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Big Band Report

Granddad Does Dallas

By Published: April 15, 2006
The sixth annual University of North Texas Jazz Festival was my first.

I may make it an annual event, too.

The Festival, held March 31-April 2 in the north Dallas suburb of Addison, welcomed 53 middle school, high school and college big bands, combos and vocal groups from seventeen states, each of whom presented a brief program of its music, was judged by professional musicians/educators, tutored by clinicians, and invited to attend master classes conducted by UNT alumni and faculty. The middle school and high school groups performed on Friday, the college ensembles on Saturday. At the end of each day, one big band, small combo and vocal group was chosen to appear at an evening concert whose headliners were the renowned North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band (Friday), the Roy Hargrove Quintet and the Yellowjackets (Saturday).

The daily events were free and open to the public. There was an admission charge for the evening concerts and a Sunday morning Jazz Brunch that included a question-and-answer session with Hargrove and members of the Yellowjackets and a concert by several of the musicians who had served as judges.

Besides performing and trading thoughts and ideas with others, the students had an opportunity to enjoy parts of the remarkable collection of films and videos shown each day by noted Jazz scholar Hal Miller from Albany, New York, whose library of more than 9,000 rare and vintage items serves as a primary resource of Jazz video footage for television networks and independent production companies and was used extensively by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns for his television series Jazz.

Even with such a large number of groups taking part, the Festival was extremely well-run, with almost every event and performance starting on time and no one feeling rushed or slighted, thanks in large measure to the earnest efforts of Festival manager Craig Marshall, music director Bob Morgan and artistic director Neil Slater (who triples as director of the UNT One O'Clock Band and chairman of the school's Division of Jazz Studies). As I'm basically a big-band guy, I spent all day Friday and Saturday listening to the middle school, high school and college bands, which were appraised by UNT alumni drummer Steve Houghton and trumpeter Marvin Stamm and mentored by clinicians Slater, saxophonist Jim Riggs, and trumpeters Jay Saunders and Mike Steinel. The small combos were evaluated by bassist Lou Fischer and saxophonist Howie Smith, the vocal groups by trumpeter/vocalist Ron McCurdy and vocalist Sunny Wilkinson.

At the awards ceremonies on Friday and Saturday afternoon, Morgan stressed that music is not competitive, and that the groups chosen to perform that evening weren't necessarily the "best but those whom the judges had singled out as having performed to the best of their ability. If that sounds convoluted, I guess you had to be there. In any event, if that was the judges' purpose in singling out which middle/high school and college bands would play at the evening concerts, they got it absolutely right. There was little doubt in my mind that the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts from Houston would be performing on Saturday evening, although I rated Houston's Willowridge High School a close second, followed by Hoover (Alabama) High School and Martin High from Arlington, Texas.

I was surprised by Saturday's choice, the University of Central Oklahoma, even though director Lee Rucker has a fine band, as I had three other ensembles rated ahead of UCO and three more at least even. But as I don't know what the judges were looking for, it's hard to reprove their decision, and there's no doubt that the UCO band played to its potential (as did most of the others). Among those who most impressed me were the University of North Florida, Texas Christian University and Brookhaven College from Farmers Branch, Texas, with UCO, the universities of Kansas and Oklahoma and Shenandoah University from Winchester, Virginia, not far behind.

Besides performing on Friday evening, the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts received the Leon Breeden Award for high school big bands, named for the second director of the UNT Jazz Studies program (1959-81), while the University of Central Oklahoma earned the M.E. "Gene Hall Award for university or community college big bands. Dr. Hall was the founding director of the UNT Jazz program and served as its director from 1947-58.

The Floyd "Fessor Graham Award for high school or middle school vocal groups, named for the founder/director of UNT's legendary Aces of Collegeland dance band, was won by the ensemble from Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California, while another excellent California group, the Dave Brubeck Institute Quintet from Stockton, earned the inaugural Rich Matteson Award for college/university combos, which honors the acclaimed educator who taught at UNT from 1973-86 and later founded the outstanding Jazz Studies program at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Others chosen to perform at the evening concerts were the Jazz combo from the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) School of the Arts (Friday) and vocal Jazz ensemble from Texas Southern University (Saturday). Outstanding soloist awards were given to vocalist Marcus Stewart (Columbia Basin College, Pasco, Washington), pianist Bernard Pierre (Texas Southern University, Houston), tenor saxophonist Sophie Faught (Indiana University, Bloomington), guitarist Grant Goldstein (University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond) and pianist Josh Bowlus (University of North Florida, Jacksonville). Other soloists who caught my ear included tenor saxophonist Corey Lara (Willowridge HS), tenor Brent Nabors and trombonist Patrice French (Texas Southern) and Alex Nguyen (North Florida) whose muted trumpet was featured all the way on a deliciously slow-cooked version of "Mean to Me.

One of the hardest things to gauge at any festival is its overall spirit, that is to say, the level of enthusiasm and satisfaction, which from my perspective was quite high. Of course, any time spent watching and listening to young musicians play Jazz is time well spent, and the kick is built-in, so I was happy as a clam. But everyone else seemed to be having a great time as well, including those who weren't chosen to perform at the evening concerts. They seemed pleased to be there and to know they had done the best they could—and among the big bands I heard, that was certainly true.

The Hotel Intercontinental, where the Festival was held, is first-class, and its staff was eager to please. The evening performances were splendid, with the UNT Jazz Singers, directed by Paris Rutherford, and UNT Jazz Faculty Combo also on the Friday evening program with the One O'Clock Lab Band and the three high school groups. Members of the Faculty Combo were alto saxophonist Riggs, trumpeter Steinel, tenor saxophonist John Murphy, trombonist Tony Baker, guitarist Fred Hamilton, pianist Stefan Karlsson, bassist Lynn Seaton, drummer Ed Soph and vocalist Rosana Eckert. Their delightful program ended with Hamilton's soul-stirring "Blues for Baghdad.

The Saturday evening concert marked a homecoming of sorts for Hargrove who studied music at the Booker T. Washington School for the Visual and Performing Arts in Dallas. The current edition of the Yellowjackets, one of the country's most popular fusion groups, consists of tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer, pianist Russell Ferrante, bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Marcus Baylor. The 'Jackets and Hargrove Quintet gave crowd-pleasing performances, as did the group of adjudicators at the Sunday breakfast. I heard only the first of its numbers, a swinging rendition of the standard "Alone Together (terrific solos by Stamm and alto Howie Smith) before leaving for the airport.

The tentative dates for next year's UNT Jazz Festival are March 30-April 1. If the welcome mat's still out I'd love to be there, if only to leave a wake-up call for my Dallas buddy Bob Dain who was going this year but forgot that it was being held until he read an article in Sunday's paper. Bob, I'll see you May 25 at Ken Poston's Encores in Big Band Jazz at the Sheraton LAX Four Points Hotel, or whatever it's called. You will be there, won't you...?

Cooking with the Count

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