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Cool Jazz in a Cool City: IAJE in Toronto 2003

By Published: January 28, 2003

But it was ?Slick Rock? that captivated the audience. The avant garde introduction with the leader plucking the piano strings and later banging out chords inside the piano... bringing the house down some twenty minutes later.

Although a fellow jazz journalist expressed his sentiment about the first scheduling of IAJE outside of the U.S. by sarcastically stating "Toronto in January, ...wonderful," I was very much looking forward to my first trip to Canada. Since it sometimes is hard to sneak away very far from the conference for very long without missing too many memorable performances or sessions, I decided to get to Toronto two days early to give me a full day to check out some of the city.

What can I say about my first visit to Toronto? Though it was pretty cold, I've experienced worse winter days (even in Chattanooga, believe it or not) and I walked around the city a good bit. The Fairmont Royal York , one of three official hotels hosting the conference, was first class all the way, with a top-notch staff that went the extra mile. The subway and trolley provided a great way to get around, particularly to hear Don Thompson's Nine Piece Band at the Montreal Jazz Bistro (great food and two terrific sets) and to shop for LPs and CDs at Backbeat.

As usual, the first day is kind of slow for writers until the evening performances. In the large yet intimate John Bassett Theatre, David Young's set was dominated by potent interpretations of the works by another fine bassist, Charles Mingus. In addition to Young's "The Bass Clef," he made the most of four gems by Mingus, "Nostalgia in Times Square," "Self-Portrait in Three Colors," "Tonight at Noon," and finally, "Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma'am!" (Mingus' reworking of the chord changes to Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love?"). Since I didn't have a tux and failed to buy a ticket to the gala dinner honoring Dr. Oscar Peterson, I grabbed a quick meal and returned for the set by Benny Green and Russell Malone, whose new duo CD for Telarc was due for release a short time after IAJE. With Peterson sitting front and center in the audience, the two young men dazzled the SRO convention hall with a stunning set that included "Falling in Love with Love" (a Peterson favorite), Wes Montgomery's "Jingles," and Dr. Billy Taylor's "A Bientot." Drummer Ed Thigpen, who worked with Oscar Peterson from 1959 to 1965), was introduced prior to a tasty rendition of the old chestnut "I Know That You Know." I bypassed the remainder of the evening, though I wish I'd had the stamina to return for Jane Bunnett and the Spirit of Havana in their midnight set.

My second day at IAJE began with the discussion of the Musical Legacy of Wynton Kelly. Presented by Kelly's cousin, Grace Metivier, the panel included drummer Jimmy Cobb, multi-reed man and composer/arranger Jimmy Heath, drummer Albert Tootie Heath, and bassists Jamil Nasser and Larry Ridley, all of whom knew Kelly well enough to share personal memories Also on the panel were pianist James Williams and Australian pianist Monique di Mattina, a teacher who did a thesis on Kelly's career. Cobb described Kelly at age 19 as someone who could sound good with anybody, especially with his light and humorous touch. Cobb was also surprised to see Kelly point at Mr. Spock in a Star Trek episode, saying "There's my buddy!" It turned out that they served together in the Army's Special Services, and actor Leonard Nimoy would serve as emcee for the band's performances.

Jimmy Heath worked with Kelly after the pianist left Miles Davis. Heath described how Kelly helped to teach him modal playing, also stating that "he had the fire of no other pianist I had played with." He added that a friend described Kelly's use of triplets as "putting teardrops in his solo," something which Miles claimed (as he often did with any musician who had worked with him) "I showed him that!" Heath appeared on eight different releases with Kelly, though 'A Thumper,' which was Heath's debut, sticks out in his mind.

Tootie Heath met Wynton Kelly in 1955 while both men were in the army. The drummer described having a horrible headache before he was scheduled to play at the legendary Atlanta nightclub the WaLaHaGe; he was actually looking for a replacement until he heard Kelly play, then he suddenly forgot about the pain.

Larry Ridley was enthusiastic in describing his memories of working with Wynton Kelly. Kelly's perfect pitch and "West Indian Lope," as well as the pianist's leaving plenty of space for the bassist to walk his lines made it a treat to play with him.

One problem with this discussion is there were too many panelists for an hour-long session, though it's doubtful anyone in the packed room was disappointed.

With veteran publicist Don Lucoff unable to attend IAJE due to an untimely illness, Jazz Journalist Association president Howard Mandel successfully stepped in to moderate the discussion "Is the Apprenticeship System in Jazz Being Dismantled?" With a terrific panel that included Dr. Billy Taylor, saxophonist Don Braden, drummer Ralph Peterson and educator, writer and producer Dr. Herb Wong, Mandel kept the conversations on target and moving along. Among some of the memorable thoughts shared during this panel are the following:

Braden told how Betty Carter served as a taskmaster to the young musicians who worked with her, with the singer's favorite expression, "You don't swing," actually meaning "You aren't consistent." He also described her as hell on bass players, and quoted one of her sidemen as stating "She's like my tough mother!"

Ralph Peterson mentioned hearing drummer Sonny Payne with Count Basie during a cruise, who shared an important tidbit about playing jazz: "It doesn't pay enough for you not to love it." Art Blakey taught him the importance of caring for a band. Peterson knew he had honed his craft when the late Art Blakey's granddaughter told him after a concert that "I never thought I'd hear my grandfather's sound again." The drummer also recalled pianist Walter Davis, Jr. calling him at 7:30 in the morning to ask, "What are the changes in the bridge to 'Skylark?'" He also remembered drummer Michael Carvin's advice: "Never get stumped on the same question twice, or someone will be in your seat."

Dr. Billy Taylor told how Duke Ellington served as a mentor to him between Taylor's sets in a restaurant. Taylor also told of others who helped up and coming musicians. Tatum often cited Fats Waller as "where he came from," while also crediting Willie the Lion Smith as an important influence. Tatum himself enjoyed asking Dorothy Donegan to different clubs to sic her on unsuspecting pianists.

Dr. Herb Wong managed to get Ellington to perform at a public school, where the maestro received an unusual complement from a little girl: "I know you are very old, but your music sounds so young." Ellington's response was simply "Nirvana!"

Singer Denise Jannah is someone I've admired since hearing her first Blue Note CD in the mid-1990s, so I was overjoyed to see her listed as a performer at IAJE. Even though her regular pianist had to be replaced due to a death in the family, Jannah gave her all during her outstanding set, which she wrapped with an amusing bit of vocalese as she explained how she had to go shopping for clothes due to the loss of her luggage.

I began the third day attending a discussion of Hank Jones' long career. Originally set up to be a conversation between Jones and another fine pianist, James Williams, it was revamped due to Jones' doctor-imposed travel instructions following heart bypass surgery. The pianist did an excellent job telling why Jones is highly regarded in the jazz world. Ray Drummond joined Williams to add his experience of working with Jones, who he describes as such a professional that he wears a coat and tie to breakfast while on the road. He also shared Jones' frustration rehearsing with an arrogant veteran singer while in Japan, but he had his say by introducing her to the audience as "Onita A'Day.

Tim Owens' conversation with Marian McPartland provided a lively, entertaining hour, often breaking up the audience with her dry comments. McPartland discussed the evolution of her long running Piano Jazz series, describing her theme song, inspired by producer Dick Phipps' request for some "nervous sounding music" (also known as "Kaleidoscope") as something she improvised while Bill Evans was waiting to join her. She chose the two pianist format, rather than dealing with "recalcitrant horn players, bassists, drummers and others who wouldn't show up." One pianist who ran purposely late was Cecil Taylor, but he was surprised that he ended up waiting himself, as the second piano hadn't been delivered!

One of her earliest memories of Bill Evans (one of her most favorite Piano Jazz guests) is when he walked into the studio unannounced during a stretch when McPartland was hosting a program on WDAI. Mary Lou Williams, her very first guest, proved to be difficult from the beginning. She ignored her host's instructions and brought a bassist and then shouted out chord changes to him as they were taping. When McPartland mentioned she liked a particular chord Williams played, her response was "I didn't play that chord." She surmises that Williams may have been upset that she wasn't chosen to host the series; if it had been the case, it would have been a short run, as she died within a couple of years after the start of McPartland's program.

She also shared stories of her family. Her mother was disgusted with her decision to become a professional musician, announcing "You'll come to no good. You'll marry a musician and live in an attic" (the latter two things indeed came to pass). She admitted to stealing her sister's boyfriend since she wasn't into jazz. Marian, who joined the British equivalent of the USO to entertain the troops, said ladies were instructed to wear backless dresses (to help improve morale, no doubt). It was during one of these performances that she ran into Chicago cornertist Jimmy McPartland, whose initial reaction was something like, "Oh, hell, there's a woman and she wants to play. And she'll be terrible." The pianist said she was the only one who didn't seem to know who he was, an already established star. Yet a whirlwind romance ensued and before she knew it, they were married and soon heading to the U.S. Even though Marian played some with her husband, he saw her abilities and encouraged her to launch her own career. She also told of turning his practice scale into an original composition, "Melancholy Mood."

McPartland began a 10 year run at the Hickory House Restaurant in New York City, thanks to agent Joe Glaser. Her trio eventually would be broadcast three times a week, and other musicians frequented the venue while in town, including Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond (who would eventually lure away her drummer, Joe Morello), and Duke Ellington, who would sit in from time to time.

McPartland's trio set later that evening was even more of a treat. Joined by bassist Don Thompson and drummer Barry Elmes, she ran past her scheduled time with a diverse set including some of her favorite standards, as well as pieces I haven't heard her play during the many opportunities I've had to see her in concert (or on her Piano Jazz series). While "Like Someone in Love," "Willow Weep for Me," and "All the Things You Are" (with a "fake" fugue arrangement she stole from Johnny Guarnieri) are all expected, she also included Ivan Lins' "Velas," Billy Strayhorn's "Raincheck," Bill Evans' "Turn Out the Stars" (though her interpretation was far less melancholy than the composer's many versions), and even Ornette Coleman's "Ramblin'," during which she seemed to interpolate "Just You, Just Me." Rather than leave the stage for good, she played her poignant ballad "In the Days of Our Love," following it with a rapid fire take of Charlie Parker's "Donna Lee," finally ending her show with one of her favorite Alec Wilder compositions, "I'll be Around." Thompson had several excellent solos and both he and Elmes provided flawless support for the pianist. McPartland could have easily held her Bassett Theatre audience in place for another hour; it was well worth my leaving the Jazz Journalist reception early!

The final day had two sets I decided that I couldn't possibly miss. I had enjoyed singer Giacomo Gates three years earlier at IAJE in New Orleans, so I knew I couldn't possibly be disappointed with him. Unfortunately, I missed the start of his set as I dawdled in the room at the end of Bunky Green's set, of which I only caught one complete song. Gates' rich, slightly smoky baritone made the most of ballads like "No, Not Much" and "You Go to My Head." Gates excels in the art of vocalese (setting lyrics to famous solos), especially recreating Paul Desmond's solo in "Take Five" (though a pompous attorney blocked release of his recording after explaining to Helen Keane that two vocal versions, by Al Jarreau and Carmen McRae, were enough; Keane's indignant response to this idiot was "What in the hell do you know about music?"), as well as recreating a Dexter Gordon solo to "Lullaby of Birdland." Yvonne Kauffman joined him on stage for a playful "All of Me."

Earlier in the afternoon I had my first opportunity to hear Denny Zeitlin perform, so I made sure I was there an hour early to get a front and center seat. With superb accompaniment by bassist Buster Williams and drummer Matt Wilson, the pianist's approximately 55 minute set consisted of just four songs. John Coltrane's "Cousin Mary" was the up-tempo opener, followed by the venerable standard "Body and Soul," complete with Zeitlin's Impressionistic solo and some choice arco bass by Williams. But it was "Slick Rock" (an extended work by Zeitlin which wrapped the set) that captivated the audience. The avant-garde introduction with the leader plucking the piano strings and later banging out chords inside the piano, Williams initially bowing below the bridge of his bass, and Wilson fueling both of them, bringing the house down some twenty minutes later. Zeitlin told me following the concert that he has recorded a version of "Slick Rock" as a part of a CD which is now in search of a label. One can only hope that such a decision-maker attended this exciting set.

By the early evening, I was too tired to head back to the convention center. I hung out with singer E. J. Decker, who I had shared a table with the night before, we had a drink and a few laughs with pianist Bill Mays, and eventually ended up chatting and playing pool with Dena DeRose and fellow writer Bob Bernatos until closing time (2 am) in the hotel pub. Yes, there were several sets I regretted not attending, but it was a great time for me.

There was one major scheduling snafu. Why was the interview with Oscar Peterson scheduled at the same time as Denny Zeitlin's performance, and also in such a small room? I generally vote for live music over talk, and since I had interviewed both musicians, but had never seen Zeitlin perform (yes, I've seen Peterson on two occasions), it was an easy choice. Another minor headache was that the room where the Peterson interview (as well as McPartland's and possibly others) had horrible sight lines due to a poorly placed column in the front and center of the room. Also, some of the panel discussions were scheduled in rooms without a platform, so it was hard to see the participants unless you were seated in the front of the room.

The other problem was with the cavernous Constitution Hall, where many of the evening concerts took place. Unless you started waiting in line well before the 8 pm start time for each night's festivities, you were likely stuck in the rear of the room, where both the visuals and the sound were very disappointing. As a result I ended up skipping nearly all of these sets after the first night.

One thing I am particularly grateful for is the noticeable lack of ringing cell phones in the middle of performances and panel discussions, a puzzling problem that was all too frequent at the 2002 IAJE conference in Long Beach. Unfortunately, there were too many concert attendees that weren't well mannered enough to know that taking a seat or leaving in the middle of a song was rather rude to both the musicians and everyone they inconvenienced as they entered or exited at their leisure. Another change which would be helpful during panel discussions would be requiring audience questions to be submitted on paper, where the host could choose the best of them during the limited time at the end of session and put an end to those who would stray from the subject or make self-promoting speeches.

Special thanks to the on-site music retailer, L'Atelier Grigorian. After the scheduled CD seller cancelled on short notice, this Toronto store was asked to step with just a few days warning, and their selection was the best I've seen during the past four IAJE Conferences I've attended. Even though I was already filling suitcases with promotional CDs and LPs and CDs purchased in the city, this store's great inventory and incredible prices (Verve's Jazz in Paris series of reissues were just $9.99 in Canadian money, or about $6.50 each in American dollars!) helped make my packing for the trip home even more challenging.

Am I already making plans to attend next year's IAJE in New York? You bet!

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