Mark Masters: Honor Thy Fathers

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We are in debt to these artists. To Konitz for his courage to have a sound all his own. To Knepper for having been one of the most identifiable trombonists in jazz. And for Grachan, for being himself these past 40 years and enduring... They've left us a gift.
By Mark Masters

Back in 1999, The American Jazz Institute embarked on a journey that has somehow lasted and continues to thrive at a small private college located in Southern California. The jazz program at Claremont McKenna College has three components. The first of which is a series of concerts that brings prominent jazz artists to the campus. Second, these artists - while they are on campus - sit with students (and me) to participate in our oral history program which documents their life story and is housed in the research library on campus. And last but not least, the artist(s) spends time with the jazz history class and engages students during a question-and-answer session.

The most remarkable thing to come out of this is the fact that there is now another performance venue for jazz musicians in Southern California and since the concerts are free we are able to program music that which would often times not otherwise be available to the public. One of my personal goals, with regard to the program at Claremont, is to continue to seek out and program music and musicians that deserve to be heard regardless of how they say it. Our programming reflects a philosophy that some degree of repertory is necessary and desirable, but we should not lose sight of the fact that it is the individual - the singular voice - which makes the whole experience meaningful.

Over the last several years, we have conceived recording projects that bring these singular voices together with new orchestral treatments of their compositional contributions. The Jimmy Knepper Songbook (Focus) featured Knepper himself in a large ensemble playing new orchestrations of his music. Priestess (Capri) is a showcase for Billy Harper and his music and One Day With Lee (also on Capri) has Konitz blowing on his tunes - and tunes associated with him - along with a 14-piece ensemble. A similar project that sheds new light on a jazz master is The Clifford Brown Project (Capri), which was recorded in 2002. While Brownie is an icon of the trumpet and his music obviously is widely recorded, our belief was that the ideal recording to honor his gifts was still in the making. We brought together Tim Hagans (trumpet), Gary Smulyan (baritone sax), Joe La Barbera (drums) and Jack Montrose (sax) as featured soloists and a trumpet quartet to pay homage to the brilliant compositions that were Brownie's solos. While assigning the featured roll to Hagans, who mind you is not a Brownie clone, we used the music as a springboard for something new, something unexpected.

A significant problem that musicians face is the difficulty of staying current in the public's (as well as the jazz journalist's) eye. Without tangible recorded proof of what a musician is currently playing he can drift from the limelight. One such musician is trombonist and composer Grachan Moncur III. Over the past two decades, Grachan has been teaching as well as doing some playing, though he has not had a record to speak of in many, many years. However, as a player - and especially composer - Grachan is a singular voice. Thanks recently to Mosaic Records, his two long out of print Blue Note recordings ( Evolution and Some Other Stuff ), as well as his classic '60s recordings with Jackie McLean, have been reissued on CD (his French recordings on BYG also have thankfully become currently available). It occurred to us that Grachan's music deserved to be heard in an orchestral context. He and I spent some time together on the phone during the past year and the result is Exploration: The Grachan Moncur III Octet (due out this fall on Capri). With his input I wrote orchestrations on seven of his tunes and while his music is both inside and out - it proved to be a timeless framework for the individual's improvisations.

We are in debt to these artists. To Konitz for his courage to have a sound all his own. To Knepper for having been one of the most identifiable trombonists in jazz. And for Grachan, for being himself these past 40 years and enduring. We've been touched by these direct descendents of the music. They've left us a gift.

Honor thy fathers.

Mark Masters is an inventive and prolific composer/arranger from Southern California. He organized his first ensemble in the early '80s, and since the late '90s has been a guest lecturer at Claremont McKenna College in California, where he has been involved with their History of Jazz class, overseeing the oral history project and has produced and written for the ongoing series of concerts that has brought such notable artists as Sam Rivers, Mark Turner, Lee Konitz, Ray Drummond, Steve Kuhn, Peter Erskine, John La Porta and Henry Grimes to the college.

The American Jazz Institute is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization whose goal is to support charitable endeavors that promote and advance jazz music. For more information, visit www.amjazzin.com .

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