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Big Band Report

Maynard Ferguson: Gonna Fly Now

By Published: September 5, 2006
Depressing as was the news about Maynard, life must move on, and so did we, flying first to Phoenix and then making the scenic two-hour drive northward to Prescott, home of the sixth annual Jazz Summit. This year's three-day event was of course dedicated to Maynard's memory—and to that of pianist / educator Clare Willey whose vision gave rise to the annual gathering and to whom this and future Jazz Summits are dedicated.

This was to be a special time for Betty and me, as we were staying at Jeanne Watkins' cozy Pleasant Street bed and breakfast with one of the weekend's stellar performers, pianist Bob Florence, his lovely wife Evie, and newlyweds Norm and Faye Tompach. When Summit organizer and former Stan Kenton lead trumpeter Mike Vax was a young man, Norm was his teacher. He and Mike remain close friends and are among the mainsprings of the Oakland-based nonprofit group, Friends of Big Band Jazz. Norm and Faye, who attended high school together some years ago (how's that for putting it delicately, Norm?), had been married for a week when they arrived in Prescott. Another fascinating story, but one we'll save for a more auspicious time.

The Summit, as usual an explicitly spontaneous and laid-back affair, began at noon Friday with a free outdoor concert at Prescott's picturesque Courthouse Square, with a handful of the weekend's headliners on hand to help jump-start the charming series of events. Ace trombonist Scott Whitfield, in from California, was among a group that included Vax, local trumpeter Steve Annibale, guitarist Jack Petersen, pianist Les Czimber, bassist Bob Lashier and drummer Larry Kantor. Later, they were joined by Florence, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, drummer Gary Hobbs and vocalist Blaise Lantana, music director at radio station KJZZ in Phoenix, who also served as the Summit's co-emcee with Al McCoy, the voice of the Phoenix Suns NBA team.

Highlights included Bird's "Au Privave," Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" (vocal by Whitfield), Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Meditation," Lantana's vocal (to her own lyrics) on Gerry Mulligan's "Bernie's Tune," and Stamm and the group's more-than-appropriate salute to Maynard, "There Will Never Be Another You."

Friday evening's concert at the Elks Theatre was preceded by the annual fund-raising dinner at the Hassayampa Inn for Friends of Big Band Jazz, a sold-out event that helped offset a mildly disappointing turnout for the concert. Less than half the seats in the Elks auditorium were filled, and even more of them were empty following a first set that ran for more than two hours. As a result, not many were there to hear and enjoy Florence's spine-tingling solo medley, "In The Wee Small Hours Of The Morning" and "When I Fall in Love," which raised the curtain after intermission. Their loss.

The concert was opened by the Sedona Jazz on the Rocks Youth Band (whose pianist, Nick Day, was quite impressive), and the noontime performers were augmented by bassists Dwight Kilian and Tom Winker and tenor saxophonist Tony Vacca, whose smooth and swinging approach was invariably pleasing to the ears. The concert ended with everyone onstage for a fiery rendition of Juan Tizol's "Perdido."

Saturday morning was free (Norm and I listened to some CDs I'd brought along), while the afternoon was devoted to brief performances at the Ruth Street Theatre by high-school bands followed by clinics and workshops with the professionals. Taking part were groups from Chino Valley and Prescott high schools (Prescott's No. 1 and No. 2 bands) and the splendid Ellington ensemble from Tucson's Arizona Jazz Academy, ably directed by Doug Tidaback.

AJA was especially admirable on its two numbers, Ellington's "Such Sweet Thunder" and Fletcher Henderson's driving arrangement of the standard "Avalon." Not to disparage anyone else, but the AJA boasts an excellent trumpeter/trombonist in James Williams. If he can read as well as he plays, Williams seems destined to enhance some topnotch college band in the near future. I'd planned to write something more about the AJA after seeing them in Prescott last August; I'll have to redress that oversight this year.

After supper, we returned to the Ruth Street Theatre for the second of the weekend's concerts, this one opened by Prescott High School's Jazz Band One with guest soloists Vax, Whitfield and Vacca. The newcomers included Tidaback (trombone), pianist Joel Robin, drummer Cleve Huff and vocalist Delphine Cortez, while the highlights encompassed Florence's duets with Vacca ("You Don't Know What Love Is") and Stamm ("I'm Old Fashioned," "The Shadow Of Your Smile"), Vax's emotional tribute to Ferguson ("Danny Boy"), Whitfield's vocal on "Bye Bye Blackbird," Cortez's crowd-pleasing set, and group performances of "You And The Night And The Music" and the quickly improvised "Ruth Street Theatre Blues." The concert drew a much larger (but no more enthusiastic) audience than Friday's event at the Elks Theatre.

As Betty and I had to leave before noon on Sunday to catch our flight back to Albuquerque, we chose the earlier of two Jazz Brunches at the Hassayampa Inn. As we'd had trouble tearing ourselves away from Bob, Evie, Norm and Faye at the B&B, we arrived fifteen minutes late and were told that even though we had tickets, there were no seats available. It didn't look promising, but after several minutes of hemming, hawing and scrambling, two empty places were found and we were seated for breakfast. In the background I could hear a tenor saxophonist wailing on "Lester Leaps In." Not Tony Vacca, I surmised, so I turned to see who it was. None other than the great Dave Pell!

What an unexpected and pleasant surprise. Dave said he had been in Prescott for the entire weekend but was making his first appearance at the Festival. I was happy we'd chosen the early brunch, as Dave, now eighty-one years young, was driving back to southern California after the set. "I'm playing in a golf tournament tomorrow morning," he said. As for the trip, "it's only a ten-CD drive," he shrugged. Oh, to have only half of the man's energy! You couldn't pay me enough to drive from Prescott to Albuquerque.

One more thing happened at the Brunch that is worth noting, even though it means more to me (and especially to my brother Tom) than anyone else. While I was chatting with the AZA's Doug Tidaback, he mentioned that one of the new guys in town (Tucson) had played trumpet for about nineteen years with the Airmen of Note. Even before asking the name I had a hunch what the answer would be: Kenny Smukal.

That may not mean much to you, but for years my brother Tom (we both grew up in D.C.) has been telling me that Kenny is in his eyes the greatest trumpeter ever to play with the AON, and it was a pleasure to meet him and (I hope) put him in touch with Tom, who as this is being written is alive and well and preparing for a rendezvous with Hurricane (Tropical Storm?) Ernesto in Tequesta, Florida. When I told Tom I'd met Kenny Smukal it almost blew him away before Ernesto had a chance to do likewise.

After the Brunch, and a few parting words with Scott Whitfield, one of the classiest guys you'll ever meet, we took our leave and headed back to Phoenix, our spirits uplifted by three days of wonderful memories and our minds buoyed by the thought that this need not be our last visit to Prescott. Alas, we had to miss that afternoon's closing concert with vocalist Margo Reed but one can't have everything. It was a marvelous weekend, and we look forward to more of the same.


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