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Big Band Report

Jazz in Albuquerque: Down But Not Out

By Published: July 8, 2005
June 23 was hardly a red-letter day for Jazz here in Albuquerque. To be honest, doomsday could be a more apt description, for that was the day on which Ed Ulman, executive director of the New Mexico Jazz Workshop, had to make the "toughest phone call of his life. The recipient of that call, in Tucson, AZ, was saxophonist Bud Shank, and its substance was to let him know that the Bud Shank Jazz Workshop, scheduled for July 17-24 at the University of New Mexico, was being canceled. Needless to say, Bud was about as pleased to hear the news as Ed was to have to deliver it. Just like that, months of hard work and planning were washed down the drain, leaving the NMJW with nothing to show for the effort but a spate of red ink and a number of unhappy campers who'd cleared their busy schedules to serve as Workshop faculty.

What went wrong? That's hard to say, but the agonizing decision to cancel was based purely on economics. Ulman reckoned they'd have to enroll at least 120 students in the Workshop to break even or come close to that; with less than a month to go before Shank and his instructors were due to arrive, the number of enrollments was about halfway there with virtually no chance of going much higher, as everything that could be done to draw students had already been tried. "It was quite disappointing, says Ulman, who had made a pitch for the Workshop at IAJE conferences in Long Beach, CA, and Waco, TX, and sent flyers and literature to schools and educators in a wide area around Albuquerque. "We had one student enroll from Tucson, where Bud lives, and only two from UNM, which was to host the event. That's not going to get it done.

While no one has said so, I suspect that there simply wasn't enough time to organize an event of that size, especially in a place where Jazz is far from the hottest ticket in town. Shank hosted his last Centrum Workshop in Port Townsend, WA, a year ago this month, and the decision to move to Albuquerque following his callous dismissal after twenty-two years as director there wasn't made until several months afterward, toward the end of the year. Ulman, a tireless worker on behalf of Jazz and Jazz education, saw the Workshop as an opportunity to lend the music the sort of visibility and credibility it had never had in Albuquerque, and indeed it could have been. Ulman and a handful of helpers bequeathed their time and resources to the enterprise, but in the end the best efforts of everyone involved weren't enough to make it happen.

Also scrapped was the three-day Southwest Jazz Party, which was to have been held in connection with the Workshop to feature performances at various venues by faculty and students as well as appearances by Jane Bunnett and the Spirits of Havana; quartets led by Shank, trumpeter Bobby Shew, trombonist Steve Turre and vocalist Stephanie Nakasian; and an all-star big band directed by Grammy Award winner Maria Schneider. As all of these events were heavily publicized in local newspapers and magazines, it may take quite some time to restore the Jazz community's loss of credibility. As setbacks go, this one was by no means trivial. The New Mexico Jazz Workshop will no doubt recover, but not anytime soon. However, given the circumstances that existed last year, I'd still say, "Go for it. Success and failure are two sides of a coin, and no one wins or loses without tossing that coin. In theory, bringing the Jazz Workshop to Albuquerque was a great idea; in practice, it proved unworkable, especially in light of the time constraints, but giving it a shot was better than doing nothing. I hope the musicians, who were understandably disheartened, appreciate how much everyone in the Albuquerque Jazz community wanted the initiative to bear fruit, and what a serious setback this is to their hopes and dreams for the future of Jazz in this city.

R.I.P. Tom Talbert

News came while this was being written of the passing at age 80 of composer/arranger/bandleader Tom Talbert, accurately described by Scott Yanow in The All Music Guide to Jazz (3rd edition) as "one of the finest arrangers of the past half century but . . . quite underrated due to the relatively few recordings he has made as a leader. Those he did make, however, are minor classics, beginning with The Tom Talbert Jazz Orchestra 1946-49 and including Bix Duke Fats, Louisiana Suite, Things as They Are, The Warm Café and This Is Living! The sidemen in Talbert's earliest orchestras included pianists Claude Williamson and Dodo Marmarosa and saxophonists Art Pepper, Jack Montrose and Lucky Thompson. I had the pleasure of meeting and later corresponding with Talbert, and his music reflected his personality — unpretentious and genteel. That's not to imply that Talbert's charts didn't swing — they did, and frequently, else he wouldn't have been employed as an arranger for the likes of Claude Thornhill, Johnny Smith, Oscar Pettiford, Don Elliott and others. Among the friends and colleagues who recorded with Talbert over the years are trumpeters Joe Wilder and Bob Summers, trombonist Eddie Bert, saxophonists Lee Callet and Danny Bank, clarinetist Aaron Sachs and guitarist Howard Alden. They'll miss him, as will I.

Harold Arlen: One of the Greats

I learned while reading a Jazz magazine that 2005 is the centenary of the birth of songwriter Harold Arlen, born Hyman Arluck in Buffalo, NY, on February 15, 1905. As a writer, Arlen had nothing and everything to do with Jazz. He wrote popular songs, with a number of lyricists, and while they weren't Jazz to begin with, many have been played by Jazz musicians of all stripes ever since. Little wonder, as the melodies are sublime while the rhythmic and harmonic patterns are as congenial as hand to glove. A partial listing of Arlen's compositions should give you an idea of what I mean by that. Here it is:

Get Happy; Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea; I Got a Right to Sing the Blues; Paper Moon; Stormy Weather; I've Got the World on a String; As Long as I Live; Ill Wind; A Sleeping Bee; Over the Rainbow; Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead; If I Only Had a Brain; Blues in the Night; This Time the Dream's on Me; That Old Black Magic; Hit the Road to Dreamland; My Shining Hour; One for My Baby; Come Rain or Come Shine; When the Sun Comes Out; The Man That Got Away; Last Night When We Were Young; Let's Fall in Love; Hittin' the Bottle; Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe.

As noted, a partial list but one that is nonetheless impressive. Although he's not as well-known as Porter, Berlin, Gershwin, Rodgers and other authors of the Great American Songbook — even some of those who play his music may not know who wrote it — Harold Arlen's body of work has weathered the test of time and stands up well when measured against any of his peers. Music in general, and Jazz in particular, would be much poorer without it.

Manchester Craftsmen's Guild

When I first heard the name Manchester Craftsmen's Guild I thought surely it must be a British union of some sort. Not so. Actually, the MCG is based in Pittsburgh, PA, and one of its components is an arts and music program, one of whose goals is "to preserve, present and promote Jazz. It does this through performances, master classes, internships and recordings. Those who have recorded on the MCG label include Paquito D'Rivera and the United Nation Orchestra, Ivan Lins, the Count Basie Orchestra, Joe Negri, Nancy Wilson, the New York Voices, the Bob Mintzer Big Band with Kurt Elling, Nicole Yarling, Slide Hampton's World of Trombones and, most recently, the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra. The MCG Jazz archives contain more than three hundred CDs of Jazz history by those who represent the past, present and future of the music, while the performance series, one of the country's oldest, is an anchor of Pittsburgh's cultural and community life. All proceeds from MCG Jazz recordings go to help fund the MCG Jazz programs, which carry forward the vision of founder Bill Strickland: "Our lives will be enriched, even transformed, through direct involvement in the making of art and personal exposure to the masters who teach and perform it. For information about MCG Jazz, phone 412-322-1773 or visit the web site.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'!

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