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Big Band Report

A Letter from Los Angeles

By Published: October 10, 2004
October 6. 20004

Dear Reader,

Nearly forty-eight hours have elapsed since I returned to Albuquerque from Los Angeles, and my feet have barely touched the ground. It's not often that one has the chance to spend a long weekend walking among — and even conversing with — honest-to-goodness giants. But thanks to impresario Ken Poston and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, I was given that chance at Stratospheric, an electrifying four-day alumni reunion and all-star tribute to the incomparable "monarch of the high c's," trumpeter / bandleader Maynard Ferguson. While the world at large may not look on Maynard, Slide Hampton, Lanny Morgan, Bill Holman, Don Menza, Bobby Shew, Eddie Bert, Don Rader, Mike Abene, Dick Hafer and the many others who took part in the event as giants, I do. To me, they are giants because they have so greatly enriched my life that I am unable to summarize in mere words the enormous impact their towering presence has had, as expressed through the uplifting spirit and power of America's music, Jazz.

Some of the giants who came to pay their respects to "the boss" — specifically those with trumpet in hand — are monsters too, and their earsplitting high notes ricocheted and reverberated through and around the California Ballroom at the LAX Four Points Sheraton, all but stripping the paint from the walls in a series of breathtaking exchanges the likes of which have seldom been heard anywhere. Standing ovations were not the exception but the norm as Shew, Rader, Stan Mark, Dennis Noday, Wayne Bergeron, Bob Summers, Scott Englebright, Roger Ingram, Adolfo Acosta, John Chudoba, Mike Bogart, Pete DiSiena and the incredible Eric Miyashiro engaged in hand-to-horn combat and showed no mercy as the audience of roughly three hundred-fifty enthusiasts roared its approval.

Maynard was there too, a seventy-six-year-old wellspring of energy who attended many of the concerts, took part in several of the eight panel discussions and herded the latest edition of his nine-member Big Bop Nouveau through its paces in Sunday evening's grand finale. The high notes no longer make dogs cringe and run for cover as in the old days, but Maynard showed on a number of occasions that there's more than a liter of fuel left in the tank. Personally, he remains every inch the showman, snapping off clever one-liners that left his audience howling and gasping for breath.

But I am getting somewhat ahead of myself. Perhaps we should start at the beginning.

The four-day homecoming got under way at 10 o'clock Thursday morning, September 30, with the first of three films documenting various landmarks in Maynard's career. This one, entitled "The '50s," included silent home movies shot by drummer Shelly Manne and trombonist Eddie Bert; an appearance on Ed Sullivan's television show Toast of the Town on which Maynard plays "Maynard Ferguson," the dazzling Shorty Rogers composition written especially for him; two excerpts from the Dean Martin / Jerry Lewis TV show; another from a television production of Cole Porter's Anything Goes (with Maynard's silhouette representing the leading character in "Blow Gabriel Blow"). Afterward, most of us in the audience strolled outside to see and hear the first of four noontime concerts held poolside by college bands, this one showcasing the Cal State-Fullerton ensemble directed by Chuck Tumlinson. The band was quite good, boasting an excellent trumpet section and strong soloists, as were the stylish charts by Tadd Dameron, Neal Hefti, Bob Mintzer, Don Sebesky, Quincy Jones, Mike Abene and Alan Baylock.

Next up was the first of eight panels, canvassing the early Charlie Barnet / Stan Kenton years with moderator Kevin Seeley and panelists Bert and saxophonist Dick Hafer. Buddy Childers and Pete Rugolo, who were scheduled to appear, couldn't make it (nor could saxophonist Herb Geller who was to lead his own trio and was greatly missed). One of the best stories concerned the Barnet band's late-night stop at a rural diner where Charlie noticed one of his tunes was on the juke box. "Hey, that's one of our songs," he said to the proprietor. "I'm Charlie Barnet." "Yeah, and I'm Franklin D. Roosevelt," the skeptical owner replied. Whereupon Barnet went outside to the bus, where the band members were sleeping, and yelled, "Okay, everybody out!" He promptly marched the sleepy sidemen inside the diner where they played "Cherokee" for the startled proprietor.

Herb Wong moderated a discussion entitled "On the Inside" with panelists Bob Birk, Bill Monot, Ed Sargent, Linda Maertz, Matt Keller and Dominic Camardella, after which Ken Poston did the same for "The West Coast Years" with panelists Howard Rumsey, Bill Holman and Dave Pell. Holman had to sprint to the Ballroom to prepare for the next concert, which featured his blue-chip big band and was taped for later CD release on Graham Carter's Jazzed Media label. I can't remember all that was played (and it was quite difficult to take notes in the semi-darkness) but these were Holman originals (including one, "Woodrow," dedicated to Woody Herman) and that's an ironclad guarantee of excellence. Look for the CD early next year.

After supper, it was back to the ballroom for Alumni Concert No. 1, 1949-56, with a big band led by Shew (who was featured on Holman's wonderful arrangement of "What's New?") and including such superb Rogers charts as "Short Stop," "Jolly Rogers," "Infinity Promenade," "Viva Prado" and "Blues for Brando," wrapping up with Bob Graettinger's cutting-edge composition, "A Trumpet," featuring Roger Ingram's skyscraping volleys. Set two, "Around the Horn: The EmArcy Years," conducted by Holman, opened with a pair of Rugolo charts including "My Mother's Eyes." Russ Garcia penned "A Smoggy Day," Jimmy Giuffre "Four Others" (not the same tune written for the Herman band's trombone section). Holman contributed "Egad! Martha," "Dancing Nightly" and "Pork Pie," and arranged guitarist Herb Ellis' blues, "The Country Boy." The pianist for these concerts, as he was for most of those during the event, was Maynard's talented son-in-law, Christian Jacob, with Trey Henry, another ubiquitous presence, on bass, Dave Tull on drums. I glanced at my watch. 11:15 p.m., time to get some much-needed sleep.

Friday began with a second film, "The 1960s," which showcased Maynard at the zenith of his powers playing with various big bands and smaller groups, and was followed by another panel, "Blue Birdland," moderated by Herb Wong with panelists Eddie Bert and Anthony Ortega. Afterward, it was back outside to the pool for a noontime concert by the L.A. Valley Community College Jazz Ensemble directed by Woody James who took us back to the Big Band Era with Barnet's "Skyliner" and a few other well-known tunes before delving into more contemporary fare. The weather, as on Thursday, was partly sunny and rather cool with a brisk wind occasionally blowing music off the stands.

Another highlight among highlights followed, as the Birdland Dream Band from the mid-'50s took center stage in the Ballroom for a program that included "My Funny Valentine," "Give Me the Simple Life," Ernie Wilkins' lush arrangement of "The Lamp Is Low," three Don Sebesky originals — "Fan It, Janet," "And We Listened" and "Humbug" — the Jazz standard "Moten Swing" (spotlighting Bert and Ortega), "Bye Bye Blackbird," Benny Golson's "Starfire" and a pair of handsome charts by Willie Maiden, "Tenderly" and "Back in the Satellite Again." Alto Lanny Morgan was featured on a tune that has had a number of names ("Geller's Cellar," "Glenn's Den"), this time titled "Morgan's Organ" (which gave rise to another droll one-liner that can't be repeated here).

Panel No. 4, "Frame for the Blues: The Roulette Years," truly was an all-star affair with Shew, Abene, Morgan, Rader, Menza, Hampton, Ortega and drummer Tony Inzalaco sharing the podium. I should mention here that every one of the panels was a laugh-filled affair in which everyone shared fond and perceptive memories of Maynard and life on the road. Several of the panelists might well have made a decent living as standup comics had they not been so musically gifted. I wish I could remember even half of the side-splitting anecdotes that were shared, much to the delight of those in the San Diego Room.

The Slide Hampton / Lanny Morgan Quintet was next up in the Ballroom, and dazzled its audience with charming renditions of such favorites as "Green Dolphin Street," "Laura" and Bird's "Donna Lee." Abene was at the piano with Henry on bass, Inzalaco at the drum kit. After a break, the brawny Don Menza Big Band took center stage, introducing an almost-new rhythm section (Abene, piano; Chris Conner, bass; Mark Waggoner, guitar; Michael Stephans, drums) and roaring through a well-designed set of standards and originals that was also taped for a Jazzed Media CD. Menza, the fiery tenor shark who came out of "retirement" to make this gig, was no less than brilliant every time he stood up to solo, whether with his own band or any of the others with whom he sat in. Lanny Morgan was featured again on a tune named simply "Morgan," Shew on Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss" before the session ended at a feverish pace with Menza's take on Richard Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg" which he named "The Meisterswinger of Nuremberg."

That should have been enough for one day, but the Ballroom was filled again by nine o'clock that evening to hear Abene and the great Slide Hampton co-lead another rip-roaring alumni big band through "The Roulette / Cameo Years." To many (including the writer) this was the Golden Age of Maynard Ferguson, and the ensemble brought it vividly to life again via such magnificent charts as Hampton's stunning "Frame for the Blues," the gospel-tinged "Got the Spirit," a super-charged version of "Stella by Starlight," "The Fox," "Straight Out," "One for Otis," "Born to Be Blue," "Knarf" and Golson's "Whisper Not," ending with the seventy-year-old Morgan's jaw-dropping solo on Ray Noble's "Cherokee," every inch the equal of the one he had recorded roughly forty-five years ago. Even though my head was spinning, I realized that I was only halfway to the finish line.

There was no film on Saturday, so the day began with a fifth panel discussion, this one titled "Eli's Comin': The British Years" with panelists Ernie Garside, Brian Smith and Bob Efford, all of whom had played important roles during Maynard's years in Great Britain. Garside, a trumpeter and pub owner, became Maynard's manager and right arm during that time while saxophonists Smith and Efford played key roles on the band. Garside's extended remarks led to another sharp one-liner from Efford, who observed that "Ernie's the only guy I know who can begin his remarks with 'I really don't have much to say' and then take half an hour to say it."

A full string section was assembled in the Ballroom for the next concert, "The Ballad Style," featuring trumpeters Shew, Ingram, Acosta and DiSiena playing "If She Walked Into My Life," "Somewhere," "Girl Talk," "The Sound of Silence" and other ballads. If the audience was lulled by this, it was quickly jolted awake at poolside by the explosive Fullerton College Jazz Ensemble, which opened its set with Pete Meyers' definitive arrangement of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" and unveiled a superlative lead trumpeter, Joe Harris. Director Greg Woll's ensemble was joined on the last two numbers, "Lover Man" and "I Like You" (from Mr Rogers' Neighborhood ) by faculty member / alto saxophonist Bruce Babad.

After lunch, those who had registered for the full four days were able to attend a rehearsal in the California Ballroom by Maynard's Big Bop Nouveau, which turned out to be a fairly accurate preview of the Sunday evening concert, even down to the quips and one-liners. This was followed by Panel No. 6, "Got the Spirit: The 1970s," moderated by author Peter Levinson and including panelists Stan Mark, Bob Summers, Jay Chattaway, Dennis Noday and Nick Lane. Again, the banter was delightful and the gags and asides were flying thick and fast. The late-afternoon concert, "MF Horn: The London Years," introduced trumpeters Miyashiro and Bogart, saxophonists Smith, Jerry Pinter, Christopher Hollyday and Denis DiBlasio with Jacob, piano; Henry, bass; and the irrepressible Ray Brinker, drums. Songs from the period included "MacArthur Park," "Country Road," "The Summer Knows," "Spinning Wheel," the theme from the movie Shaft, "Like a Bridge Over Troubled Waters" and the ever-popular "Hey Jude."

Chattaway and Miyashiro co-directed that evening's alumni concert, "The '70s and '80s," which encompassed crisp solos by Miyashiro, Bergeron, Summers and Noday, among others, on charts that included "Nice 'n Juicy," "Maria" (featuring Noday's soaring trumpet), "Chameleon," "Superbone Meets the Bad Man," "Conquistador" and Maynard's best-selling hit, "Rocky."

I skipped Film No. 3, "The '80s and '90s," on Sunday morning (I plead exhaustion) but caught the seventh panel, "High Voltage: The 1980s," with moderator Jake Sommers from (more about them next month) and panelists Lane, DiBlasio, Bergeron, Brinker, Mark, pianist / composer Matt Harris and trombonist Alex Iles. DiBlasio — who offered the best MF impression of anyone on the various panels — aptly summed up the spirit of the event when he said, "This is like a Star Trek convention and Maynard is Captain Kirk!" That remark carried us poolside again for the last performance by a college band, this time from Cal State-Northridge. Harris, who usually directs, is on sabbatical but placed the ensemble in the capable hands of Gary Pratt who brought out the best in everyone. Another topnotch band with solid section work and strong solos, especially from trumpeter Chase Sanborn and the baritone saxophonist, whose full name I didn't catch but I think the last name is Ing.

Speaking of top-drawer bands, trumpeter Bergeron's ensemble was next onstage in the Ballroom, and as if the band weren't likable enough on its own, Wayne made doubly sure to please by including a number of charts by Tom Kubis, one of the country's — the world's — foremost big-band composer / arrangers. Among the Kubis originals were "Hospital Blues," "The Rhythm Method" and "Pain for Wayne." Andy Martin's nimble trombone was front and center on a snappy reading of "Caravan." Four more trumpeters — Gary Grant, Warren Luening, Rick Baptist, Deb Wagner — made their "debuts" with the band whose all-star trombone section was comprised of Martin, Iles, Charlie Loper and bass Bill Reichenbach, with Dan Higgins, Jeff Driskill, Bill Liston, Rusty Higgins and Greg Huckins in the reed section, Alan Pasqua on piano, Henry on bass, Brinker on drums. Again, everyone got his / her money's worth and no one left the Ballroom without a smile.

The Christian Jacob Trio (Henry, bass; Brinker, drums) drew a relatively modest audience but those of us who showed up were treated to an excellent set that included a number of songs from the trio's new album, Styne & Mine (standards by Jule Styne, originals by Jacob) and a surprise visit by Maynard who sat in on one blues. The early-evening concert, "Trumpet Summit," was preceded by the last panel session, "Big Bop Nouveau: The 1990s," moderated by Ken Borgers with panelists Ingram, Jacob, Englebright, Chudoba, Acosta, Bogart, Tull and Hollyday. There's no better way to describe the Trumpet Summit than spectacular, as a baker's dozen of the world's most renowned Jazz trumpeters squared off in a series of scintillating two-horn duels before everyone sculpted sixteen-bar solos on Maynard's shuffling theme, "Blue Birdland." Summers and Rader were showcased on "Just Friends," Mark and Noday on Miles Davis' "Four," Englebright and Chudoba on an unnamed blues, DiSiena and Ingram on "Bye Bye Blackbird," King and Acosta on "My Foolish Heart," Shew and Miyashiro on a scorching rendition of "Perdido." Miyashiro has a device attached to his horn that enables him, with a touch of his finger, to alternate between open and muted — a chorus open, another muted, sixteen bars open, sixteen muted, eight open, eight muted, four open, four muted, two open, two muted, single note open, single muted. The audience, needless to say, went absolutely berserk. In fact, every two-horn challenge, to the best of my recollection, received a well-deserved standing ovation. These gentlemen were smoking! At the end of the set, Poston, who used to play some trumpet before pursuing other avenues, was named an "honorary trumpet player" while Maynard was inducted into the American Jazz Hall of Fame, co-sponsored by the New Jersey Jazz Society and the Jazz program at Rutgers University.

Quite naturally, the only thing that could reasonably compete with the Trumpet Summit would be Maynard himself with Big Bop Nouveau, and following the dinner break on they came, introducing the leader with "Blue Birdland" and launching immediately into a swinging rendition of Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing." Maynard's new BBN includes trumpeters Patrick Hession (lead), Ken Edwards and Keith Fiala, trombonist / music director Reggie Watkins, saxophonists Doug Stone and Julio Monterrey, drummer Stockton Helbing and the Korean husband-and-wife team of pianist Ji Young Lee and bassist Eun Chang Choi. "Aren't they a lovely couple?" Maynard remarked. "Mr. and Mrs. . . . whatever." The band's set included "Ain't No Sunshine," "The Girl from Ipanema," "But Beautiful" and a medley of Maynard's greatest hits. At that point I ducked out into the hallway for the last time, as my host, Bob Bragonier, having taken a break to see and hear the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, was on his way to pick me up.

I hope, dear reader, that this brief summary, which in no way does justice to the event and what was presented therein, will at least give you an idea of what a marvelous four days the Maynard Ferguson reunion / tribute was. Even though viewing three films, sitting in on eight panel discussions and attending eighteen concerts in four days was rather like running a marathon in August, it was well worth the effort. If I can't thank Ken Poston and the LAJI enough for the time and energy invested in its coordination, Ken couldn't thank Bobby Shew enough for his help in recruiting the musicians and planning the program. Next month I'll write more about the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, which is housed on the campus of Cal State-Long Beach. Poston has been holding similar theme-centered events for more than a dozen years; if you should happen to hear of one, I'd suggest that you make plans to attend, as there really is nothing to equal them, even the widely publicized and heavily promoted Jazz Festivals that are held each year in the U.S. and abroad. The only musicians you'll see are masters, and the only music you'll hear is straight-ahead. That's an unbeatable combination.

Thanks for listening — and until next time, keep swingin'!

~ Jack Bowers

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