Tom Everett: Jazz at Harvard
Improvising a Jazz Curriculum
AAJ: On the issue of seminal figures in arts and culture, what and who did you feel students needed to learn playing and studying jazz? How did you build a performance repertoire and curriculum for jazz from the ground up?
TE: I did not have the background, knowledge, depth or experience for the music and the literature at that time to really make such substantial decisions. It's not simply a matter of reading the books, though they provide great insight. It's a matter of experiencing, participating and observing the music. I hadn't played enough jazz, and the more you play it, the more you realize there is to learn.
I tried to avoid playing purely educational/pop/generic/stock charts, the same fifty charts that companies publish for educators to buy every year because they're the new things and often based upon pop tunes of the day. I looked for charts with significant links to the jazz tradition. At the time I included Maynard Ferguson, Stan Kenton and some other things because I thought they were great. In hindsight and now, I'm more aware of repertoire, concepts, pieces, approaches and styles that offer greater exposure to something more substantial and closer to the roots of the music.
Yet it started out with what did I have and what was available. That was the first group of charts. If I could choose any charts I wanted, I knew that eventually I'm going to have to beg, steal or borrow Duke Ellington or Gil Evans charts, or other original charts. In the early seventies none of this music was published. So I'd meet this guy at a gig, and say, "Hey, I've got some Stan Kenton charts, you got anything?" [And he'd reply] "Well I've got this thing...I'll trade it to you for 'Four Brothers' or whatever," and that's the way the library was built. As I got to know musicians better, I'd say, "Hey, do you know anyone who has this?" or "I would love to play that arrangement you wrote, have you heard of anyone playing it?" And I'd be able to get back to Benny Golson and tell him, "I tracked down this piece you haven't heard in thirty years! Do you have any other people you know who have some of your music? Maybe I can help you find it."
AAJ: You're an improviser!
TE: Absolutely. I am not a disciplined, organized person but I do improvise. I've had success in doing things in untraditional ways. I think if I had a regular nine to five position, doing what's been done before, that it wouldn't be as successful as finding ways to work with what I see or hear.
I've been very, very fortunate in all of this: the opportunities I've had, the people I've worked with and the freedom of this position in not being locked into a university department, a traditional budget, or procedures that might not have accommodated my unorthodox approach. I've been able to find a creative route, to take a different direction toward successful and unique results. [The reaction was,] "Do anything you want, all you have to do is be able to make it work."
I've also been extremely fortunate to have the ongoing support and contributions from the Office for the Arts, without which jazz at Harvard could not have reached its current level of influence. Helping the music department and Office for the Arts put the "Forty Years of Jazz at Harvard" program together, I lost some nights of sleep saying, "That's how I got here!" It's like someone coming up to you after your solo, playing a recording of that solo and saying, "Listen to this part." In improvisation it's hard to look back, you're in the moment. You're not saying, "Then I got to here." That may be the saving grace in whatever I've done, that it's wherever it goes, and I follow it or lead it. It's made for an interesting, frustrating and unique career.
I wish I could improvise jazz better!. I was actually embarrassed when playing with some bands when I arrived in Boston. I wouldn't take a gig as an improviser because I'm not exceptional at it. I didn't know if my time and effort would ever allow me to play something that did justice to the music or the tradition, but I believed I could do something as an educator and promoter of this music. When I played with the Dorsey brothers or Dizzy Gillespie's big band, I played the bass trombone part. There is no improvisation in that part, but I sure enjoyed playing it, and hopefully played it well.
Playing (and Pranking) with Dorsey and Dizzy
AAJ: How did you start playing with those big bands?
TE: The first professional band I played in was a smaller big bandfor a group called Hines, Hines, and Dadduring my first year out of college. It was Gregory Hines and [Maurice] Hines, the dancing brothers, and their father [Maurice] "Papa" Hines [Sr.] playing drums. They would play college campuses, and the Hines brothers would tell jokes, sing and dance; it was a club shtick, in concert form.
When I started teaching public school in Ithaca, I got a call one night, picked up the phone and [the caller asked], "Is this Tom Everett, the bass trombone player?" I said yes and he said, "This is Si Zenter calling," and I said, "Fuck you," and hung up the phone! [laughs] He called about a minute later, and said someone recommended me for joining the band. That was a hard decision. I asked how long do I have to let him know, and [Zentner] said "'Till I hang up the phone!" I thought about it, but it was my first year teaching and I had signed a contract. I told him that I couldn't break my contract, but to let me know if anything changed over the summer.
That was the last I heard from him, but, about a year later, around 1967 or 68, I got a call from a contractor in Syracuse, New York who must have worked with Zenter, [asking me] to sub with the Tommy Dorsey band. That was really my first major name band. I drove through a rainstorm for the gig after I finished teaching at four o'clock (Syracuse was about two hours from where I was teaching) for an eight o'clock dancing concert. When I got to the ballroom, I was told to look for the band manager, and found a guy behind the curtain. I asked him if he was with the Dorsey band, and he replied (a little tough), "Why are you asking?"
After I explained that I was the trombone player, the band manager told me to grab a jacket and a tie from this steamer trunk, which looked like it had been through hell. When I opened it up, there was the most awful odor coming out of it. It was filled with sequined jackets, rolled up into the balls, and they looked like they had never been cleaned. I finally found one [that fit], and I put my hand in the pocket because I was going to put my mouthpiece there to keep it warm. Thank god I didn't, because I took out my hand and there were cigarette butts in the pocket, and cigarette holes in the jacket. From a distance you might say "Wow, sequined jackets, now that's showbiz!" but up close was not quite the same. I took a tie from the bottom of the trunk and put it on. Well, [my tie] had something moving in it. I kept scratching most of the night. This was the big time!
And yet, when [the band was] onstage behind the curtain and the curtain opened, the people were standing out there on the main dance floor [under] a glittering globe, and they started applauding. [Bandleader] Warren Covington kicked off the first chord, and I'll tell you, I've never experienced anything like it. I almost dropped the trombone because everything was goose bumps. It was a magical moment, despite what was going on inside my tie and jacket. I could see how people, especially kids, would be willing to do this for no money, just seeing peoples' faces each night. I also realized that, after a couple of nights (at least for me), it lost its charm and exoticness.
When I came to Boston in 1971, I got some calls from the same contractor in Syracuse, who was now setting up a tour for the Jimmy Dorsey band through New England, in Lowell and a few other places. Lee Castle, who played trumpet with the original [Jimmy Dorsey] band, was the bandleader. All the guys in the band except for the other trombonist were really very young, just out of college. It was a strange looking band, maybe two or three people that looked like they lived and died with the band, alongside all these youngsters.
Tom Everett (left) with Dizzy Gillespie, mid-'80s
[Playing with] Dizzy Gillespie occurred through Phil Wilson, in the mid-eighties. Dizzy was in town for Boston Jazz Society's Man of the Year award, and they gave Roy Haynes a lifetime achievement award. They also gave one of the first Boston Jazz Society scholarships to a Berklee College student named Terri Lyne Carrington!
I think [saxophonist] Jimmy Mosher was in that band, Tony Lada and Phil Wilson [on trombone], Larry Monroe on lead alto, Greg Hopkins on trumpet; a lot of Boston people played in that band.
Phil Wilson introduced me to Dizzy just before the show started. Dizzy kind of looked me up and down, very funny and exaggerated, like he was smelling if the fish was fresh or not. Phil told Dizzy that I was the band director at Harvard, and all of sudden Dizzy faked this gasp: "Hah-vahd? You're from (gasp) Hah-vahd? How are things (gasp) at Hah-vahd?" I [said to myself], "Oh man, you're going to give me this, aren't you? [laughs] But I'm going to take it from Dizzy Gillespie because I'm still honored." He stuck his hand out and we shook, and we were both cracking up. That was one of the way a musician would welcome you. It's a type of initiation.
My first night [with the Tommy Dorsey band] we played "Marie," [where the whole band answers the vocalist] in a call-and-response. Warren Covington actually sang, as well as fronted the band from behind the trombone. I'm reading my music, but everyone else had been there more than a couple of weeks and knew the part. The words are written down, but the third trombone chair's words were scribbled out. Above it, you would not believe the things they wrote in there about Marie. So we're playing the chart, I saw the words and when we got to that point I sang, "Marie is a..." but I could hear no one else in the band was saying that. As I'm saying all this I feel their eyes on me, because they know this is written in my part, and no one warns you [laughs]. These little things bring everyone together. You have to have a sense of humor and have fun. If you're the new guy, everyone goes through it; you either get angry, or you laugh.
AAJ: How did playing with those groups change your perspective, as an educator as well as a player?
TE: There is no greater way to learn about all aspects of the music, personal, historical, social and technical, than playing with the masters. Not just the masters, but also playing with the musicians that have mastered this music, sitting down next to an unknown trombonist who's been playing with the band for many years. To hear him play and hear how he talks about the music, that experience brings insights that no recording, video or textbook can provide. There's something about playing with an individual who has made this music their life: the music is them, and they are the music.
AAJ: Can you give me an example from a group you played with or musician you shared a section with?
TE: So many times it's osmosis of sitting next to someone. Rather than them saying anything or you realizing, "this is how they do it," you walk away with a greater commitment and respect for them and the music. That's why I want the Harvard students to have that close association, not just walking in and doing a clinic, but working with [visiting artists] for a week or several times a semester.
The Jimmy Dorsey Band
At one time, [the Jimmy Dorsey] band had four trombones where most had three; Dorsey liked that sound, (or maybe he wanted to have one more trombone than his brother). When I subbed with the band, everything had been cut down for financial reasons, so the arrangements from the original Dorsey book were rewritten for the reduced instrumentation. The first time I played through, it was just the lead trombone player and myself, where there had been four trombone players. The lead trombone player asked me, "What's the matter, kid?" and I replied that [the music] doesn't feel right, it doesn't sound full enough. And this trombonist, almost with tears in his eyes, said "Man, nothing does anymore. You should have heard this when there were four of us." And he said it proudly as well as sadly, not just for himself but also for the music. He's been doing this his whole life, and it must have hurt him to keep doing it, but he has to. It's not just a gig for these guys. They believe in this music and want to get it out there.