Jack Kleinsinger's Highlights in Jazz
“ If I am just going to book a group that people can go hear in a club, (A) Where is the fun in that? and (B) What am I bringing to it? ”
In jazz, the classic genres endure; Dixieland, swing and bop. For over three decades, the place in NYC to hear them in a creatively produced format has been "Highlights in Jazz". Series founder and producer, Jack Kleinsinger, is passionate in defense of his format. "If I am just going to book a group that people can go hear in a club, (A) Where is the fun in that? and (B) What am I bringing to it?" Because of this, inventive thematic shows, as opposed to a group playing its latest CD, have come to be the series hallmark. If a set group does play, Kleinsinger augments the lineup with additional musicians yielding a one of a kind evening for both performer and listener. At each concert, a "surprise" guest always joins the on stage musicians for memorable jams and the ever present musicians in the audience often make it onstage as well. Over the years, many such evenings stand out in Kleinsinger's memory. "Stan Getz was a guy that showed up to see Buddy Rich's band and we persuaded him to borrow somebody's horn and get up and play...Earl Hines...had come to see Eubie Blake...Eubie persuaded him (to play) from the stage. That was quite a night because Claude Hopkins was there also...people got to hear Eubie Blake, Claude Hopkins and Earl Hines in one night. It doesn't get much better than that."
Childhood visits with his dad to 2nd Avenue's Central Plaza where he saw swing clarinetists Peanuts Hucko and Sol Yaged and stride pianist Willie the Lion Smith gave Kleinsinger an early taste for this music. In 1973 while serving as assistant attorney general for the State of New York, but still a jazz club denizen, Kleinsinger heeded the advice of clarinetist Phil Bodner and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and the series began. He fondly remembers those early concerts, "Phil Bodner was a surprise guest (the first) and the headliners were (saxophonists) Zoot Sims and Al Cohn...I couldn't afford a piano...so my early shows used to have guitar, bass, and drum rhythm sections....I finally bit the bullet and rented a piano and we got Dick Hyman." To this day, Hyman continues to be a regular "Highlights in Jazz" artist. A peek at the musicians who have played the series during the past 31 years reveals a veritable jazz hall of fame. Cab Calloway, Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, McCoy Tyner, Earl Hines, Louis Bellson, Buddy Rich, Kenny Burrell and scores of others have participated as either headliners or surprise guests, making "Highlights" NYC's longest running jazz concert series.
Musicians return because they appreciate the opportunity to play with people outside their regular circle and in formats that they may not otherwise get a chance to experience. One regular is pianist McCoy Tyner who, according to Kleinsinger, loves to play the "standards". "We have used McCoy three times. Every time it is magnificent to hear what he does with Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hart...things that are outside his Coltrane/Tyner repertoire...I will book him as a solo pianist and do a program like...American Songbook...where he gets to play Gershwin and Ellington. He enjoys it, my audience enjoys it and as a producer, I feel I am doing something a little different." Intriguing combinations seen at past "Highlights" shows include MJQ drummer Connie Kay with the great mainstream/swing cornetist Ruby Braff and flugelhorn player Clark Terry with klezmer clarinetist Andy Statman and blues singer Carrie Smith. The top young players also use "Highlights" to continue to feed off the mainstream. For example, trumpeter Terell Stafford, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon , guitarist Russell Malone, tenor man Eric Alexander and pianists Benny Green and Ted Rosenthal, have all made appearances.
The spring 2004 series that begins on February 19th promises to continue the tradition in a big way. This 31st anniversary show features the venerable Clark Terry in a group format with Don Friedman on piano. In classic Kleinsinger style, trombonist/conch shell artist Steve Turre and pianist Monty Alexander will be added to the mix. With another surprise guest scheduled, Kleinsinger is right when he says, "It's not going to be what people are going to hear if they go to hear Clark Terry at the Village Vanguard." March brings an evening of percussion with a Latin twist as drummer Louie Bellson has assembled an all star quintet that includes pianist Derek Smith and trumpet player Cecil Bridgewater. They will be joined by conga master Ray Barretto's sextet and drummer Chico Hamilton. Other scheduled shows feature the elder statesman of the Jones brothers, pianist Hank, in an intimate setting with Bucky Pizzarelli, Howard Alden and a surprise third guitarist. A salute to pianist/vocalist Barbara Carroll rounds out the series and will feature at least nine other musicians including pianist Bill Charlap's trio, drummer/vocalist Grady Tate and female vocalists Jackie Cain and Daryl Sherman.