Crossing Borders: Reflections on the 30th Annual IAJE Conference
“ (Matt) Wilson was positively ebullient as he milked various sound effects from his drums and cymbals in response to (Dena) DeRose?s gallant improvisations. ”
For the first time in its history, the International Association for Jazz Education held its annual convention outside of U.S. borders. Toronto served as an especially hospitable host for four days straight of high-octane jazz tailor made for media types, broadcasters, musicians, students, and jazz educators. The sheer abundance of activity (workshops, panels, discussions, concerts) makes for total immersion and some sore feet, not to mention the networking possibilities available in abundance. The bottom line is that anyone who has an abiding interest in jazz is guaranteed an especially enjoyable time that is well worth the admission price and this year's festivities were no exception.
Wednesday, January 8
Although things got officially under way on Wednesday, I didn't make it into Toronto that evening until about 9:00. After checking in at the hotel and settling in, I then grabbed a cab to the Indian Motorcycle Caf' to check out the special IAJE Showcase that Justin Time Records was presenting as part of their 20th anniversary year. By about 11 p.m., I was in the house and ready to take in pianist D.D. Jackson's set which was set to commence in less than a half an hour.
Opening with 'The Welcoming,' Jackson and his trio hit their mark with a wallop, unhindered by a testy sound system and a noisy house that obviously included folks who weren't there to listen to jazz. Particularly sublime was 'Hopes and Dreams,' a piece from Jackson's upcoming album which will serve to pay homage to New York City. After the tune's heartfelt opening gambit, a straight eighth groove kicked up the tempo for a rollicking journey that contained elements of stride and funk. If there's a more complete pianist than Jackson on the current scene, I'm certainly unaware of him or her. In town for his own performance that week, David Murray took out his horn to sit in for his own 'Peace Song.' It was an electric moment that confirmed the strong stylistic bonds between the saxophonist and Jackson. Rounding out a solid hour of music, the group closed with the bucolic strains of 'Summer,' one of Jackson's best pieces.
Thursday, January 9
My first session the next day was a panel discussion regarding the apprenticeship system in jazz. Moderated by writer Howard Mandel, the multi-generational panel included drummer Ralph Peterson, pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, saxophonist Don Braden, and producer/writer Dr. Herb Wong. According to Taylor, Peterson, and Braden, there was inestimable value to the sideman experiences that marked their early work. For Taylor, both Art Tatum and Duke Ellington were not only musical models to absorb, but also men generous of their time and expertise. Braden had more than his share of stories to tell involving Betty Carter and Peterson explained that he first got bit by the jazz bug after hearing Sonny Payne with Count Basie while vacationing on a cruise ship with his parents. Among the countless morsels of cogent advice was this tidbit from Peterson: 'It [jazz] don't pay enough for you to do unless you love it.'
From the panel discussion, I hopped over to Constitution Hall in order to catch a few moments from a concert honoring the compositions and IAJE/ASCAP commissions of Robin Eubanks, John Hollenbeck, and Patrick Zimmerli. 'Full Circle,' Eubanks' complex and polyrhythmic line, was probably the most interesting piece of the lot, although the electronic effects grafted on to his trombone could be jarring at times. Nonetheless, it was a pleasure to get a brief taste of New York heavies James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums.
A short bus ride next brought me to the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, a venue that would serve well for many of the smaller group performances. Vocalist and pianist Dena DeRose held forth with a sprite trio including bassist Michael Zisman and drummer Matt Wilson, the latter proving to be an ubiquitous presence throughout the conference. DeRose has a way of approaching standards in a fresh manner that retains the beauty and essence of the tune but also provides an updated sense of rhythmic vitality. Wilson was positively ebullient as he milked various sound effects from his drums and cymbals in response to DeRose's gallant improvisations. The added appearance of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen on a few numbers was a bonus to what was clearly one of the highlights of the entire conference.
The evening's closing revelry included a performance by the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra with guest pianist Renee Rosnes. Apart from strong section work and an equally resolute collection of soloists, Rosnes originals such as 'Ancestors' and 'Bulldog's Chicken Run' received authoritative treatments. In the smaller John Bassett Theatre, David Murray and the GWO KA Masters spun their own intoxicating yarn, although one that was as different from the DRJO as night and day. The funk was definitely at a premium when it came to the folkloric African jams that propelled Murray's cathartic forays.
Friday, January 10
Even though each day's schedule of events would get started by 9 a.m., those of us used to swinging into the wee hours of the previous night would find a little extra sleep in order before officially starting one's day at IAJE. It was strictly 'standing room only' then for an eleven o'clock panel that highlighted the gifts of 2003's NEA Jazz Masters Elvin Jones, Jimmy Heath, and Abbey Lincoln. Once again, Dr. Billy Taylor offered some perceptive questions with each participant weighing in with both amusing and thought-provoking commentary. Lincoln offered insight into the events surrounding the alternative performances that her and ex-hubby Max Roach fronted at the time of the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival. For Heath, the economic windfall as of late has been plentiful due to the sampling of some of his classic recordings by today's hip-hop artists. Do doubt though, it was Jones who earned the greatest attention, with discussions of everything from his appearance in a cowboy flick back in the late '60s to his time spent with John Coltrane and recording at Rudy Van Gelder's studios.
After lunchtime, saxophone maker Keilwerth gathered some distinguished horn men for a tribute to the late baritone saxophonist Nick Brignola. With Gary Smulyan holding down the low end, the extended front line also included Mike Smith, Dave Liebman, Ernie Watts, and Don Braden. The charts were strong ('Syeeda's Song Flute' and Liebman's pretty 'Mommy's Eyes' were standouts) and the solos no less engaging, even if the focus on Brignola seemed merely perfunctory at times.
The rest of my afternoon involved networking with some musicians and catching an early evening cocktail bash hosted by the Jazz Journalists Association. President Howard Mandel sure knows how to throw a party and both the libations and the company were top notch. Sighted at this gathering were AAJ publisher Michael Ricci and fellow AAJers Ken Dryden, Forrest Bryant, and David Adler.
Friday evening at the main hall featured both Slide Hampton's The World of Trombones and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni Jazz Orchestra. It was great to see such legends as James Moody and Frank Wess rubbing elbows with youngsters like Greg Gisbert, Antonio Hart, and Robin Eubanks. As far as the rhythm section went, Renee Rosnes continued to strut her stuff as did drummer Dennis Mackrel, who might just be one of the best big band drummers that I've heard in quite some time. Even Nancy Wilson's two brief cameos cut right to the chase without the histrionics that can often tarnish her flashy presentations.
Saturday, January 11
By Saturday morning I quickly realized that I had yet spent any significant time in the large exhibit hall where instrument manufacturers, record labels, colleges, and other organizations were doing business and making connections. So that meant cutting back on the workshops and panels, but a 1 p.m. performance by the Maritime Jazz Orchestra featuring Kenny Wheeler was not to be missed and ultimately proved to be another gem of a moment. Of course, opportunities to see the 73-year-old Wheeler are limited at best for American fans, but what an unadulterated luxury it was to hear the accomplished Maritime unit tackle Wheeler's majestic originals including a standby 'Double, Double You.' In the front row I spotted fellow trumpet talents Greg Gisbert and Brad Goode soaking up the inspiration offered by Wheeler as he skirted in and out of his multifarious charts with strong-willed solos on both trumpet and flugelhorn.
Later in the afternoon, it was another rare event that brought pianist Denny Zeitlin to the John Bassett Theatre. For a recital that reiterated the pianist's importance as one of the finest innovators to emerge from the post-Bill Evans school of trio performance, Zeitlin shared the stage with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson. According to Wilson, this group has been working together on and off over the past six months and the empathy they shared was clearly evident. Even on familiar standards, the trio took things into unexplored territory and everyone in the hall seemed to enjoy the opportunity to come along for the ride.
Before retreating to a Thai restaurant for a well-deserved feast and then out to a sports bar for drinks and conversation with a few other journalists, I attended a panel featuring our own Michael Ricci, along with The Jazz Corner's Lois Gilbert, Jim Eigo of Jazz Promo Services, and Bill King of ejazznews.com. The topic involved a discussion of innovative approaches for marketing jazz on the Internet and it was a popular one for the musicians and arts presenters present, who guided the session's direction by asking their own questions throughout.