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Back Roads Beat

The Inaugural Nebraska Jazz Festival

By Published: April 4, 2006
As a fan of the obscure, the phrase "first-ever Nebraska Jazz Festival" is an irresistible lure.

Surely no state is this sheltered, not even this flatland where Cornhuskers are still ignorant about the forward pass. Lincoln may be no more than a rest stop for road trips to real places such as Boulder, Colo., but it seems plenty of players in those halftime marching bands are familiar with the art of improvisation.

I made travel plans for the March 17-18 event almost immediately after hearing about it, compelling evidence of jazz's power to convey open mindedness. It's not like I, as a native Coloradan, was hoping to expose them as a bunch of Norah Jones-worshipping hicks simply because Big Red butchered the CU Buffalos on national TV during a critical game last year.

The Nebraska Jazz Festival, it turns out, is far from the first of its kind in the state. In fact, organizers didn't realize at first they scheduled it during the same weekend as another festival in Omaha 60 miles away. It also coincided with St. Patrick's Day on opening night, but the lineup seemed unlikely to draw the green beer crowd in quantity.

Student performances and workshops each day were followed by an evening concert mixing local players with four guest musicians now doing much of their work elsewhere. The best moments featured collages of individual technique meshing on originals, plus some fresh rearrangements of standards. Plenty of players obviously possess talent and the shows were professionally staged - no tacky folk-pop or cowpoke tunes to hang a punchline on.

"The Lincoln public schools did a festival for a number of years, but they had some cutback and (for) other reasons...there was a kind of a void," said Dean Haist, the festival's director. "There are some other jazz festivals in area, but many of them are not noncompetitive. We're trying to make it an educational thing where the emphasis is not so much on the ratings."

But there's also no question the first-time event had plenty of rough spots. The evening concerts were performed in a nearly empty auditorium, with about 50 listeners the first night and 75 for the featured Nebraska Jazz Orchestra concert the following day. Organizers hoping for 20 school bands got about half that many to participate. Many of the hands-on workshops with musicians were cancelled due to lack of participants as school players were often there for little more than their stage performance.

"I think it's more of a local flavor for that first year for those students to work with music educators, to really give them information they can take back and be excited about what they're doing," Haist said.

An overhead hallway comment by an event worker summarized the optimistic view well, with words to the effect of it being great simply to be a part of the inaugural event and that next year's is expected to be twice as large. Haist said the conflict with the Omaha festival also will be avoided next year and, in time, hopes the Lincoln event can rival one west of the border in Greeley, Colo.

"I think they get 100 or more schools that come in," he said.

Flat And Behind The Beat

The state's name is an Oto Indian word meaning "flat water." The capital is named after the 16th president. Promotional literature for the city of 230,000 reaches a little, citing 2003 publications that ranked it fourth among small cities for business friendliness and eighth for "well being of children." It also claims the city, 50 miles from the eastern border in a 460-mile-wide state, is "centrally located," hopefully just the taking of some creative geographic liberties.

Attractions include the National Museum of Roller Skating, Historic Haymaker District and the all-important football team that is the center of many residents' lives (the Lincoln Capitals of the National Indoor Football League - not to be confused with the Arena Football League, which actually has a network television contract and PlayStation video game deal). Agriculture is obviously a key element of the economy, including the 600 acre popcorn farm Lincoln Snacks uses to make Fiddle Faddle and Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

Nebraska's jazz history pales in comparison to neighbors like Kansas City, according to an essay by the nonprofit Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, but large "territory bands" going from town to town during the early to mid 20th century are a colorful part of its heritage. Noteworthy names include "Ukulele" Joe Thomas, Jack Teagarden, Charlie "Big" Green and Nat Towles Omaha. Saxophonist Preston Love, in a 1976 interview, said his hometown was "like the Triple A clubs of minor league baseball," with worthy musicians able to move on and play with the likes of Count Basie and Charlie Parker in Kansas City.

"During the late thirties many people even considered (Towles') band better than Count Basie's at the time," the site notes. "They claimed the more musically complicated arrangements were better performed than the 'rougher' Basie band...Towles hurt his chances of real national recognition because he feared the limelight would then steal away his best players."

The rise of rock and television during the 1950s, combined with waning interest in big band, led to the disappearance of territory bands and since then "jazz in Nebraska has been harder to find than just going to the local ballroom on a Saturday night," NET writes at its site. But it also reports a recent resurgence in swing dancing, with dance nights in towns statewide. Also, Omaha is home to at least one chart-topping contemporary instrumentalist in Mannheim Steamroller's Chip Davis, even if he isn't exactly in the jazz mainstream.

Scanning the radio failed to turn up any jazz, even of the lite variety. Instead, a lot of conservative talk shows, farming discussions and a sportscaster urging people not to look down on a local basketball team for being in the NIT instead of NCAA tournament. Among the tourist fliers for a "wildlife safari" and space museum (both of which turn out to be in the same state park) are some for a temporary bilingual Latin Jazz multimedia exhibit at an Omaha museum.

Several regular jazz gigs are listed in local newspapers, including a "Monday Night Big Band" and "Thursday Night Jazz" series at P.O. Pears saloon in Lincoln - although they were cancelled the week of the festival due to spring break at the nearby University Of Nebraska. Scheduling favors the early-to-rise crowd. Gigs typically start around 7 or 8 p.m. and end by 10 p.m., well before some bands even get started in other places.

There aren't any full-blown multiday jazz festivals listed in the annual calendar of events, although Lincoln and Omaha feature a series of outdoor jazz concerts during the summer. Scheduled performers at this year's "Jazz In June" series in Lincoln include saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, trombonist Rick Trolsen and guitarist Corey Christiansen.

For many players, making a full-time living means branching out in types of work and location. Joey Gulizia, a featured drummer at the festival, said he spends about half of his time on the road doing programs for students of various ages (plus some senior citizens) during the school year, with jazz camps and gigs keeping him busy much of the summer. It's not the glamor tour - he crashes in places like spare retirement center rooms or the house of someone at the school where he's teaching.

"I've got a neat little program where I talk with students about different types of musical instruments, and talk with them about that and the science of sound," he said. For improvisation, especially with younger students, he focuses on simple concepts such as blues scales since "with many of those kids it's the first time they're played music without looking at music."

"By the end of a 45-minute class we're all doing a 12-bars blues jam on PVC pipes and African percussion," Gulizia said.

Brian Grasmick, a trumpet player who's also a featured festival guest, said the diversity of work paid off - literally - as a student and during two decades of performing in Nebraska. He "played in a lot of Mickey Mouse bands...on the road, making money playing with old guys" he learned from, then started playing on cruise ships for about half of the year before moving to New Orleans for a couple of years. He returns to Nebraska a couple of times a year, including a five-day stint to teach a summer camp.

"The interesting thing about it is there was such an opportunity," said Grasmick, who now lives in Las Vegas, where his wife is the lead performer in a show about menopause. "I paid my way through school by giging. Not many people can say that."

Still, if one is really looking for the hotbed of activity in the region, it turns out to be across the border in Iowa.

Saxophonist David Sharp, who wrote most of the original compositions performed at the festival, said he makes the four-hour drive from southeast Iowa to his former hometown of Nebraska regularly as part of a busy travel schedule. He said where he lives now is rural, but cities such as Des Moines and Cedar Rapids are more activities than big cities in Nebraska.

"In the '70s (the schools) just started to get really competitive," he said. "It's just kind of the culture and it's something that's unique to Iowa. But the bad thing is lots of directors and kids get burned out."

That doesn't mean lax standards in Cornhusker land - the guest players played a musical tug-of-war with one group of students when assessing their performance of "Blue Monk." Grasmick said they were rushing at one point and needed to be laid back because "this is the first thing people hear in the tune (and) it sets the tone for the whole thing." Sharp, on the other hand, felt the drummer was too laid back with a rhythm that - almost imperceptibly - lagged behind the ensemble.

"Sometimes that thousandth of a second is just enough," he said.

Few of the students interviewed said they are likely to pursue jazz - or music - as a career. Many showed solid knowledge about styles of well-known players on their instrument of choice, but musical tastes unsurprisingly ran toward rock and rap rather than swing (or honky-tonk).

"I'm not much of a jazz player," said Ryan Beach, 17, a senior at Lincoln High School, told Haist during a workshop for trumpet players. "I can play the notes on the page, but it's just not my thing."

Confronting and overcoming weaknesses is crucial as a musician, Haist responded, adding he isn't the most talented player in the area, but makes a living and gets hired ahead of better performers because of his versatility.

"Nowadays it's hard to specialize and be successful as a trumpet player," he said. "There are a lot of good trumpet players in this area, probably more than many for this size, but because they lack versatility they're not likely to get called."

The best ten players in Lincoln obviously aren't on the same level as the best ten in New York City, but Grasmick said some of the local talent could certainly succeed there.

"There's some (such as) Dean who could go anywhere and work," he said.

Little Audience On The Prairie

It's hard to call any show in a mostly empty auditorium a rousing success.

Musicians say it doesn't affect them, yet they also claim to feed off the energy of a roaring audience. The nine-member band at Friday night's performance had all the parts properly assembled and there were some notable moments, but little to elevate it above the ordinary.

The four-horns-up-front assembly ensured aggressive lead voicings for songs needing them, ranging from the opening "Caravan" to Maceo Parker's "The Chicken" at the conclusion. Solos were evenly divided among subgroups during songs and usually long enough to allow development, executed with varying degrees of originality. Emcee Ed Love, director of the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra, gave even the most inexperienced listeners a road map to follow by introducing the songs, their themes and featured soloists beforehand. It's something worth doing more often, despite the risk of seeming condescending to those familiar with the material.

The best performance of the evening might have been Love's original "Little Wieners," a dense, free-blowing burner that stood out from most of the evening's more predictable fare. The difference was notable among players like pianist Tom Harvill - who kept his hands close, notes low and volume levels even all evening - applying those techniques in rapid bursts of next-level energy. Drummer Greg Ahl also took extra advantage of the looser setting, shifting and adjusting from contemporary straight-ahead to complex fusion-like patterns throughout.

Hearing bassist Andy Hall's startlingly sharp and aggressive vocals on "I Love Being Here With You This Evening" was also a highlight, since it was almost a mirror image of his scholarly acoustic playing. Ahl and Gulizia delivered one of the more energetic passages during Sharp's "Precipice" as Ahl's drums cut a low rumble under Gulizia's articulations, focusing on specific instruments rather than all at once, followed by the players shifting roles.

But much of the performance failed to make a lasting impression. Guitarist Peter Bouffard was more notable for his effects-drenched tone than phrasing, sounding like a calliope synth at times and a funk organ at others. Sharp was a pro on alto with a smooth tone tending toward the higher registers, but seemed to stay in conservative territory with solos that seemed to evolve from an idea or two rather than progressing through a range of them. Earlie Braggs proved a solid mid-range vocalist during "Georgia On My Mind" and the glissading notes of his trombone hinted at strong ability that made one anticipate something exceptional, but ultimately the excitement didn't materilize.

Some of the mood may have been due to the middling response from the crowd, which amounted to little in a mostly empty auditorium. Love, at the end of the 90-minute show, said the best of the festival was still to come.

"We hope to see you tomorrow night," he said. "It will be much louder from tonight."

Well, yes and no.

Seeing nearly as many empty seats Saturday night somehow again came as a disappointment, due to the buildup in expectations that the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra was a stronger draw. Having placed more faith in that than a rather pedestrian song lineup, it was less than a promising start.

Much like Friday, it was an ordinary show with its moments.

A welcome change of pace from typical big band came during the second song, Wayne Shorter's "Mahjong," as Grasmick played a long, buzzing opening on a didgeridoo while Gulizia went through a progression of bird calls, chimes, wood blocks and other noisemakers from his extensive collection. Sharp's arrangement of Freddie Hubbard's "Red Clay" was also a winner, with a dominant bass vamp and percussion flourishes setting a progressive fusion pace played mostly by a subset of the ensemble. Tenor saxophonist Paul Haar stood out on that song and others with very quick fingerings and just the right amount of breathing space, mostly assembling thoughtful ideas in a standard range with a few well-chosen explorations of the higher registers. "Duke Ellington's Sound Of Love," a Charles Mingus tune, featured Sharp standing at center stage while leading his arrangement with intense lyrical embellishments, reminiscent of David Sanborn's better moments on Pearls.

But having some of the loudest crowd reaction come during the introduction of a pedestrian "Take The 'A' Train" was disheartening, as was having some potentially memorable moments cut short. Gulizia and Ahl started into what sounded like another worthy collaboration, but cut out well before it really got going - I inadvertently broke audience etiquette by uttering a disparaging remark aloud, thankfully unheard since I was several rows from anyone in my seat toward the back.

The lively and not overly deep "Up For The Count," a Sharp original with a "Route 66" feel, wrapped up the evening. It was loose and the players seemed to enjoy the final flurry, but giving lots of them solo time meant none were able to develop much during it. They got a standing ovation from most of the crowd, but there wasn't much energy behind it - again there was no encore and the audience left without much mingling with the musicians putting away their gear on stage. Visiting musicians didn't linger long in Lincoln either. The first flakes of a storm that dumped two feet of snow in some areas were falling as the concert ended and would continue for the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, Haist has a sunny outlook for the future. The coming year is the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra's 30th anniversary, with guest artists such as Karrin Allyson scheduled. He notes he's been involved with the group since it was just a university band, but over time it has evolved into a professional ensemble that has played in places such as Britain and the Montreux Jazz Festival. Given time, he thinks the festival has similar potential.

"We're really looking long term," he said. "We hoping to turn this into something that will grow and be attended by the better jazz groups in the state."

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