By Chris Burnett
The focus of this particular musing is an interview with Bobby Watson about his motivation to serve as the director of "The 18th and Vine Big Band", a new big band in Kansas City. This is the second part of a 2-Part feature article where Part 1 introduces readers to Bobby Watson, his music and teaching activities, by way of his biographical narrative. This segment is primarily our discussion about the band and their debut performance at the historic Gem Theatre.
Kansas City already has a rich tradition in big bands, and is where many notables have historically established themselves musically. Band leader names like: Jay McShann, Bennie Moten, and Count Basie all come to mind when the subject of big band music is mentioned in most any context. These Kansas City Icons are all well known among both, the general public and the informed big band jazz enthusiasts alike.
There were also stylistic differences in the music that set Kansas City ensembles apart from the rest of the bands in the country during what has become known as the Swing Era. It is documented that Kansas City big bands generally relied upon the 12 Bar Blues song form as the basis of their compositions and ensemble arrangements. Most Kansas City bands of that era were also known to often use what have been termed as 'head' arrangements. Head arrangements were usually created during rehearsals, and sometimes directly on the bandstand just before 'show' time. The Kansas City band arrangements were known to have ample space for improvised solos. The arrangements also utilized a subtle and free-flowing rhythmic drive that tended to enhance the soloist to best advantage.
Today, big band music still remains closely associated with Kansas City. And that fundamental style is probably best exemplified by the early Basie Band of the great Swing Era. Over preceding decades, Kansas City big band jazz continues to evolve through the work of several active 'mainstream' jazz big bands that are based in the region. In addition to the new "18th and Vine Big Band", bands led by Jim Widner (Jim Widner Big Band), Mike McGraw (Kansas City Boulevard Big Band), Bill Crain (Trilogy Big Band), and another new band recently formed by Jim Mair, are some of the most notable active professional big band groups now working in the area.
I felt fortunate to be in the audience during what was the debut performance of "The 18th and Vine Big Band" - it seemed historic. The concert was truly a gala affair that featured vocal star, Patti Austin. The 2-hour concert passed by much too quickly for me, as it also seemed to for the other listeners in the sold out venue as well. Ms. Austin and the band established a fluid synergy from the first note on. They performed music from her CD title, "For Ella" (A Tribute to Ella Fitzgerald).
"For Ella" by Patti Austin [Listen to audio samples - HERE ]
The music program was centered on the performance of splendid original orchestrations and arrangements written by Patrick Williams. The concert also included a couple of band feature numbers showcasing a group of extremely talented individual artists, performing as an extremely talented collective. The thought of one big instrument comprised of many timbres kept coming to mind as I listened to them perform. Another nice touch to the overall effect of the performance was a big screen, multi-media slide show containing pictures taken of Ms. Ella Fitzgerald. The photographs presented were from various events in her career and served as a pretty hip backdrop for the concert stage as well.
In addition to guest artist, Patti Austin's vocals and Bobby Watson's directing, playing alto saxophone and doubling on flute, it is appropriate to include the names of the Kansas City area musicians who blended their superior talents to this ensemble. The other founding members of "The 18th and Vine Big Band" are (artists are listed alphabetically): Ahmad Alaadeen, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Clint Ashlock, trumpet; Donivan Bailey, drums; Karita Carter, trombone; Gerald Dunn, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Wayne Goines, guitar; Jason Goudeau, trombone; Bob Harvey, trumpet; Paul McKee, trombone; Louis Neal, bass trombone; Joe Parisi, trumpet; Al Pearson, trumpet; Charles Perkins, alto saxophone and flute; Kerry Strayer, baritone saxophone and bass clarinet; Reggie Thomas, piano; and, James Ward, acoustic bass.
There probably could not have been a more fitting debut performance for "The 18th and Vine Big Band", than such a resounding concert at the historic Gem Theatre on 18th Street in Kansas City!
BOBBY WATSON INTERVIEW
Again, I'd like to thank Professor Watson for granting this interview and article. The following dialogue provides some of his thoughts and insights about the newest band in this great legacy.
Chris Burnett: The first question I'd like to ask is what were the primary motivations in forming "The 18th and Vine Big Band" and who came up with the idea?
Bobby Watson: Among the primary motivations to form a big band like this one centers on the rich history that is Kansas City Jazz. Gerald Dunn was the catalyst toward the band coming into existence as an entity. I have known Gerald for at least 10 years now. We first met while he was still a student attending the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
During those initial years of our friendship, I would return to UMKC from New York periodically and conduct master classes there. As you also know, Gerald is a great saxophonist in his own right, one of our jazz radio personalities here in Kansas City for KKFI (90.1 FM - public radio), and he contracts the booking of all artist talent performing at the American Jazz Museum's "Blue Room" jazz club as well.
When I moved back to the Kansas City area in 2000, we resurrected the idea again and began seriously considering the feasibility of starting a big band. The primary musical considerations were focused on the group being representative of key elements of Kansas City jazz traditions.
Chris Burnett: That's great, so the idea has actually been under consideration for quite some time. Why did you choose this particular official name for the ensemble and who came up with it?
Bobby Watson: After a bit of "brainstorming", Gerald Dunn and I came up with this name collectively. We had several other preliminary ideas for group names, so we tried to narrow the focus. We wanted something that was both relevant to the band, and would be a name that people could identify us with too. We concluded that the actual street names of "18th and Vine", still best represented the glorious history of the music in this city, our collective respect for our musical heritage, and the real potential of the Kansas City area jazz scene today. The "Historic 18th and Vine Jazz District" is known all over the world and officially recognized by our government.
Chris Burnett: Upon hearing "The 18th and Vine Big Band" in performance, I was struck by the fact that the band was obviously well rehearsed. Not simply a bunch of great musicians reading the charts down, there was an actual ensemble cohesion that only comes from musicians getting to know each other by hanging in rehearsals. What was your philosophy in the area of selecting artist talent for this group?
Bobby Watson: First, having such a talent pool to choose artists from made the process relatively easy. There are a lot of fine jazz players here who are also interested in making such an endeavor plausible. All of the artists willingly attend the scheduled rehearsals, so that made preparing for performance a pleasant experience overall.
The founding performing members of the band were selected from among local musicians who were available and interested. However, to support these founding artists who have helped establish the band, we will eventually maintain a "depth chart" for each chair within all of the sections. This listing will contain the names of other Kansas City area artists who will have opportunities to perform with this band too. So, you see, membership in "The 18th and Vine Big Band" is not necessarily an exclusive situation. There are also just so many other people who help make this happen.
Chris Burnett: So, you could actually have enough interest among the musician community and general public in Kansas City to expand this group into organization-type status?
Bobby Watson: Yes, there is realistic potential that the group may even evolve into being several working bands under the same "18th and Vine Big Band" banner. An example of this in effect could include a scenario of one edition of the band being out on tour performing somewhere, while another is concurrently in residency at a college or high school giving master classes and concerts - that type of thing. This practice would be similar to the manner in which Sue Mingus currently utilizes the personnel resource capabilities of her big band in New York.
Chris Burnett: Will you share some of your performance and activity plans?
Bobby Watson: In the area of performance, we plan to do more events like the concert with Patti Austin. I'd like to bring in other internationally known vocalists like Kurt Elling, Lou Rawls, and Diana Krall, along with featuring Kansas City artist like: Alaadeen, Horace Washington, Jay McShann, Stan Kessler, the McFadden Brothers and several others here as well. In addition to local performances, "The 18th and Vine Big Band" has the potential to be a viable touring ensemble as well. With the proper travel and tour support, the band could represent the music through touring Japan, countries in Europe, and playing festivals here in the USA. So, the broader conceptual vision of this band is to serve as another primary catalyst from within the Kansas City community while promoting this art form through live performances, tours and recordings.
Chris Burnett: During your debut performance, it was great to hear a couple of your original arrangements. What type of literature can we expect to hear "The 18th and Vine Big Band" performing in concert? And, do you have any new compositions of your own in the works for this band?
Bobby Watson: The band will feature a lot of music written and arranged by other band members too. We also have a good number of artists in the band who have charts to contribute to the book. Paul McKee, Louis Neal, and Clint Ashlock - who is also one of my students, are all great writers. I have a new piece titled, the "Gates Bar-B-Q Suite". This is a new original work for large jazz ensemble that will first premiere at UMKC and it will also be performed by "The 18th and Vine Big Band" in concert too.
Chris Burnett: As one of America's leading jazz educators, do you see "The 18th and Vine Big Band" contributing in some way to your commitment to, and work in, the field of music education in the Kansas City area?
Bobby Watson: Absolutely, the band could easily be brought on most any school campus for residencies and to give master classes. These types of events can also be combined with civic concerts or performances within the general local communities during a tour.