted composition by Littleton, where he sings the melody using “La La La” as his lyric. I can picture scores of children dancing and frolicking to this joyful tune.
Here is an intoxicating project, released during the Coronavirus Pandemic, and currently available on CD Baby. It’s absolutely wonderful music; fresh, rhythmic, melodic and features the uninhibited drum mastery of Don Littleton. His project is embellished by the brilliance of Pablo Calogero on woodwinds and two stellar bass players; John B. Williams and Michael Alvidrez. When they do add piano to an arrangement, the music is amplified by the tasty licks of Jane Getz. Both ‘Slam’ Noble and Andrew Acosta bring exciting rhythm with their percussive coloration. This artistic work by Don Littleton is way overdue and deserves to be heard on every radio station worldwide. It’s one of the best things I’ve listened to all Spring.
By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
While walking down a Tel Aviv street, a dark-haired child passed a music store. The slender, inquisitive, six-year-old boy heard a man demonstrating an electric organ. That boy was Tamir Hendelman. Captured in that unexpected moment, the child found himself intrigued by the music he heard. To his ears, it sounded like a full orchestra. Young Tamir ran home and begged his mother to please buy him an organ. Thus, began his love affair with music, and later the piano and jazz. The rest is history.
Tamir’s family is not particularly musical except for his grandmother. Two stories below their apartment, his grandmother was always singing. Tamir explained:
“My parents didn’t have a passion for music the way I did. But my grandmother did. She always sang around the house: standards, popular melodies, opera and traditional Israeli songs. Every Friday night, she hosted Shabbat. Sometimes the TV would feature an American film musical. That’s where I first heard some of those Great American Song Book standards. She was a world traveler, bringing home little souvenirs. One snowy night, on tour in Alaska, I stumbled on a Russian shop with a nest doll display. Looking through the window, I recalled grandma’s nest dolls and suddenly I heard a melody, which became “Babushka,” a song I recorded on my Destinations CD.”
Tamir’s organ lessons as a child led to a deep love of classical and jazz music. A Count Basie cassette was an early gift from a teacher. He then heard Chick Corea in concert and watched Bobby McFerrin weave his charms on an audience, performing acapella in Tel Aviv. He also enjoyed a group called the Swingle Singers. They vocally performed music by Bach, Mozart and even music by The Beatles.
Hendelman quickly became enchanted with the rich expression of Jazz and classical music and with writing and arranging music that blended these sounds. Here is Tamir’s rendition of the prelude from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin.
At the tender age of twelve, Tamir’s family moved to the United States to explore new horizons. He found himself smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles’ creative energy. His first U.S. teacher, Vilma Maramba, used the Yamaha method, encouraging improvisation. Playing an original piece, he participated in Yamaha’s National Electone Keyboard Competition. As fate would have it, one of the judges was pianist, arranger, composer and conductor, Joe Harnell. To his esteemed credit, Harnell has conducted for Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Tamir took third place in the competition but impressed Joe Harnell enough that the iconic pianist/conductor approached young Hendelman after the contest. His encouraging words and belief in Tamir’s talent led to their lifelong friendship. As his mentor, Harnell suggested Tamir attend Tanglewood Institute, in Western Massachusetts, to study classical composition. Tamir later discovered the beauty of the acoustic piano and studied further with Clare Fischer and Billy Childs, both harmonic innovators.
Next Tamir received his Bachelor of Music Composition degree from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He then became the youngest musical director for Lovewell Institute of the Creative Arts. Moving back to LA, he attended jam sessions at Billy Higgins’ World Stage, while composing and soaking up the music of Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis.
Life in California was his oyster and there were many pearls to be found. As his career blossomed, Tamir began to get session calls and gigs accompanying singers. It’s one thing to be an incredible pianist, but it’s quite another thing to also be an incredible and sensitive accompanist. Tamir Hendelman could do both. While performing as part of vocalist, Sandra Booker’s band, the iconic drummer, Jeff Hamilton, heard Tamir play. A few months later, Tamir received an invitation to become the new pianist in the Jeff Hamilton Trio and of course, accepted enthusiastically. Soon after, he also joined the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz orchestra and has been touring internationally with both groups ever since.
At twenty-nine, Tamir met bassist Sherry Luchette and he was smitten. They soon married and that began a new chapter of his life. They are now the proud parents of two lovely, little girls. His career exploded in great ways. He found himself recording and touring with legendary artists like Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Bill Holman’s Big Band, Roberta Gambarini and was a guest soloist with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. On recordings conducted and arranged by John Clayton, he performed alongside John Pizzarelli, Diana Krall and Paul McCartney. He also became a bandleader of his own trio. In 2009, Hendelman recorded his debut album, “Playground” with Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton. You can’t get much better than that. 2010’s “Destinations” trio CD (on Resonance Records) followed, featuring Lewis Nash and Marco Panascia. Tours with his trio have taken him across the US, as well as Europe and Japan.
Tamir Hendelman stayed busy recording with giants like, Teddy Edwards, Houston Person, Nick Brignola, Phil Upchurch, Rickey Woodard, vocalists Jackie Ryan and Barbara Morrison, Jeff Clayton and the Clayton-Hamilton orchestra. He performed Rhapsody in Blue with the Winston-Salem Symphony and participated on a tribute to Jobim with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Then along came the deadly Corona Virus. Musicians around the world found themselves at home, adjusting to a new and different pace and a challenging new way of life.
Now, since many of us are self-quarantined and stuck at home, Tamir decided to offer his friends and fans a weekly solo piano live-stream. It happens every Saturday evening at 6 p.m. (Pacific Coast time) on the Internet. Each week, he tributes various jazz giants and the Great American Songbook composers. https://gem.godaddy.com/p/a3deb01/
“Like many in LA, I’ve loved the tradition of house concerts, such as the long-time Jazz at the A-Frame series. The intimate setting and dedicated fans make these so special. When the A-Frame closed, I was invited to lead a series of solo and duo concerts at a home in Sherman Oaks as part of a series called the PQ Sessions. I featured guests like Rickey Woodard, Larry Koonse, Danny Janklow and Graham Dechter. We often dedicated our sets to a certain composer or musician. It seemed natural for me to take that approach with this new solo piano series from home,” Tamir explained his recent Zoom project.
“Each Saturday, I explore the music of a certain composer or musician, from Harold Arlen (5/23) to Miles Davis (5/30), Kenny Barron and Joao Gilberto (6/6), Chick Corea (6/13) and Cole Porter (6/20). This allows me to discover and share some hidden gems by these artists. My On-line workshops, feature the Great American Songbook and were also inspired by Barry Harris, who used to hold similar workshops for pianists and vocalists.”
Since 2005, Tamir Hendelman has been teaching piano, improvisation and harmony at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, where instruction has temporarily moved online this quarter. He’s one of the brilliant professors at this newly renamed Global Jazz Studies program. Recently, the program was enhanced with the addition of Terence Blanchard and Arturo O’Farrill.
“As musicians and educators, I feel we’re here to bring people together and to lift them up. Especially now, when our students are immersed in technology, I encourage them to use those tools to musically connect with each other. They learn how to record together in ‘real’ time, accompany and musically support each other, and stay inspired together as a community. A few weeks ago, vocalist Tierney Sutton and I recorded a Hoagy Carmichael song, ‘I Get Along Without You. This was my first experience recording alone…together. I was glad to share this with our students and get them comfortable with the process. They paired up and recorded with each other in ‘real’ time. To me, that’s where the magic happens.”
The duo with Tamir Hendelman and Tierney Sutton came out beautifully. You can enjoy it below.
Not only is Tamir Hendelman an outstanding pianist, an educator and composer, he is an arranger of note. Many seek his creative arranging talents when they decide to record. He shared a funny story with me about an arrangement inspiration he once had.
“I often hear musical ideas while walking in nature. While working on an arrangement for vocalist, Joanne Tatham, she wanted me to create a new take on McCoy Tyner and Sammy Cahn’s ballad, ‘You Taught My Heart to Sing.’ While on my little walk, suddenly a garbage truck began backing up and beeping all the while. ‘Beep – beep – beep! Sure enough, that found its way into a bass figure repeating the same note, that came in and out of the song arrangement. I guess you never know where inspiration will strike,” he chuckled remembering.
If you want to hear more of Tamir Hendelman’s style and brilliance, I encourage you to visit his website www.tamirhendelman.com to discover and attend his latest Saturday streaming concerts and to learn more about his recordings. When live concerts resume and travel opens up, catch him in person or just dial him up on Youtube.com. From my perspective, not only is he an accomplished musician and educator, he’s also just a really down-to-earth and likeable person.
I’m signing on to Facebook Live https://www.facebook.com/cathysegalgarcia every day except Thursday this week, Noon to about 2:00, to give a class on whatever you want to know about: music, singing, voice technique, making CDs, life philosophies… And I’m inviting guests to do it with me.
Scheduled Guests (some subject to change!) 5/27 Two of the original NY scene jazz vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton…5/29 Trumpet man Tony Guerrero… 5/30 guitarist Jeff Richman … 5/31 Jazz vocalist Kenny Washington …6/1 Bassist Gary Meek …6/2 Steamers founder Terrence Love …6/3 Studio pianist Mike Lang …6/5 vocalist FLA based Kate Reid …6/6 R&B composer, guitarist, singer Jodi Siegel PLUS pianist, composer Karen Hammack …6/7 From Cypress, vocalist and community builder Alexia Vassiliou …6/8 drummer Joe La Barbera … 6/9 violinist, mandolinist, and composer Ted Falcon (lived in Brazil) …6/10 guitarist and raconteur Bruce Forman …6/12 Shelly Berg – pianist, composer, arranger, orchestrator, and producer. He is the Dean and Professor of Music at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami… 6/13 As he states, “Jewish Buddhist author & jazz drummer, Michael Stephans (NY based) …6/14 Sally Stevens (whew!) studio singer, author, photographer, composer, choral director, community builder! … 6/15 Tom Meek of LAJAZZ.com
Come join in, ask questions, make comments! See you there!
Bobby Saxon has a mission. He wants to play piano for the Booker ‘Boom-Boom’ Taylor Orchestra (read big band), the house band at the famous Club Alabam on Central Avenue in the heart of Los Angeles during World War II. But there’s a problem: he’s young and he’s white. So if he gets the gig he’d be the only white player in the otherwise all-black band. That’s not the only thing standing in his way. In order to get the gig he must first solve a murder that one of the band members has been accused of. And if that’s not enough there’s another big thing standing in his way…but you’ll have to read the book to find that one out.
Los Angeles—The Homefront, World War II
Bobby Saxon stood across Central Avenue from the Club Alabam, watching the crowds spilling into the street, lingering on the sidewalk. A near-lone white face in a sea of black. Dragging on his cigarette, trying to steady his nerves, he watched the people in their swanky duds entering and exiting the club, working up his nerve to go inside. Sure, he’d been in the Alabam before, but this time was different. He wasn’t there just to see the bands blow and the canaries sing.
Everyone played the Alabam, or wanted to, including Bobby. Young, inexperienced—white—he knew he could knock ’em dead, if only Booker Taylor, one of the band leaders, would give him a chance.
Central Avenue was something to see. The heart of colored Los Angeles in the forties during the war. And at the heart of Central was the Club Alabam, and the Dunbar Hotel next door. Neon marquees lit up the night sky, beckoning passersby to enter their realms of music and mystery and see the likes of Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and every other colored act you could imagine.
Cars, with their bright white headlights and trailing hot red taillights, crawled like lifeblood up and down the avenue. Cigarette smoke wafted in and out of the clubs, wrapping around streetlights, forming halos in the L.A. fog, creating an ethereal world—another world. And it was another world from most of L.A. and the L.A. Bobby grew up in. A world that Bobby would have sacrificed almost anything to be part of.
He darted into traffic, dodging oncoming Buicks and Fords and Pontiacs. He brushed past people dressed to the nines, ladies in furs and heels, gentlemen in tuxes and fashionable suits. Even zoot suits. They strolled and strutted up and down the street like peacocks showing their finest feathers, ducking in and out of the clubs and restaurants. They smoked cigarettes from beautifully crafted holders. He strolled to the front door, made his way inside. Smoke wafted up and through the palm tree decor as Ruby, the hostess, recognized Bobby and gave him a ringside seat. She knew he was hep, even though he didn’t drink. The two-dollar tip didn’t hurt his getting that good seat either. He ordered Bubble Up and grooved on the Booker “Boom-Boom” Taylor Orchestra—only in this case orchestra meant one hot jazz big band.
Bobby’s foot tapped out the beat as he eyed the dance floor. Black couples. White couples. Coloreds and whites dancing together. One of the few places in L.A. you could do that and not walk away with your head in your hands. Whites from all over Los Angeles—even movie stars—came to hear the bands, cut a rug, and maybe get a little crazy. And though there might be some coloreds or whites who would look on disapprovingly, mostly no one cared.
Bobby watched set after set, tap-tap-tapping and smoking butt after butt of Viceroys. “Thank you, thank you, ladies and gentlemen,” Booker’s voice boomed from the stage mic. “We’ll be back after a short break. Have a drink and enjoy!”
The jam-packed dance floor emptied as the jitterbugs scattered back to their tables or the bar. Bobby stood, ready to make his move. He scooted through the narrow lanes between the closely placed tables, through the crowd, dodging drunken dancers. He wanted to catch Booker wherever he might land between sets, maybe on stage, maybe in the hall leading to the dressing rooms. Before he could, Booker snapped his head in Bobby’s direction, crooked his finger at him.
“Me?” Bobby mimed.
Bobby climbed onto the stage as the rest of the band departed. Just being on the Alabam’s stage with Booker was enough to make his heart pound out prestissimo time, even if he wasn’t playing with the band. At over six feet, Booker towered over Bobby. Up close Bobby could see the fine line of Booker’s moustache, the longish, slicked-back, processed hair. He envied Booker’s threads—the draped, broad-shouldered double-breasted suit, the pleated pants and fine, lilac silk scarf. But the most striking thing about him, besides his baritone voice, were those piercing eyes. Bobby felt those eyes burning a hole in his skin.
“You’re up here every night, kid. Every night all alone. What’s up?”
“I dig the music.”
“You dig the music. Jungle bunny music?”
Jungle bunny rolled so easily off Booker’s tongue. Bobby had heard it before and was surprised to hear Booker use such a negative word, even if he had said it sarcastically. “I didn’t come down here to jive you.”
Booker stared at Bobby through several puffs of his cigarette in a sleek, ebony holder. Bobby wanted to squirm or scram; held himself in check. Finally, Booker said, “Let’s go to my office.”
Bobby actually believed Booker had an office at the back of the club. Booker’s office was the alley behind it, lit by a few bare bulbs swathed in fog, shadowy and creepy. Like something out of a Universal horror movie—Dracula, Frankenstein—that Bobby might have seen when he was a kid, not all that long ago. Several band members hung out there, talking, smoking, drinking. Bobby heard a grunt. Turned to see a couple screwing in a semi-dark doorway a few feet up.
He didn’t know what he’d gotten himself into. What if Booker pulled a knife on him? He swallowed it down, though his father’s warning about coming to this part of town with these people nagged at him. He was scared, but he couldn’t show it. He was a man now.
Booker fished in his coat pocket, pulled something out. A hand-rolled cigarette, lit up. Offered a hit to Bobby. Bobby didn’t go for it.
“Yeah, kid, reefer. The evil weed. You barely look old enough to drink. Are you old enough for this?” Booker said, inhaling. “You even old enough to be in here?”
“I’m old enough to pound the eighty-eights in a hot jazz band,” Bobby said with all the bravado and self-confidence he could muster. He felt shaky fingers fumble a Viceroy from the pack. He’d been smoking since he was twelve—his hands had never shook before. “You don’t look old enough to stand up to piss.”
“I’m old enough.”
“Hardly even looks like you run a razor over that pearly, baby-smooth skin.” Booker slammed down a long drag, held it. Let the smoke out slowly. “What’re you comin’ down here for anyway? Why don’t you try to get a gig with a white band?”
“I’m here. You wanna let me sit in?”
“Fresh cracker kid. Lemme see your hands.”
Booker grabbed Bobby’s hands. Ran his long dark fingers over them. Bobby hoped Booker wouldn’t feel them shaking.
“Give me a shot, you’ll see how soft.”
“You know, Herb Jeffries is going to do a couple tunes next set—heard of him?”
“The Bronze Buckaroo. I love cowboy movies.”
“You come down to Central to see colored cowboy movies?”
“By myself.” Against his father’s wishes, like so many other things he did.
“You got more balls than I thought, kid. All right, Herb’s gonna sing ‘Flamingo,’ know it?”
“He’s also gonna sing ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas.’ If you can tell me what that song’s really about, you can sit in.”
Bobby shuffled his feet. He knew the answer, at least he thought he did. He wasn’t sure if he should say it, if it was a trick question. “I know it’s not about a flower.”
“C’mon, kid, we don’t got all day.”
“The yellow rose in the song is a light-skinned colored woman, a high yellow woman. Do I pass?”
“All right, kid, we got no eighty-eight man tonight. You can sit in. If the audience throws shit—well you know.” Booker took a last drag on his jive stick, pinched it out between his finger and thumb and put it back in his pocket. He headed inside, followed by Bobby and the band.
Bobby’s eyes adjusted to the dusky Alabam light and stinging smoke. He started to push the piano into a position where it would be part of the band. No one offered to help. Booker nodded at a couple of horn players. They leisurely walked to the piano, pushed and heaved until it was in place. Bobby thanked them, limbered his fingers. Booker looked over to him, shot him a wink of encouragement. Before he could get fully situated on the bench, the band launched into “Take the A Train.” The dance floor filled. The rhythm insinuated itself deep inside him. Every inch of him pulsed with it. He joined in with the band. Butterflies jumped in his stomach as he tried to play Duke Ellington’s part half as good as the Duke. But his fingers stopped shaking. He hit the keys with joy and passion. Nobody left the floor. Nobody threw anything. Nobody paid much attention to the single white face among all the black faces in the band, the one person, besides Booker, not in the band uniform of white jacket, dark slacks, bow tie. Everyone applauded at the end of the number.
“And now ladies and gentlemen, as our usual vocalist, the sweet Loretta Martin, isn’t with us tonight, we have a special guest. Mr. Herb Jeffries, the Bronze Buckaroo. The Sepia Singing Cowboy. The song stylist who, with Duke Ellington, made ‘Flamingo’ his own.”
Jeffries sauntered on stage. A handsome man, over six feet tall, who truly did look bronzed. The crowd went wild.
“Thank you,” Jeffries said in his rich, deep voice. Booker’s hand swung on the downbeat and the band launched into “Flamingo.” Bobby played along. He knew the song well. People crowded the stage to watch the singer. Others slow-danced, close and tight. The band was smooth. Jeffries spectacular with his beautiful baritone. And Bobby knew he was doing more than a serviceable job winging it. Booker glanced his way, gave him a quick grin. Bobby shot him a hasty salute. The crowd swelled and rose like a tidal wave, in a wild frenzy for the music. When the song ended, a hush fell over the room as Jeffries launched into “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
The song over, Jeffries took his bows and left the stage. Booker looked at Bobby. Bobby knew what that meant—his turn in the spotlight. Staring into a follow spot like a deer in headlights, he didn’t know what to do. Then he whipped into Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” banging away on the ivories. The crowd surged. Danced. Jitterbugs bopped to the music. Booker smiled, impressed. He looked to the band. They nodded while continuing to play—this kid could really blow.
Bobby dove deep into the music, swam with it. It was part of him, one with him. His thoughts were hardly conscious as he grooved to the beat. Fell in with the rhythm. This was the only place he wanted to be. Nothing else existed at this moment.
The number over, Booker motioned to Bobby to take a bow. Sheened with sweat, he stood and looked out at the crowd. The applause deafened him but made him happier than he’d ever been. The applause died and the band went back to its set. Bobby knew all the songs and played along just fine. When the set was over, drained and wiped out, Bobby went to the bar and ordered a Bubble Up.
“On the house,” the bartender said. “Good set.”
“Lawrence.” He put his hand out and Bobby shook it. The man squeezed hard. He wasn’t much taller than Bobby but he had the handshake of a hard man. The slicing scar over his left eye confirmed it.
Booker came up behind Bobby. “Welcome aboard.”
Bobby tried to maintain his composure, his cool. He hoped it was working.
“You look spooked, man,” Booker said, “and that ain’t a word one should be using in this joint.”
“Just taken aback.”
“They like you, man.”
“I got the gig?” Bobby was giddy. He only half-expected to get the spot, no matter how good he might be. Booker had never had a white player before. Bands weren’t integrated, except for Lionel Hampton with Benny Goodman. This was almost a first.
“Yours, at least on a trial basis. We’ll see how it works out for both of us. But when I said welcome aboard, I meant it. Tonight’s our last night at the Alabam for a few weeks.”
Excerpted from THE BLUES DON’T CARE Copyright © 2020 by Paul D. Marks Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
SACRAMENTO’S HENRY ROBINETT RELEASES “JAZZ STANDARDS – VOL. 1 – THEN” on his NEFERTITI RECORD LABEL
By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
How many times have you looked back on your life, while going through boxes or cleaning garages and closets, only to discover some real gems that had been hidden away for years? Guitarist, Henry Robinett, must have been doing just that when he stumbled upon some old tracks he recorded nineteen years ago with Joe Gilman (piano), Chris Symer (bass), and Michael Stephans, (drums).
“Honestly, I don’t know why I left it on the shelf for so long. I grew up listening to bebop and the great bebop players had enormous influence on me. When I wrote and performed my own music, though, I naturally incorporated the wide range of music styles I had played with other bands. I think the jazz standards album was just too different from my other work, which made me hesitant to release it. But after listening to it again, after so many years, I like it. I think it stands up well and shows another side to my playing,” Robinett explained in his liner notes.
I am happy he discovered this beautifully played treasure of standard jazz songs. His group is smokin’ hot and why wouldn’t it be with drummer Michael Stephans manning the trap drums? As always, Stephans adds fire and spark to this project. Joe Gilman is lyrical and freely improvises on “I Hear A Rhapsody.”
But it’s always Henry Robinett’s sensitive guitar playing that keeps this music exciting and creative. Robinett has a way of unfolding each song, like the chapters of an intriguing book. He inspires the listener to go forward and hear the next one and the one after that. His tone is pure and he’s a master improviser, using long, eclectic lines in his guitar phrasing. On “Yellow Days (La Mentira),” Joe Gilman exhibits his style of playing, using inspired melodies with both hands on the piano keys, moving in unison at a brisk pace. Then, Chris Symer steps forward, soaking up the spotlight and letting his double bass eloquently do the talking.
A native of California, Henry Robinett was a Cal State University/Sacramento student before joining a popular Northern California group called, The Runners. They played a mixed bag of music, from R&B to Rock, Brazilian and Latin influenced tunes and jazz. Then, in 1978, Robinett turned his music world upside-down when he briefly lived in a New York City apartment with none other than Charlie Mingus. His father was first cousins with Mingus and had a large collection of Mingus music. Young Henry had come up listening to this legendary bassist as a teen. While living with Mingus, the young musician rubbed shoulders with jazz royalty like Sonny Rollins, jazz historians Nat Hentoff and Leonard Feather, Clifford Jordon, Chico Freeman and many others. He happened to be in New York when Mingus was penning music for the iconic Joni Mitchell. Henry Robinett remembers talking to Joni about music and life in general. She also showed Robinett some of her guitar tunings. He admits to carrying those notes in his guitar case for many years.
From New York, he returned to the Bay Area in California rejuvenated and quickly landed gigs at the legendary Keystone Korner. He enjoyed playing with top Bay area artists like pianist, Jessica Williams, performing on her 1981 album “Orgonomic Music” along with Eddie Henderson. His music sensibilities were growing.
With new horizons calling, he spent a year in Munich, Germany doing studio work for the Munich Sound Machine and other artists, while playing with various local bands. His love of music encouraged exploration into various musical styles, including the popular disco style of music that Mitch Klein’s Munich Sound machine successfully recorded.
Ultimately, Henry Robinett decided to create his own group. He was signed to Artful Balance Records and his group produced three albums for that label. Always eager to expand his knowledge and have more control over his own music, Henry decided to master studio engineering. Back in California, he built a small studio and many of his subsequent album projects were recorded there. He set up his own Nefertiti record company and was soon producing not only his own records, but recording other artists too. He found himself on a more contemporary jazz path.
The Henry Robinett Group was named the Best Jazz Band by the Sacramento News and Review for three straight years. In 2015, he was recording a more contemporary sound.
For this current album, recorded in 2000, Robinett and his exciting bandmates offer us their interpretation of several jazz songs that we love like “Days of Wine and Roses”, “Just the Way You Look Tonight,” “Ill Wind” and “Invitation” among six others. This production is bebop influenced jazz that never grows old.
“I called the talented drummer, Michael Stephans. He suggested I use Seattle based musician, Chris Symer on bass. I then called my good friend, Joe Gilman, and reserved the date at The Hanger Recording studio, where I had been working as an engineer and producer,” Henry recalled on his album jacket.
“What I remember was that the session was fun. It is always a challenge being the recording engineer and player. Both are full time jobs. Maybe that’s the reason it sat on the shelf so long. I couldn’t get away from the memory of being ‘split-brained’ at that moment,” he admitted.
“So, I decided to release two albums from the original session. I was so motivated by this recording that we met again in November of 2019 for another fun and productive session. So, this is “Volume 1 – Then” and “Volume 2 – Then Again” is coming soon. It’s been my real pleasure playing this music with these remarkable musicians. I hope you enjoy it,” Henry Robinett graciously spoke.
The release date for this well-produced album is May 1, 2020. I look forward to hearing the follow-up album, after finding such pure pleasure and enjoyment in Henry Robinett’s straight-ahead and bebop infused jazz production.
JAZZ TRUMPETER, WALLACE RONEY, VICTIM OF THE CORONA VIRUS
By Dee Dee McNeil
As the horrific COVID-19 corona virus, a strain of SARS, slashes its way across the world, it continues to leave a toll of death and destruction. Sadly, this terrible disease has claimed the life of one of our jazz icons, master trumpeter, Wallace Roney.
Wallace was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 25, 1960. By the age of four, it was clear that young Roney had perfect pitch. At age seven, he won a scholarship to attend the Settlement School of Music. Everyone expected great things from the young musician. By the time he turned twelve-years-old, he became the youngest member of the Philadelphia brass ensemble that was made up of members of the Philadelphia orchestra. It was about this time that pre-teen, Wallace Roney, met the legendary, Clark Terry. Clark became one of several important mentors in young Wallace’s ascendance to the top of the jazz charts. In 2007, Billy Taylor, recorded a short documentary on the great Wallace Roney that talked about the day Clark Terry asked Wallace to play a scale and instead he played a solo by Lee Morgan that he had memorized. That both shocked and impressed Clark Terry.
When he enrolled in a Washington, D.C. public School called The Duke Ellington School of the Arts, he had already made his first recording at the young age of fifteen, recording with Nation and Haki Mabuti. At that high school, he met his second great mentor, Langston Fitzgerald, a trumpeter with the Baltimore Symphony. Then, at age sixteen, he was encouraged by his high school teacher to play with Cedar Walton’s Quartet that consisted of Billy Higgins, Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones. Also, around this time, he met Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy was the mentor that taught him to play more intricates styles of improvisation. He also met and became very close to Woody Shaw, who was another trumpet player, close friend and mentor.
Wallace Roney chased his musical dreams to Howard University. But a gig call to become a member of Art Blakey’s Big band pulled him away from college days. Later, he would attend Berklee School of Music. After making his mark as an up and coming trumpeter on the Washington, DC club scene, he met one of his idols. It happened in 1983, while participating in a tribute to Miles Davis. To his amazement, Miles walked up to him after his performance. Roney told Time Magazine:
“He (Miles Davis) asked me what kind of trumpet I had and I told him none. So, he gave me one of his.”
Soon, he and Miles were good friends. Miles Davis scooped the fledgling musician under his expansive wings. Historically, Wallace Roney was the only trumpeter that Miles Davis ever mentored.
As Roney’s star rose, in 1986 he replaced Terrance Blanchard in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers group.
In 1987, Roney released an album on the Muse label titled, “Verses,” followed by “Intuition” in 1988 and in 1989 Muse released “The Standard Bearer.”
Wallace Roney was prolific and energetic. He was turning out albums once a year on the Muse label. In 1990, they released “Obsession” and 1991, “Seth Air.” Also, in 1991, the busy trumpet player became part of a tour to celebrate the legacy of Miles Davis, who died September 28, 1991. He was asked to join Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams and to record with them on their “A Tribute to Miles” album. That album won a Grammy Award.
The Muse label released an album titled, “Munchin’” in 1993, followed by “Crunchin’. Then Wallace Roney changed labels. He was picked up by Warner Brothers.
In 1995, Wallace Roney married piano giant, Geri Allen. Together, the talented couple brought forth great music, along with two daughters and a son. Wallace continued grinding out recordings as a leader and recording as a sideman. As a bandleader, he recorded for Concord Records, Highnote Records and Chesky Records. By the time he turned forty years old, in 2000, Wallace Roney had recorded on over 250 albums. He leaves his brilliant talent behind, captured on video and in the recording studios, to be enjoyed for infinitude.
Wallace Roney died March 31, 2020, at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, in Patterson, New Jersey at the age of fifty-nine years old. His death was the result of this current pandemic, caused by complications from the COVID-19 virus strain. We send love and condolences
By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
Edythe Bronston is the founder and president of The California Jazz Foundation. Their nonprofit organization’s mission is to aid and assist California jazz musicians when they find themselves in financial or medical crisis. The California Jazz Foundation was created in 2006 when Edythe Bronston realized a respected jazz musician in Northern California was in crisis. She called her friend and business associate, Dominic LoBuglio and said she wanted to start a nonprofit that would support jazz musicians in need. With Dominic’s CPA background and her legal expertise as a successful Los Angeles attorney, they created this awesome organization. Both music lovers reached out to friends who had the same love and passion for jazz music. Their associates had to be caring, compassionate and empathetic human beings. At the first meeting of their consortium, they sat around Edythe’s dining room table and agreed that something had to be done for jazz musicians, many without health insurance and some sporadically unemployed. Consequently, those musicians often found themselves in dire financial straits. For these players of America’s highly respected and indigenous artform, there was rarely unemployment benefits or health insurance available. As long as they were healthy and had gigs lined up, they went to work and made people happy with their music. But when the unexpected happened or when musicians began to age or faced health challenges, where could they turn?
Edythe and Dominic proceeded to incorporate and apply for nonprofit status and that first evening, the small, concerned group passed the hat around Edythe’s dining room table to help their first jazz musician in need. It would be almost a year later, in 2007, when they finally attained the 501 (c) (3) status they needed to be a tax-exempt organization. To date, they have assisted and supported over three-hundred musicians and have 630 members.
Dee Dee: I asked Edythe when she fell in love with jazz?
Edythe Bronston: “I was fifteen years old and my best friend was this guy who was sixteen years old. He said to me one summer night, he had just gotten his driver’s license and he said to me, I’m going to take you tomorrow night to hear jazz. I said what’s jazz? He said you’ll know it when you hear it. So, he took me to this roadhouse to hear Ray Anthony and his Orchestra.”
“Because he had just gotten his driver’s license, we went really early while it was still light out. We got there and I don’t know whether you remember Ray Anthony, the band conductor, but he was very handsome and was known as ‘the poor man’s Cary Grant.’ We walked into this roadhouse and it was a great big place, like a banquet hall, with a huge dance floor. That early, there was nobody there but us. Ray Anthony was at one end of the room with his band when we walked in. There I was in my fifteen-year-old glory, with my crinoline skirt on and he winked at me. Oh, he was very handsome. By the end of the night, I was smitten and I thought I loved jazz. I didn’t know that wasn’t really jazz. (laughter) So, I became a jazz fan at fifteen. It was quite a revelation for me when I discovered Stan Kenton and, of course, my all-time favorite is Charlie Parker.”
Dee Dee: Like myself, Edythe Bronston believes that jazz is freedom music. She knows this courageous and doughty music was born out of slave songs, church hymnals, the blues, European classical music and a longing for freedom of expression. This music effloresced through the bell of Louie Armstrong’s trumpet and the creativity of Charlie Parker’s inventive saxophone. Improvisation was born. Both the music and the musicians who play it are an important and undeniable part of our American culture.
On April 25, 2020, at 5:30pm in downtown Los Angeles, the Annual Gala presented by Edythe Bronston and her California Jazz Foundation called, “Give the Band A Hand” will honor iconic composer/arranger Johnny Mandel and pianist, bandleader, journalist and educator, Billy Mitchell. This is the group’s annual fundraiser to support their ongoing program throughout the year.
Bronston: “What I’ve learned, when you talk to a jazz musician, there’s no hidden agenda. What you see is what you get. And that’s the beautiful part of it. As long as they have a job, a gig, and as long as they have their health, they’re good. They don’t internalize that something could happen to them. They don’t think about getting older or what if they have an accident or they get sick. They don’t have any cushion. It’s just such a tragedy. Terry Gibbs is a good friend of mine and he told me that when he started out with his first band, he was paying musicians more than any other bandleader was at that time. Shockingly, the amount that he was paying is the same amount that they are being paid today. It’s tragic!” Atty. Bronston’s voice is full of compassion.
Dee Dee: But where is the corporate support for the California Jazz Foundation? Why aren’t companies like Gretsch, who has literally cornered the endorsement market of the jazz scene, and who boasts a popular line of jazz drum kits, or Ludwig drums, Yamaha, or DW drums, contributing to this important nonprofit effort? Why aren’t Piedmont piano company, or Steinway, or Shadd Pianos, named for Warren Shadd, the first African-American piano producer contributing? Jazz musicians play all the popular instrument brands and many advertise for these companies and their products. How about VISA and MASTERCARD and airline companies that fly these musicians around the world to perform? The California Jazz Foundation needs and is looking for corporate sponsors.
Bronston: “Well, I think that’s why Billy Mitchell has been so successful …because he’s dealing with children and corporations care about kids. We haven’t seen the same kind of support for the master musicians who are playing the music and continuing the legacy of jazz. We always say, the L.A. Jazz Society takes care of the kids (through their program ‘Jazz in the Schools’) and we take care of the sick and the older musicians. We’re two groups who are very friendly and refer back and forth. They seem to have an easier time getting grants than we do, probably because people care more about children. We’ve been able to survive, but with more corporate grants, we would be able to help more musicians. We’ve helped over 300 musicians and 77% of our grants, from the very beginning, have gone to alleviate homelessness by paying rent, mortgage payments and taxes, in addition to assisting with health challenges,” Edythe Bronston sighs.
Dee Dee: Speaking of pianist, Billy Mitchell, not only will he be receiving an award from the California Jazz Foundation, but he will also be given an award from the Jazz Journalist Association at the April 25th Gala event. Mitchell has been based in Los Angeles since 1970 and has backed up artists like Gloria Lynn, Esther Phillips, Billy Paul, Randy Crawford, Linda Hopkins, Barbara Morrison, Cheryl Barnes and many more. He is a member of the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited headed by jazz legend, Kenny Burrell. Mitchell has appeared in the Clint Eastwood motion picture, “Bird.” As a journalist and clinician, he’s written and published books and his articles in Gig Magazine chronicle his life and love of the music he performs and teaches. As founder of SAPPA, the Scholarship Audition Performance Preparatory Academy, and founder, director of the Watts-Willowbrook Conservatory & Youth Symphony, he transforms lives every day, reaching into the underserved communities of Southern California to inspire young musicians.
The other recipient of the California Jazz Foundation’s “Terry Award” is Johnny Alfred Mandel. As a composer, arranger and conductor, his songs for film soundtracks have become iconic, including the Grammy and Academy Award winning, “The Shadow of Your Smile” and the beautiful, “A Time for Love.” A former trombonist and trumpet player in big bands, he has worked with Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Diane Schuur, Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand, Shirley Horn, Ann Hampton Callaway and countless more. He penned the popular Television theme song for the M.A.S.H show. In 2018, Johnny Mandel received the Grammy Trustee Award from The Recording Academy for “individuals who, during their careers in music, have made significant contributions, other than performance, to the field of recording”. He’s also the recipient of the NEA Jazz Masters Award.
The California Jazz Foundation is proud to honor these two legendary and locally based Southern California musicians.
Bronston: “Our programs create excitement,” Edythe Bronston says with pride and conviction. “So many of our jazz musicians and our stars are dying. It’s always a wonderful evening and it has buzz. We have people who come every year. You never know who will attend and the music is always amazing. We invite everyone to purchase tickets or to support our mission by becoming members. Everywhere I go, I meet new friends who wish to join our cause, because of their abiding love of the music and the musicians who give so much of themselves. We celebrated our fourteenth year on January 30th of 2020. Please help us by making a tax-deductible donation. With your support and generosity, we will always be here to assist our jazz musicians.”
You can visit the California Jazz Foundation (CJF) Online at: www.californiajazzfoundation.org
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
The Segerstrom Art Center is a state of the arts complex in Costa Mesa, California, a very affluent area of Los Angeles County. It offers several parking structures and theaters of various sizes and a wealth of talent for the community to enjoy. The room where Kandace Springs is performing Is set up like a nightclub venue. The round tables are draped in white table cloths with a small, flickering lamps in the center that made the space feel cozy and intimate. All the tables on the main floor housed four chairs. A balcony, with tables for two, sat above the main floor on both sides of the room. It’s a comfortable cabaret set-up with a capacity to hold 320 people. Tonight, it was full.
A female drummer saunters on stage, sits behind her trap drums and began to solo with gusto. Another female enters, picks up the double bass and joins in. They set up a funky, smooth jazz, soulful groove. Then Kandace Springs prowls across the stage like a lioness. Dressed in black pants, she sits down at the electric piano, soaking up the center spotlight. The show has begun. This pianist/vocalist has a head of hair like a lion’s mane and it bobs and moves with her tenacious delivery on the piano keys. Her voice is husky and rooted in gospel. It’s somewhat reflective of Stevie Wonder when she makes certain vocal ‘runs.’ I’ve seen this artist on YouTube performing with Kenny G, Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oats) and a big band. During the opening number, her bassist sings harmony with Kandace.
Because I’ve been in the music business for such a long time, I can tell this is a new band. Still, their voices blend beautifully. The longer they perform together, the tighter this ensemble will become. Kandace Springs moves from the electric piano to the grand piano to perform the second tune, “Gentle Rain.” Afterwards, she announces that she has a new CD coming out in March on the Blue Note label. Tonight, we are getting a live preview of this new recording. She tells us, her friend, Christian McBride, is playing bass on her Blue Note production. However, “tonight Caylen Bryant (on bass) will accompany me on “Devil May Care,” she says giving a nod to her bassist. Kandace swings this arrangement, propelled by the talented Taylor Moore on drums and amply supported by her multi-talented bassist. In between each song, Ms. Springs interacts with her audience, offering a warm exchange of information. She shares that she and Norah Jones are Blue Note sisters and they perform a duet on her new album celebrating Ella Fitzgerald. “Norah Jones plays the Steinway grand piano and I play the electric piano on the tune, Angel Eyes,” she tells us. The trio digs into this tune, featuring Caylen duetting vocally with Kandice, and on the fade of this song, all three female musicians sing a haunting, harmony part. It’s extremely effective, with a wee bit of gospel flavor to it.
Then came a piano solo where Kandace Springs shows us, she definitely has ‘chops’ and is a classically trained pianist. Her love of piano started at age ten when her dad brought home a piano. Kandace comes from a musical family. Her father was a popular, working soul singer in a country-western town. His name is Scat Springs and he had his own Nashville band. His vocals were so strong that he sang backup for several well-known musicians like Brian McKnight, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Michael McDonald and Donna Summer. A daddy’s girl, she tagged along to his sessions. It was her father that introduced her to legendary singers like ‘Ella’, Eva Cassidy and Nina Simone. Her dad helped her record a demo at age fifteen and it got a lot of buzz.
For her next song, Kandace celebrated Carmen McCrae, performing solo, just her piano and voice singing a soulful rendition of “In My Solitude.”
Then she ripped into a classical-sounding composition to show she was a studied musician. I heard shades of Rachmaninoff, Shubert and Bach. This interlude faded seamlessly into Jobim’s tune, “How Insensitive.” Kandace liberally shares her spotlight with the two talented ladies in her band. She features them next. Taylor Moore on drums is an amazing technician on her instrument. She really fired-up the crowd.
Caylen Bryant lays down her double bass and straps on her electric instrument. The trio does a unique arrangement of Sade’s tune, “Love is Stronger than Pride” with the drummer and bassist singing back-up vocals that enhance Kandace Springs’ smokey delivery of this popular song. Next, Kandace tells us she credits Norah Jones for inspiring her to learn and perform the first standard she ever played and sang before an audience. Then she performs, “Nearness of You.” This was followed by a funky, but still very jazzy rendition of “People Make the World Go Round.” She stunned the audience when she sang and played Billie Holiday’s tear-jerking song, “Strange Fruit.” It was a very moving performance. The trio rebounded from this emotional ballad to a song the group ‘War’ made so popular; “The World Is A Ghetto.” Judging from these two songs, Kandace Springs seems to have a little bit of an activist edge to her music. The drummer tears into her solo on this arrangement and the audience goes crazy.
The jazz community has had an open space available for a female pianist and jazz vocalist. We have been waiting for someone to soulfully fill the hole that legends like Nina Simone, Roberta Flack and Shirley Horn left in our musical fabric. That’s why I was happy to hear Kandace tribute Roberta Flack, going back to the grand piano to play and sing a beautiful rendition of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” She closed out their concert with a fiery arrangement of Nina Simone’s, “I Put A Spell on You.”
The room rose in a unified standing ovation to show the three talented ladies how much they were appreciated. I look forward to hearing the new album by Kandace Springs titled, “The Woman Who Raised Me.” Like two of her idols, Norah Jones and also Diana Krall, she continues to break new ground, playing piano and singing. Her choice of blending musical genres, with a youthful jazz infusion, while celebrating the spirit of her jazz elders like Carmen McCrae, Nina and Sarah Vaughan, (who all played piano beautifully) makes Kandace Springs a fresh, blossoming talent in my New Artist series.
Peter Erskine has played the drums since the age of four and is known for his versatility and love of working in different musical contexts. Fifty albums have been released under his own name, or as co-leader, and he appears on 700 albums and film scores. Peter recorded five albums with the band Weather Report and won his first Grammy Award with their album ’8.30’. His second was for the album Some Skunk Funk, with The Brecker Brothers. Peter has 8 other Grammy nominations under his belt plus an Honorary Doctorate from the Berklee School of Music. Joining Peter on stage will be Alan Pasqua on piano and Darek Oles on bass.
Jazz Wednesdays Winter presents some of the hottest straight-ahead jazz musicians in the region. Held at the distinctive [seven-degrees] event facility, 891 Laguna Canyon Rd. Concerts are 6-8 pm, doors open at 5pm when a full bar and dinner, on a pre sale basis, will be available. Tickets are $30 in advance, $50 with dinner, $40 at the door and can be purchased at lagunabechlive.org. For more information call 949 715 9713
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
The evening’s moderator steps onstage. He tells us that three years ago the Soraya , a magnificent Center for the Performing Arts, started a jazz club on its premise. Located in “the Valley” of Los Angeles, at 18111 Nordhoff Street in Northridge, California, on the campus of California State University Northridge (CSUN), this huge theatrical facility simulated a smaller area inside the building that features an evening of intimate jazz. It’s my first time visiting this architecturally beautiful, all glass, building. This is the ninth year of the award-winning Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center. The 1,700-seat theatre was designed by HGA Architects and Engineers. It was recently cited by the Los Angeles Times as “a growing hub for live music, dance, drama and other cultural events.” Tonight, the small room they’ve created seats about 250 people. Several patrons swarm around the wine-tasting table and there’s a full bar available just outside the jazz room. There is table seating upfront and theater seating in the rear.
The evening’s featured artist is Luciana Souza. She is a Brazilian vocalist with Sao Paulo roots. She took the stage with two other musicians who she introduced. Ms. Souza told us she met Scott Colley (bassist) in New York and fell in love with his playing. “He is an architect of our music,” she gushed. Next, she introduced Chico Pinheiro, a guitarist also from Sao Paulo, Brazil. Luciana and Chico met at Berklee College of music and Souza told us he is a great storyteller on his instrument and a very popular instrumentalist in Brazil. She went on to say that poetry deepens our humanness. “It’s always fertile ground,” Luciana asserted. That’s why she adopted some of the poetry of Leonard Cohn and set his prose to music. She spoke the words of Cohn over the silence in the packed auditorium. Then, her two-man band began to play. First Scott Colley’s bass set the tempo. Ms. Souza, standing before a snare drum and a single cymbal began gently stroking the cymbal with her brushes. She tilted her head back and began to sing. Enter Chico Pinheiro on guitar. Our concert has begun.
The second tune was more energetic with tempo changes from hot, Latin rhythms reduced fluidly to a sultry ballad. Souza plays her percussion instruments effortlessly, tossing the Portuguese language into the mix on the fade of this song. Her vocal notes fall like shiny pebbles onto a rushing musical stream. At the conclusion of this song, the applause is generous, as she tunes her tambourine in preparation for their third song. Scott opens with a deep, bass solo introduction, setting the mood and tempo. It’s a happy tune that makes me want to dance. I wish Ms. Souza had told us the titles of the songs they played. She mentioned a few along the way, but not many.
“Being from Brazil means a wealth of music we get to drink,” she spoke to the attentive audience. Speaking of drinks, we sat there sipping our wine, enjoying the music with beverages sponsored by WINC, an online wine distributor. Luciana Souza told us one composer she loves is Milton Nascimento. She explained, he was born in a hilly state inside Brazil, lush with mountains and she tells us his music is open and elevated like his countryside. On this tune, she features the poetry of Charles Simic, a Serbian/American poet and former co-poetry editor of the Paris Review.
Continuing, Scott pulls out his bow and the bass trembles in a beautiful way. There are no words on this tune. Souza scats her way atop the music, making warm sounds like tropical bird calls and mountain winds. She is consistently singing and playing percussion, which is impressive. However, I do wish her percussion had been more dynamic, instead of just the whisper of rhythm. It was teasingly pleasing. A few bursts of percussion to vibrantly support these amazing musicians would have escalated her production and elevated her percussive playing. Her voice, however, is a lovely instrument and one of the songs she sang was very much a ‘saudade’ ballad that hauntingly floats across Chico’s beautiful guitar background. It’s almost a blues. On this song, the improvisation between guitar and bass is palpable and excites everyone at my table. Luciana Souza sings long, legato lines, holding the final notes of her phrasing tenderly, as though they are her babies. She swings on the end of this tune and scats. On this song, I finally hear some energy in her percussive playing.
Luciana Souza adds a small taste of activism to her program on her second set. She tells us, “we are living in strange times. I couldn’t vote in Brazil for a while when the military took over. So, I have seen some things,” she shared and then sang:
“These are the roads we travel. I don’t know how to get back to you. … These are the wars we fight. These are the tears we shed. … I don’t know how to get back to you.” Scott Colley, during his bass solo, is brilliant and her voice is like a soft blanket that gently covers his booming bass sound. His instrument bleeds through, accenting the lyrical content.
“These are the duties of the heart. These are the books we read. These are the roads less travelled. I don’t know how to get back to you,” she sings, floating on a second-soprano cloud across a misty, emotional stage.
I long for a program insert, in the main Performing Arts Booklet, that listed tune titles. I enjoyed her patter between songs, describing her beloved Brazil and sharing spoken word or stories about the poets, but I wish she had told us the titles of her repertoire as she celebrated “The Book of Longing” (her latest CD release) that tributes poets like Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Christina Rossetti with original music.
By Scott Yanow
There is no real explanation as to how Buddy Rich became the most remarkable of all drummers. He was self-taught starting when he was only 18 months old, and by the time he was three (when he was billed as “Traps – The Drum Wonder”), he was helping to support his family in vaudeville. He could play faster, louder and with more technique than any other drummer of the past or present. Just look at any film of Buddy Rich taking a drum solo on You Tube and try not to be amazed.
While there have been several fine books out on Rich including Mel Torme’s 1991 Traps: The Drum Wonder, the recent work by Pelle Berglund titled One Of A Kind is quite definitive. Conducting interviews with 25 of Rich’s associates, friends and family members and adding the highlights to the most interesting and illuminating stories and quotes from books, newspapers, magazines and early interviews with the drummer, Berglund has put together a continually fascinating and informative biography.
While the outlines of Buddy Rich’s life are well known, this book fills in the gaps. One learns quite a bit about Rich’s early years, his period in vaudeville, his struggle as he outgrew being a child his performer, and his discovery of jazz. There are full chapters on his periods with Joe Marsala’s Chicagoans, Bunny Berigan, Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. One learns of his difficult time in the Marines, his big bands of the bebop era, his association with Norman Granz and Jazz At The Philharmonic, Rich’s relationship with Harry James, and finally his unlikely emergence as the leader of his own successful big bands in the 1960s and ‘70s. Along the way Berglund discusses Rich’s love/hate relationship with Frank Sinatra, the three-month period after he broke his arm in the 1940s that he spent playing one-handed with his band (still taking solos that scared other drummers), his friendship and rivalry with Gene Krupa, and his personality and infamous temper. The latter are dealt with in an even-handed way. The author correctly recognizes that Rich gave 120% of himself on stage and expected the same of his musicians. They did not have to be perfect but they had to work hard at all times, and when they fell short because they were lax or did not care, he tended to blow up. Rich could also be quite kind at times, but he was certainly never dull.
In addition to the colorful biography, an extensive bibliography, and 16 pages of photos, the book has reviews of 21 film appearances that Rich made during 1930-60. One Of A Kind, published by Hudson Music and distributed by Hal Leonard, is available from www.hudsonmusic.com and is a must for all jazz collections. It comes as close as any work to covering the life and career of the World’s Greatest Drummer.
By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist
Eileen Strempel, dean of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music said, “Wadada Leo Smith’s life and work exemplifies the fertile intersection of theory and creativity that we encourage our students to explore. We are delighted to honor him at UCLA for his brilliance, his genuine care for others and the scholarly significance of his work.”
Internationally acclaimed Trumpeter, composer, arranger, Wadada Leo Smith, received the UCLA Medal in a ceremony and concert Friday night, November 8, 2019 at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Former recipients include iconic artists like trumpeter, philanthropist and record mogul, Herb Alpert; opera icon, Plácido Domingo; the mother of jazz, Ella Fitzgerald, and producer, arranger extraordinaire, Quincy Jones. The UCLA Medal was also awarded to civil rights activists like James M. Lawson Jr., and congressional leaders like Representative John Lewis; Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.N. secretaries Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-Moon. Two presidents have received this award; both Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Obviously, Wadada Leo Smith shines in stellar company.
“Wadada Leo Smith is a category-defying composer whose achievements have profoundly shaped American music,” spoke Chancellor Gene Block who presented the award to the avant-garde jazz giant. “His work exemplifies a diversity of original thought that has enriched the lives of others, and demonstrated UCLA’s highest academic and professional values.”
So, you may wonder, who is this amazing jazz musician and educator? We know he is a prolific recording artist and serious composer. He regularly earns multiple spots on the DownBeat International Critics Poll. In 2017, he topped three categories including ‘Best Jazz Artist,’ ‘trumpeter of the Year’ and ‘Jazz Album of the year.’ Wadada Leo Smith is also the originator of the musical language he calls, Ankhrasmation. Professor Eddie Meadow’s featured a musical class where Wadada Leo Smith recently taught aspects of this musical language in a hands-on workshop at the Schoenberg Music building Additionally, Smith’s music scores are considered works of art and have been exhibited at numerous museums including UCLA’s own Hammer Museum, The Museum of Rhythm, Museum Sztuki in Lodz, Poland; The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, the Kalamazoo Institute Art Museum in Michigan and at Kadist in San Francisco, a gallery and educational center.
Smith was born on December 18, 1941 in Leland, Mississippi. As a young teen, he was introduced to the Delta blues and jazz traditions through his stepfather, Alex Wallace, who was a bluesman. In 1963, Wadada Leo Smith received a formal music education from the U.S. Military band program while serving in the army. He later attended the Sherwood School of Music and Wesleyan University. Around 1967, he found himself in Chicago, Illinois where he hooked up with the AACM and Anthony Braxton. Both he and Braxton were composing and seeking to stretch the boundaries of music. They both hoped to record and quickly became close friends. For the last five decades, Smith has been a member of this legendary AACM group. Wadada explained their art sensibilities ‘back-in-the-day’ during an interview with Phil Freeman that was published in the Wire.
“When I came to Chicago, I had already composed a pretty good body of work and already begun to understand music without metrical progression or modulation. I was never, ever working in a harmonic sphere where harmonic progression was important. And you look at Braxton, he’s working just the opposite. He was looking at how you make creative music with those connections. And I was not so much interested in that part of it as a way of making music. I always looked at how you make music without all those things everybody has inherited. The piece (I recorded) with the vocals on it and also ‘The Bell,’ those two have the most space. I would say that space was a very important component; still is. Most people have kind of crowded their musical contribution into narrow spaces, but space is still a very important component of my music and a lot of the AACM people. And by space, we don’t mean just horizontal space. We’re talking about vertical space and lateral space.
Wadada explained that vertical space is the relationship between low and high notes. Horizontal is going from section A to section B, or from one type of movement to another. But he feels the most important thing is not the direction, but what happens inside that direction. He believes in utilizing silence as part of musical expression and encourages playing solo. Music is a spiritual journey and he set up his own record label in the 1970’s so he could have complete creative control. Since then, he has released more than fifty albums as a leader. You can tell, by the titles of his work, this artist is constantly in search of a higher consciousness. With the New Dalta Akhri group, they recorded albums titled, “Reflectativity” and “Song of Humanity.” They also recorded “Spirit Catcher and “Divine Love.”
“That band, quite frankly, was the first band that began to introduce a clear idea about systemic music coming from my point of view. It was primarily involved in understanding how to use systems in making music, and it had a pretty good format. We rehearsed every week, looked at a lot of music. Some of it was performed, some was just rehearsed. One might say that New Dalta Akhri was the first laboratory for what I was looking at for musical languages,” Wadada Leo Smith explained to the Wire interviewer.
Always in search of expanding his knowledge of music, Wadada Leo Smith has worked with many ensembles and experimented with duo albums featuring himself on trumpet with just a drummer. This resulted in the album “America” with Jack DeJohnette and another duo album with Gunter “Baby” Sommer, (a German musician) and another with Adam Rudolph featuring hand-drumming and percussion. His most recent recording, released in 2019, is titled “Rosa Parks: Pure Love, an Oratorio of Seven Songs.” In 2016, he recorded “America’s National Parks” that earned a place on numerous Best of the Year Lists, including the New York Times and NPR music. His 2012 civil rights opus titled, “Ten Freedom Summers” was described as a staggering achievement and compared (by some) to the importance and beauty of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” In 2017, Wadada Leo Smith’s musical achievement of an album titled, “Solo: Reflections and Meditations on Monk” was written about by Adam Shatz.
Shatz wrote, “For all the minimalism of his sound, Smith has turned out to be a maximalist in his ambitions, evolving into one of our most powerful storytellers, an heir to American chroniclers like Charles Ives and Ornette Coleman.”
Perhaps Wadada Leo Smith clearly explained his “Ankhrasmation” music language during his NewMusicBox interview.
“Basically, my experiment is with instruments and people. … This experiment of using this specific language that I have, sometimes extracted from their history, sometimes using their history as well, tells me something about myself. Most things that artists do finds its course. … Art is here for a specific reason. It wants to engage us to think deeper about ourselves and our connection to our environment.
“…Take Lester Bowie, or Ted Daniels, or Don Cherry, or Miles Davis, everyone of them I guarantee you had four or five ‘C’s, and four or five D’s, or four or five ‘E’s they could play. … they could shade some of their attacks. So, the sound they played was still a C, or a D, but different. That’s because at some point you have to make the sound be different then it was before. … Only the soloists are allowed to have their own, individual sound. Not the ones sitting in the orchestra. They may have their own personality sound, but they can’t be too individualized. The conductor will say that chord is too out-of-tune. … But the soloist can have an individual sound. They can make that F sharp a little bit different. Who’s going to stop them? Nobody.
“… In my Ankhrasmation musical language, there are lots of commands. … There’s rule of thumb for success or failure. … There’s elements that have to be referenced. Like when there’s color involved, the colors have to be referenced. … There are velocity units. There are eight of them. Each velocity unit has a set of four. The left sphere is generally slow. The right sphere is generally fast. … There are six sets of rhythm units. Each set starts with a long and a short, and each set gets shorter as it moves. … I don’t mind the score evaporating, because it will create a new music object that is completely different. That’s ok. It will do it over and over and over. The only requirement is that the artists performing the music maintain a high level of sincerity.
By Scott Yanow
One of the most significant alto-saxophonists of the past 30 years, Kenny Garrett always puts a great deal of passion and intensity into each note he plays. That was certainly true at the Moss Theater before a packed house in a performance sponsored by Ruth Price and the Jazz Bakery. With solid support and fiery moments from pianist Vernell Brown, bassist Corcoran Holt, drummer Samuel Laviso, and the colorful percussionist Rudy Bird, Brown was in top form. He started with a modal original in 6/4, got into a Pharoah Sanders late-1960s groove on the next number (his playful solo over a fairly simple chord structure hinted at Sonny Rollins in the 90s), and improvised with great fury on an uptempo original that was climaxed by five minutes of his unaccompanied playing. Other performances included a rhythmic piece on soprano-sax that ended with Miles Davis’ “Jean-Pierre,” a beautiful rendition on alto of “My Foolish Heart” that included some phrases worthy of Charlie Parker, and a 5/4 groove that had Garrett (on soprano) and Brown taking inventive solos over a one-chord vamp. The audience loved everything that Kenny Garrett played, but he did unnecessarily showboat a bit, signaling on several occasions that he wanted more applause from the audience which took away a bit from the spontaneity. Otherwise, it was a great show.
By Chris Walker
KJZZ 88.1 FM’s Summer Benefit at Disney Hall was headlined by Grammy and Tony-winning singer/actress/UN Goodwill Ambassador/NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater, with on-air personality Bubba Jackson serving as the emcee. The singer was supported by Michael King-keyboards, Tabari Lake-bass and Kush Abadey-drums, and chose to honor departed legends Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln and Nancy Wilson. In Carter fashion Bridgewater scatted profoundly and spotlighted her young backing group as they each soloed to excite the crowd, in addition to rendering “My Disposition Depends on You.” In typical fashion, the singer pranced around flirticuously, directing her attention to the blushing bassist and talked about a recent disastrous blind date.
Returning to music, the singer delved into “Lover Man Comeback to Me” spaciously and ephemerally similar to Lincoln, along with “Monk Blues.” For Wilson things got a lot more refined, starting with a soulful version of “Teach Me Tonight” with organ soloing. In the same vein was “Save Your Love For Me” with Bridgewater singing more fluidly. Breaking out of the tribute material the singer went into B.B. King classic “The Thrill is Gone” from her latest project R&B inspired Memphis…Yes I’m Ready to garner a standing ovation.
Opening for her were guitarist/vocalists Raul Midon and Lionel Loueke, who performing solely and together. Benin-born Loueke began singing sweetly in his native tongue and playing African rhythms, along with percussion on his acoustic guitar. Shifting to electric he played “Vi Gnin” from his latest CD The Journey that was both atmospheric and gentle. Midon came on stage afterwards, first playing with the African musician for a light jam, highlighted by them playing and scatting away with the audience clapping along.
Blind Midon took over solely and mimicked horns vocally and pleasingly sang “I Love The Afternoon” that included his trumpet scatting. From his latest release If You Really Want produced by Vince Mendoza with the Metropole Orkest’s “God’s Dream ” was performed and astonished the crowd with fiery singing and clean acoustic guitar. Showing his confident aura was title track from his 2017 recording Bad Ass And Blind with rapid-fire rapping and bluesy guitar to totally blow the audience away. Closing out his set Midon honored his earlier stage mate with “Loeke” an African flavored piece, with his friend later joining in to sing and play to receive a standing ovation. For more info go to: kkjz.org.
By Scott Yanow
Pianist, composer and bandleader Abdullah Ibrahim, who is 84, has been a major musician since at least 1959 when he was a member of the Jazz Epistles, the first important jazz group from South Africa (Hugh Masekela was their trumpeter). In 1962 the worsening apartheid situation resulted in him moving to Europe where the following year he was sponsored on a record date by Duke Ellington. Since moving to New York in 1965, he has led many groups that perform his originals which are inspired by folk music and memories of South Africa, Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk.
Abdullah Ibrahim had not appeared in Los Angeles for quite some time. His performance for the Jazz Bakery at the Moss Theater featured his Ekaya Septet which also included Cleave Guyton Jr on alto, flute and piccolo, tenor-saxophonist Lance Bryant, baritonist Marshall McDonald, trombonist Andrae Murchison, Anoah Jackson on bass and cello, and drummer Will Terrill. Ibrahim mostly played gentle piano, starting off the set with ten minutes of thoughtful reveries. He did not speak to the audience at all and did not always play behind the other soloists but Ibrahim directed the proceedings with a quiet dignity. The music was consistently picturesque, sometimes tightly arranged, included tone colors worthy of Ellington, and contained its share of wit (with Bryant at one point quoting “The Pink Panther”). Guyton was particularly impressive on piccolo, trombonist Murchison displayed a boppish style reminiscent of J.J. Johnson, baritonist McDonald was always inventive, Bryant on tenor had a commanding presence, and Jackson’s occasional periods on cello were impressive. Ibrahim was at his best during a tribute to Thelonious Monk in which he quoted a variety of tunes in his own style.
By Chris Walker
It was a very special evening when harmonica player extraordinaire Grégoire Maret and genius keyboardist Kenny Werner came together for —Requiem for a Heavyweight!—Tribute to TootsThielemans. The concert was at the Moss Theatre as part of the Jazz Bakery’s Movable Feat series. Maret who has worked with David Sanborn, Cassandra Wilson, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, Kurt Elling, Jacky Terrasson and many others often got the called when master harmonica player Thielemans who died in 2016 wasn’t available. Werner, on the other hand over the years worked with the legend many times in a variety of settings. Overall, Maret and Werner were very knowledgeable in regards to Thielemans and perfect musicians for the tribute.
The duo began playing “Days of Wine And Roses” with Maret beautifully soloing and Werner taking a more divergent and abstract, yet tasteful course. “The Dolphin” by lesser-known Brazilian composer Luis Essa followed and was remarkably rendered. “All Blues” was one of Thielemans’ favorites to play and Maret arranged a slightly elongated and relaxed version that was interesting and stimulating. Another of the legend’s picks was Jobims’ “Chega de Saudade (No More Blues)” and “Wave” that were pleasingly more upbeat than the previous selections as the duo elegantly interacted.
Werner between numbers mentioned that Thielemans’ enjoyed playing songs by vocalists, which led to keyboard strings tinged ballad “All The Way” that Frank Sinatra sang. In the same vein was “I Remember April” with the harmonica player and keyboardist
adroitly interweaving. The pianist talked about Thielemans range of genres and noted Jaco Pastorius’ music among them leading to intriguing “Three Views of a Secret.” Additionally, Jacque Brel’s “Je T’Aime” by the duo was romantic and captivating to draw strong response. During the remaining moments of the engagement the harmonica icon’s “Bluesette” was showcased, along with keyboard string aided “What a Wonderful World.”
by Scott Yanow
Stan Kenton was a charismatic figure, a bandleader who gained the love and respect of his sidemen and those who enjoyed his music through his personality, sincerity and sense of purpose. In addition to leading a series of top big bands, contributing arrangements and playing piano, Kenton made major contributions to jazz and American music that are still felt today in at least three areas.
Maturing during the swing era when big bands primarily played for dancing audiences, Kenton had a different goal in mind than swinging like Count Basie. He wanted to have an orchestra that performed adventurous music primarily for audiences who quietly sat down and listened, just like they did at classical concerts. In addition to employing top-notch musicians, he wanted to premiere the works of major young arranger-composers, introducing challenging music that brought aspects of modern classical music into a jazz setting. He achieved that goal, separating jazz from dancing and jazz orchestras from commercial elements.
The Stan Kenton Orchestra, particularly during 1943-64, was an important step in the early careers of a long list of young jazz artists who later became top jazz artists and studio players, many on the West Coast. An incomplete list of his most significant alumni, some of whom were fairly unknown when he hired them, includes trumpeters Buddy Childers, Conte Candoli, Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, Ernie Royal, Sam Noto, Stu Williamson, Al Porcino, Jack Sheldon, Rolf Ericson, Steve Huffsteter, Marvin Stamm, Mike Price, Tom Harrell, Mike Vax, Tim Hagans and Clay Jenkins, trombonists Kai Winding, Milt Bernhart, Frank Rosolino, and Carl Fontana, altoists Art Pepper, Bud Shank, Lee Konitz, Lennie Niehaus, Dick Meldonian, Charlie Mariano and Gabe Baltazar, tenors Vido Musso, Bob Cooper, Bill Holman, Richie Kamuca, Zoot Sims, and Bill Perkins, baritonist Pepper Adams, guitarists Laurindo Almeida and Sal Salvador, bassists Howard Rumsey, Ed Safranski and Max Bennett, drummers Shelly Manne, Frankie Capp, Stan Levey, Mel Lewis, John Van Ohlen and Peter Erskine, and singers Anita O’Day, June Christy and Chris Connor, not to mention arrangers Pete Rugolo, Gene Roland, Bob Graettinger, Bill Russo, Bill Holman, Johnny Richards, Hank Levy, Dee Barton, Willie Maiden and Ken Hanna.
The third area in which Kenton had a major impact on music was in jazz education. In the 1950s, very few colleges or high schools had jazz education programs or stage bands. By the 1970s, they were everywhere. Kenton was a very significant force in getting jazz into the schools through clinics and band camps, which is why there are a countless number of college and high school big bands today that sound like they are relatives of Kenton’s orchestra, 40 years after his death.
Stanley Newcomb Kenton was born on December 15, 1911 in Wichita, Kansas. His family moved several times and, by the time he was 13, he lived in Los Angeles where he grew up. Originally self-taught on the piano although he later had some lessons, Kenton first heard jazz through the records of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. His piano playing would be strongly influenced by Hines into the 1950s although without Hines’ time-defying breaks.
He began playing in public when he was 16 and, after graduating from high school in 1930, spent the next decade performing in a wide variety of settings. In 1936 he joined the Gus Arnheim Orchestra, making his recording debut on 12 selections cut by the swing band the following year, taking a few short solos. In 1938 he was a member of tenor-saxophonist Vido Musso’s short lived band and he also worked with the NBC House Band. In the meantime, Kenton dreamed of having his own orchestra and he wrote a set of arrangements in his spare time. By the spring of 1940, he was rehearsing with a saxophone section and a rhythm section, playing some of his charts. Eventually three trumpets and two trombones were added, he cut some audition records (first was “Etude For Saxophones” on Nov. 1, 1940) and then spent the summer of 1941 heading the new Stan Kenton Orchestra at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa Beach, California. This was the first of the nine big bands that he led in his career.
Kenton’s orchestra in the summer of 1941was a conventional 14-piece big band with five brass, five reeds and a four-piece rhythm section. While most of the musicians remained obscure the lineup included trumpeter Chico Alvarez, Red Dorris on tenor and vocals, baritonist Bob Gioga (the only musician to be in all of Kenton’s bands during the first decade) and bassist Howard Rumsey who, in organizing bands for the Lighthouse Café starting in 1949, was the first of Kenton’s alumni to make an impact on the West Coast jazz scene. The leader provided most of the arrangements. The music, while generally swinging, had denser chord voicings than the usual charts of the time. Kenton’s love for the sound of Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra was also felt.
A radio broadcast from July 25, 1941 is the earliest documentation of Kenton’s famous theme “Artistry In Rhythm.” The Kenton Orchestra built up a following in Southern California and was signed by the Decca label, resulting in nine titles (including “Reed Rapture” and “Taboo”) recorded at two sessions. None were hits and a period of struggle followed. The band (which also recorded an extensive series of radio transcriptions) traveled east but few in New York had heard of them, they did not always satisfy the dancers who attended their performances, and there were an increasing number of personnel changes.
The second Stan Kenton Orchestra, which started with only five musicians (counting the leader) from the first one, had a good break and a bad one in 1943. The latter came about when Kenton accepted an offer to accompany Bob Hope in his USO shows and radio broadcasts. It sounded like a good idea at first, but Hope was the star and Kenton’s band only had a chance to play an occasional number. By the end of 1944, Les Brown (who cared more about keeping his orchestra working than blazing new musical paths) had succeeded Kenton.
The good break was a great one, signing with the Capitol label. Kenton would be with Capitol for 25 years, and his recordings gave him a constant national presence. The first Capitol session, on Nov. 19, 1943, included a hit with “Eager Beaver” and the official recording of “Artistry In Rhythm.” Gradually during 1944-46, Stan Kenton became a major success and the sound of his band became solidified. While tenor-saxophonist Stan Getz and singer Anita O’Day (who had a solid seller with 1944’s “And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine”) passed through the band, the most important new member was arranger Pete Rugolo. Building on Kenton’s ideas and original sound, Rugolo arranged most of the band’s book during 1946-47, a period when the ensemble was referred to as the Artistry Orchestra.
Kenton loved screaming trumpets, big-toned tenors, brassy trombones, and complex arrangements; swinging was always secondary to him. With trumpeters Ray Wetzel and Buddy Childers, trombonist Kai Winding (succeeded by Milt Bernhart), tenor Vido Musso (plus the cool-toned Bob Cooper), guitarist Laurindo Almeida, bassist Ed Safranski and drummer Shelly Manne, he got the sound that he wanted. The always-appealing singer June Christy gave him a few hits (such as “Tampico” and “Across The Alley From the Alamo”) that made it possible for his large band to survive during a period when most other jazz orchestras were breaking up. By the fall of 1947, Kenton’s band had grown to 19 pieces with five trumpets, five trombones (counting a bass trombone), five reeds and a four-piece rhythm section not to mention Ms. Christy. The group introduced such pieces as “Southern Scandal,” “Opus In Pastels,” “Intermission Riff,” “Collaboration,” “Interlude,” and “Concerto To End All Concertos,” and reinvented “The Peanut Vendor.” Kenton competed with Woody Herman as the most popular big band in jazz, playing what was called “progressive jazz,” and he was also one of the first (slightly predating Dizzy Gillespie) to use Latin percussion (often Jack Costanzo on bongos) in his band.
The limited-edition seven-CD set The Complete Capitol Studio Stan Kenton 1943-47 (Mosaic) covers all of Kenton’s recordings from that era while the four-CD Retrospective (Capitol) gives one a fine overview of Kenton’s 35 years with Capitol. The recording strike of 1948 kept the band out of the studios for the full year although the two-CD set At The Hollywood Bowl 1948 (Sounds of Yester Year) from June 12 lets one hear this Kenton orchestra at its height and also near its unexpected end. In an exercise of poor timing, an exhausted Stan Kenton broke up his big band in late-1948, about the time that the recording strike was ending.
After a quiet 1949, Stan Kenton put together his third and most ambitious orchestra, called Innovations In Modern Music. It was a crazy idea that worked artistically if not commercially. Fighting the trend against big bands, Kenton and Pete Rugolo organized a 40-piece concert orchestra that not only had five trumpets (including Maynard Ferguson, Shorty Rogers, and Childers), five trombones, two French horns, tuba, five saxophonists (with Bud Shank, Art Pepper and Bob Cooper), Almeida, Manne, and Christy, but 16 strings. The arrangements were sometimes forbidding but innovative, displaying a wide variety of emotions, tone colors and sounds. One can hear this for themselves on the two-CD Capitol set The Innovations Orchestra, the Hep label’s Carnegie Hall Oct. ’51, and other live recordings from small labels. There was an occasional swing number (often by Shorty Rogers) and June Christy’s vocals were cheerful, but much of the music was dense and intense. Of the arrangers, which included Bill Russo and Johnny Richards along with Rugolo, none was more eccentric and radical than Bob Graettinger. His often-atonal works for Kenton (dating from 1947-53) can be heard on City Of Glass (Capitol).
But even with Stan Kenton’s fame, there was no way that this venture was going to pay for itself during its two tours of 1950-51, and he formed his fourth band, a 19-piece unit with ten brass, five reeds and four rhythm. The group in mid-1951 included Ferguson, Rogers, Alvarez, Bernhart, Shank, Pepper and Manne, but it would gradually evolve into the most swinging band of Kenton’s career, his New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm Orchestra. By the fall of 1952 his band, which recorded one classic album (New Concepts Of Artistry In Rhythm), was featuring trumpeter Conte Candoli, trombonist Frank Rosolino, altoist Lee Konitz, tenor-saxophonist Richie Kamuca and guitarist Sal Salvador as its main soloists with drummer Stan Levey driving the ensembles.
There was a tug-of-war in the band that was split between the arranging talents of Bill Russo and Bill Holman. Russo’s writing was inspired by classical music and Kenton’s Innovations Orchestra while Holman’s charts (which were championed by most of the musicians) swung like a modern Count Basie. All of the Holman and Russo arrangements Kenton recorded in the studio, including New Concepts, are on the limited-edition four CD Mosaic box The Compete Capitol Recordings of The Holman And Russo Charts.
One can trace this band’s development in a remarkable series of weekly radio broadcasts, Concerts In Miniature, that date from Apr. 5, 1952 to Nov. 3, 1953. With Kenton as a genial and witty host, the orchestra was featured at its best performing both the Russo and Holman arrangements. All of the broadcasts (the later ones have Zoot Sims succeeding Kamuca and Chris Connor as the band’s singer) have been reissued by Sounds of Yester Year (that label’s releases are distributed by www.cityhallrecords.com) on 24 CDs, a must for the true Stan Kenton collector and a perfect memorial to a super band. Other worthy Sounds Of Yester Year live CDs by the 1953 band include Man Of Music, It’s The Talk Of The Town, Live At The Blue Note, no less than three CDs from a Feb. 19, 1953 concert (At The Armory, Eugene, Oregon, Vols. 1-3), and the double-CD Live In Munich 1953. Also from the band’s successful visit to Europe are Concert In Weisbaden (Astral Jazz) and the European Tour – 1953 (Artistry).
But suddenly it all ended. Kenton had been driving the band mercilessly and, after a serious car accident on Nov. 10, 1953 (which luckily had no fatalities), the bandleader pushed his orchestra to fulfill engagements. Many of the star musicians chose instead to leave and the fourth band was no more.
During 1954-60, Kenton’s fifth orchestra swung well while also featuring more adventurous writing that focused on the trademark heavy sound identified with Kenton. Although it lacked the star power of the previous band, it had such key players as trumpeters Sam Noto and Al Porcino (who played lead), trombonist Carl Fontana, altoist-arranger Lennie Niehaus, altoist Charlie Mariano, Bill Perkins on tenor, and drummer Mel Lewis. Kenton’s wife of the time Ann Richards was their singer. Among their Capitol recordings were Contemporary Concepts, Sketches On Standards, Cuban Fire (a classic arranged by Johnny Richards), and some surprising easy-listening albums including Stan Kenton With Voices and Portraits With Strings. Of the live recordings (all from Sounds Of Yester Year), At Ernst Merck Halle and Live In Stockholm document Kenton’s 1956 tour of Europe, Swinging In San Francisco 1956 is a set dominated by standards, and Dance Date 1958 and Live At Humbolt State College show how Kenton’s band sounded in the late 1950s.
Stan Kenton, who was the host of a summer television series Music ’55, helped champion The Four Freshmen, and had reunions with June Christy (including making an album with her, Duet), in 1959 organized the first of a countless number of band clinics which essentially launched the jazz education movement.
By 1961 Kenton was leading his sixth orchestra, a group that included not only five trumpeters (with Marvin Stamm), five trombones (two of whom were on bass trombone), five reeds (including altoist Gabe Baltazar and two baritonists), and a three piece rhythm section, but four mellophonium players. The obscure instrument, which was difficult to keep in tune but had a warm sound that Kenton liked, was part of the band during 1961-63. The best recordings of this orchestra were the superlative West Side Story, Adventures In Time (written by Johnny Richards), and Adventures In Blues (with Gene Roland supplying the arrangements). The band also recorded a real oddity, Stan Kenton/Tex Ritter, that found it accompanying the veteran country singer.
The orchestra broke up by the end of 1963 and Kenton took time off from music. He devised and created a Neophonic Orchestra which could be thought of as an extension of his 1950 Innovations Orchestra but with some important differences. It was a part-time orchestra that just performed 11 special concerts in Los Angeles during 1965-68, debuting potentially major works by composers. There was no attempt to take this ensemble on the road. Eventually audiences lost interest in the dry music but it was a realization of one of Kenton’s dreams.
In September 1964 Stan Kenton recorded what could be considered his last major album, Kenton Plays Wagner, with a specially assembled orchestra. After that, to raise money, he put together what started out as a part-time orchestra (number. 7) for occasional tours and recordings but became more active by 1967. From that point on, the Stan Kenton Orchestra differed from the earlier ones in a significant way. Rather than acting as a stepping stone for many players who were on their way to becoming important contributors to jazz, for most of the musicians in the 1967-79 bands, being part of the Stan Kenton Orchestra was the highpoint of their career. The majority of the sidemen either became educators, local players or eventually dropped out of music altogether. Only a relatively few (trumpeters Mike Price and Mike Vax, altoist Ray Reed, and drummers John Van Ohlen and Peter Erskine) had major careers.
The Capitol contract ended after a few final commercial albums (including ones of the music of Hair and Finian’s Rainbow) were unsatisfying and did not sell. Kenton left Capitol and started his own Creative World label. His company’s Lps included both reissues of many of Kenton’s earlier recordings and the release of his albums of the 1970s. In 1970 Kenton organized his eighth and final band. There were only a handful of recognizable names (other than Vax and Von Ohlen) but the unit had plenty of spirit and the young musicians were pleased to be on the road with Kenton. Hank Levy, Ken Hanna and Willie Maiden supplied many of the arrangements. The enthusiastic band is in good form on a trio of albums from 1970-72: Live At Redlands University, Live At Brigham Young University and Live At Butler University.
Kenton began to struggle with health problems in 1971 but his road band continued on, performing at an endless series of concerts, clinics and colleges. Among his last albums are Stan Kenton Plays Chicago, Fire, Fury & Fun, Kenton ’76, and Journey Into Capricorn.
On May 22, 1977, Stan Kenton suffered a fall that resulted in serious head injuries; he would never recover. His band stayed on the road (under trombonist Dick Shearer’s leadership) for several more months before breaking up. Kenton made one last road tour in early 1978 but he was in such bad physical and mental shape that it was considered pretty sad by those who witnessed the concerts.
Stan Kenton passed away on August 25, 1979 at the age of 67, having been a major force in music for 40 years. His vast musical career is perfectly summed up in the definitive Kenton biography, This Is An Orchestra by Michael Sparke (University Of North Texas Press, 2010). The legacy of Stan Kenton lives on today in the playing of countless modern jazz orchestras, college and high school stage bands, and in the spirit of progressive jazz.