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Cool Jazz in a Cool City: IAJE in Toronto 2003

By Published: January 28, 2003

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.

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