John Fedchock: Dedicated to Clifford Brown
“ Clifford's soloing was impeccable. There hasn't been a trumpeter since that doesn't owe something to Clifford Brown. ”
On October 30, 31 and November 1, 2008, the University of the Arts will hold an exciting symposium and series of concerts dedicated to the memory of the great trumpeter, Clifford Brown. This interview, with trombonist/big band leader John Fedchock, is the second of two interviews conducted in advance of this event, sponsored by the University of the Arts and the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Project, the first being with legendary saxophonist Lou Donaldson.
At the performance, Fedchock will be premiering a new big band composition dedicated to Clifford Brown, featuring the Lars Halle Big Band and trumpeter Jon Barnes.
The Influence of Clifford Brown: Fedchock's New Composition
All About Jazz: How did you first get interested in Clifford Brown and his music? Which of his recordings are your favorites?
John Fedchock: I've been a fan of Clifford Brown since I first heard his recordings back when I was in college. I first picked up a Mercury EmArcy collection called The Quintet (1954), which included many of his most well-known solos and arrangements, including those that became my favorites from the Clifford Brown and Max Roach at Basin Street (Emarcy, 1956) recording. When I went on the road with Woody Herman at age 22, there was a trumpeter on the band named Mark Lewis, who was a Clifford Brown expert with two transcription books out. Hearing him play each night whetted my appetite even further to delve deeper into Clifford's legacy.
AAJ: What do you see as Brown's impact on modern jazz? Did he influence your trombone playing?
JF: Clifford's soloing was impeccable. There hasn't been a trumpeter since that doesn't owe something to Clifford Brown. His playing significantly affected the development and evolution of the modern jazz trumpeter, and in turn, the rest of the jazz world. His playing has affected my trombone playing, if not through specific content, in attention to detail. Every note of Clifford's counted, and every line made sophisticated musical sense. I try to hold myself to that same standard, which is the ultimate challenge.
AAJ: Tell us about the composition you're preparing for the Clifford Brown event in Philadelphia. How did it come about? What is the underlying concept or idea? How is it structured? What is the instrumentation? Is this going to be the premiere performance?
JF: When I was asked to write this piece, the request from those organizing the Symposium was to compose a piece that would be "influenced and informed" by Clifford's music. My first thoughts were of my favorite Clifford tunes, arrangements and solos, and many of those ideas became motifs from which to build the themes and form of the composition. I studied his music intently, and pulled out small ideas from solos and tunes, as well as looking at chord changes to his own tunes and standards he frequently played to better construct a harmonic base that would be similar to a framework that Clifford might choose to solo over.
I also took some ideas from his arrangements and even pulled out some things played by his sidemen, including Sonny Rollins. My goal was to write something original that had a Clifford familiarity about it. Clifford devotees will recognize bits and pieces if they listen carefully, but that's definitely not a prerequisite to enjoying the piece. The instrumentation is a standard big band with 5 saxophones, 5 trumpets, 4 trombones and piano/bass/drums. This performance will be the world premiere.
AAJ: The composition will be performed by the Lars Halle Big Band with [trumpeter] Marcus Belgrave. Did they have any influence on your composing?
JF: I've never worked with Lars' big band, but I have heard a nice CD of his, and have heard some wonderful things from musicians in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area about the band. I know many of the players that will be working with the band, and in some cases have played with them in other contexts. I'm looking forward to working with this band. Marcus Belgrave will be performing earlier in the program that evening, but will not be performing on my piece. The trumpet soloist for my piece will be Jon Barnes, a former student of George Rabbai at Rowan University, and now a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music studying with Scott Wendholt. He's a wonderful player, and I'm sure will give my piece an exciting performance. The piece will also include a tenor sax solo by Victor North, along with some room for Lars at the drums.
AAJ: As the big band performs your work, what would you like them to be striving to express?
JF: To best reflect the spirit of Clifford's music, and execute the piece accurately, the band will need to combine two important elementsprecision and excitement. The piece was written with an overall hard bop concept, but it also gets a bit more modern in spots, so conceptually the band will need to be stylistically informed and musically flexible.
AAJ: Are you going to be present at the performance? Will you aid in rehearsals?
JF: That is all still in the works. My hope is to be at the initial read-through and final rehearsal, to give my thoughts regarding concept and to what we're shooting for stylistically. I also hope to be involved in conducting the piece at the premiere.
About John Fedchock
AAJ: What other composing and arranging have you done?
JF: I went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY to earn a Jazz Masters Degree, and studied arranging with Rayburn Wright. After leaving Eastman, I went on the road with Woody Herman for seven years, where I wrote my first charts. I ended up becoming Woody's musical director and writing most of the arrangements on Herman's very last two Grammy Award-nominated albums 50th Anniversary Tour (Concord, 1986) and Woody's Gold Star (Concord, 1987), which garnered accolades from jazz journalists worldwide. I still maintain a close association with the Herman orchestra, performing with the group on occasion and continuing to add my own compositions and arrangements to the band's library.
After leaving the band I moved to New York City and formed my John Fedchock New York Big Band. We have four albums out on the Reservoir label to date, with the most recent being the 2007 release Up & Running, which was on the charts for 17 weeks, getting up to #5 in the national jazz radio surveys. In 2003, I was honored by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Grammy Award nomination for Best Instrumental Arranging on the band's No Nonsense (2002) CD.
In addition to writing for my own band, I regularly compose commissioned pieces for a variety of professional and educational groups, and have traveled internationally as a guest composer/conductor/soloist. Many of my jazz compositions and arrangements are published by Kendor Music and Walrus Music Publishing.
AAJ: How did you come up as a musiciangive us a brief musical bio from childhood on up to your early days as a professional.
JF: I was born and Raised in Cleveland, Ohio. At nine years-old, I chose the trombone. My very first teacher, from the age of nine all the way up until I was 17 or 18 years old, was Billy Lang who played with Ray Anthony and was a product of the big bands. The first thing he did was to start teaching me scales, and he'd have me play technical studies. Each lesson ended with us playing duets, two part harmony popular tunes, many of them with a swing feel to them which was invaluable because I was sitting next to someone who was interpreting the music correctly. I soon started to get a feel for his phrasing.
When I was about 16, Woody Herman brought his band to my school to play a concert and give a clinic, and that day changed my life because seeing his band made me realize you could still be a jazz musician in this day and age. His band was full of these 25 year-olds, and they were all playing this great music which wasn't just the old nostalgic stuff, but some fresh and exciting new things. That really gave me the drive to practice, get better and maybe some day get good enough to play with a band like that. That became my long term goal, to play with Woody Herman. I knew that was a tough goal to obtain but I knew I wanted to continue with my music. I went to The Ohio State University, and received a bachelors degree in Music Education as well as a bachelors degree in Jazz Studies Performance. My trombone teacher was Joseph Duchi.
I continued to follow Woody's band and every time they were around my area I would go to listen to them. I soon discovered that Woody was getting a lot of his players from the Eastman School of Music, so my next goal was to get into Eastman for grad school. At Eastman, I studied trombone with John Marcellus. He helped a lot with my technique, but he would also draw parallels to jazz. We'd be talking about legato and he would put on a Tommy Dorsey record or he'd talk about phrasing and he'd put on some Carl Fontana for me to listen to. A very "jazz-friendly" teacher, which can be rare at some conservatories.
During my time at Eastman, some friends introduced me to a few alumni that were on Woody Herman's band, and I gave them a demo tape of my playing. When an opening came up in the band, they called me. I started on the second trombone chair, the jazz chair, for about two and a half years, and then moved up to play lead.
AAJ: Who are some of your favorite trombone players. Who were your teachers and mentors on trombone?
JF: My other teachers are the ones I've never really studied with but have studied intensely. I've listened for hours to recordings of Carl Fontana, J. J. Johnson, Slide Hampton and Frank Rosolino, and when I was in high school Urbie Green was my ultimate hero. He could do anything and it taught me that I had to be able to do the same. At around that time Bill Watrous came out with all his big band recordings which were a huge inspiration. Here was a trombone player leading a big band in the '70s, which was unheard of. I've also always been a fan of trombonist Bennie Green and German trombonist, Albert Mangelsdorff.
I've been fortunate in the past several years to be able to work alongside some of my heroes. I became really great friends with Carl Fontana, and got to know Slide Hampton working along side him in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band here in New York. I've also had the great pleasure being in playing situations with Urbie Green and Bill Watrous, both of whom have been very supportive of my musical ventures. I unfortunately never got the opportunity to work with J. J. or Frank Rosolino.
AAJ: What led you to organize your big band? How is that project going these days?
JF: I was out with Woody for seven years and it was so much fun, playing and writing, and getting the satisfaction of hearing my music back right after composing it, that after a year of being in New York I started to miss it. For me it's a labor of love to have a band playing my music, and I that I'm kind of carrying the torch that Woody passed on to me.
The work pattern has changed over the course of the past 15 or 16 years. When the band first started we played little clubs here in New York for not much money. But after the first album came out we started getting calls for larger venues and festivals. In recent months we've been back doing special performances in select clubs in NYC which has been a lot of fun. At the present time, I'm writing music for our next album, which may be including this new piece.
John Fedchock, Up and Running (Reservoir, 2007)
John Fedchock, No Nonsense (Reservoir, 2002)
John Fedchock, Hit the Bricks (Reservoir, 2000)
John Fedchock, On the Edge (Reservoir, 1998)
John Fedchock, New York Big Band (Reservoir, 1992)
Woody Herman, Woody's Gold Star (Concord, 1987)
Woody Herman, Live at Concord Jazz Festival (Concord, 1981)
Courtesy of John Fedchock