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Big Band Report

The AZ Jazz Academy: Onward And Upward

By Published: November 6, 2006
The Arizona Jazz Academy, a meeting place for some two hundred aspiring jazz musicians of high school and middle school age, is modestly housed on the third and upper floor of the First Baptist Church Educational Building at the corner of 5th Street and 6th Avenue in downtown Tucson. After climbing two flights of stairs and entering the rather nondescript work area, one's initial impression is that the young people from more than thirty schools who gather there, mostly on weekends, to learn the intricacies of jazz performance and improvisation deserve better than this.

But after meeting director Doug Tidaback and listening to him speak enthusiastically about the great strides forward the Academy has made in less than four years, that perception starts to change. "Actually, he says, "this is the best facility we've ever had, pointing out that there are three rehearsal rooms, a control room for recording, a library for charts and other materials, storage rooms, and offices for Tidaback, director of advertising/promotions Rodney Burton, and other staff.

Unfortunately, the quarters are only temporary, as the church intends to sell the property, and that has been the story of the AJA's life since it was born in 2003. Its first home has been reduced to a hole in the ground about a block or so away; its second was made uninhabitable by a landlord who went out of his way to abort the Academy's four-year lease after only one year; and its third, the community music-based Prime School, was forced to close its doors at the end of 2005 owing to a lack of financial support.

Tidaback, a trombonist who arrived in Tucson five years ago to conduct one high school and one middle school band in addition to his temporary teaching duties at the University of Arizona, takes it all in stride. He's confident, he says, that the Academy can find a new home as more people in Tucson become aware that it is an important and perhaps indispensable part of the city's cultural/educational scene. After all, he says, a little more than three years ago there was no AJA, and look how far it has come since then. Tidaback was actually hired by Ed Ulman, then director of the Tucson Jazz Society. In January 2003, when the TJS discontinued its education program and Tidaback's contract with UA had ended, he was given an opportunity by parents who wanted their children to continue learning music to establish an organization devoted entirely to jazz education.

When Tidaback was named director there were two big bands, one high school, the other middle school. Now there are eight, four high school and four middle school, plus ten smaller combos that include Latin and vocal jazz. Besides serving as director, Tidaback teaches, and has assembled a staff of professionals that has included at various times Malik Alkabir, Mike Kuhn, Akila Fields, Ken Tittlebaugh, Dan Bigler, Rick Padilla, Tony Franks, Rob Boone, Greg Armstrong, Les Baxter, Neaman Lyles, Sam Eagon, Scott Black, James Williams, Jeff Fritel, Joel Gottschalk and Don Noddingham. The Academy is funded through tuitions, performances (more than a hundred this year in Tucson alone) and sponsorship donations from civic-minded Tucsonians.

Tidaback has given the young musicians plenty of chances to prove themselves, taking the various groups to jazz festivals in Arizona and elsewhere, and last July the AJA's top two big bands, Ellington and Basie, visited Europe, appearing at prestigious jazz festivals in Montreux and Geneva, Switzerland; Paris and Vienne, France; and San Sebastian, Vittoria, Segovia and Madrid, Spain. A second trip, to Italy, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands, is planned for summer 2007. At this year's Fullerton (CA) Jazz Festival, ten of the Academy's eleven groups earned first-place honors, the other a second-place, while AJA soloists won the top seven awards among high school entrants (in all, the Academy received fifty-two awards). The Ellington band has taken part for the past two years in the Prescott (AZ) Jazz Summit.

As if that weren't enough, a number of the students perform on weekends at local "partner venues that include hotels, restaurants and other eating places as part of a Jazz Apprentice program through which students earned $32,000 in 2005-06 to offset tuition costs, and the Academy sponsors a Jazz in the Schools program in which ten local schools presently take part. A Jazz-a-Thon is held in May, a Christmas party/concert in December. Jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis, a regular visitor from Chicago, has called the AJA "the most creative school jazz program that I know of, and it has received high praise as well from Lennie Niehaus, Bob Florence and others.

In spite of the many obstacles it has encountered, the Academy continues to move forward, and Tidaback's passion for the music and the young musicians who come there to learn is contagious. At a time when it's easy to despair about the future of jazz, the Arizona Jazz Academy provides an oasis of hope in a largely barren desert—which is entirely appropriate, as Tidaback, his staff and students have led a nomadic life to this point. Should they ever find a more permanent place to call home, there's no telling how far they may go.

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