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Coming Up at the Half

Jeff Fitzgerald, Genius By

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It is a little known fact about your Own Personal Genius that I once aspired to a far different career path. When I entered the hallowed halls of Mars Hill College (hallowed by R.L. Purvey and Sons Professional Hallowers of New Bern, NC) as a music education major in the fall of 1985, it was my eventual desire to mold young minds as a high school band director. Shortly thereafter, I realized that A) molding young minds to my particular worldview might run me afoul of the NEA and/or state and local law enforcement officials, B) no one who has ever successfully conquered France, from Julius Caesar to Jerry Lewis, was a high school band director first, and C) high school band directors weren't exactly a big draw with the ladies.

So then.

I was reminded of my one-time calling recently when the Once and Future Mrs. Genius and I attended a high school football game between the local Radford Bobcats and a team that shall remain nameless (Anonymous High, from Nondescript County). Mrs. Genius attended a private Catholic girls' school in suburban New Jersey, so she was not prepared for the ritual and spectacle that is high school football in the South. Except for those moments when we pull out our old, respective uniforms and play "The Linebacker and The Librarian (A Drama in Two Acts, Followed By Dinner) , she has largely been unaware of the allure of the game in the rural provinces.

Few things bring the community together in the South like football. Virtually the whole town comes out to sell tickets, man the concession stand, cheer on the team, or just mill around aimlessly and try to look cool. And this is before you add in the players, the cheerleaders, the mobbed-up bookies, the band, and the overzealous moms that come with each group.

Be patient, kids, I'm going somewhere with all this.

Think carefully of the scenario I've just described and ponder which group has the most potential to affect the future of jazz. If you're thinking cheerleaders then you're right on the money, Paco. Can you think of any better way to prosper jazz than having nubile young women in short skirts leaping around and chanting catchy little jazz-related cheers? "Skippy peanut butter, Peter Pan, Jif! Go Kurt Rosenwinkel, riff riff riff! The beauty is in the simplicity.

Of course, the second group in that setting with the most potential to advance jazz is, of course, the football team. I credit the several concussions I sustained during my years of playing football with helping me to appreciate Cecil Taylor. Anyone who has ever had to suffer through two-a-day practices in the sweltering August heat certainly has the physical stamina to make it through The Major Works of John Coltrane. And just think of what a weakside linebacker blitz could do to alleviate the Kenny G problem.

Jazz and football, in fact, share several interesting similarities. Both can be highly technical and difficult to follow for the uninitiated, yet both can be enjoyed on a purely visceral level. Both become more interesting with knowledge. And both benefit from the addition of grilled bratwurst and copious amounts of alcohol. But then, what doesn't?

Jazz could take a few lessons from football, particularly in its small-town incarnation. Football employs a system of proliferation that is part inheritance, part indoctrination and part peer pressure. From Pop Warner league football to that Norman Rockwell-esque vision of father and son tossing the pigskin around in the front yard on a clear autumn afternoon to the beginnings of group identification that comes with choosing the right pro or college team to idolize. Juxtapose that to jazz and you've got Pops Armstrong jazz clubs, father and son trading riffs in that same front yard and youngsters deciding between being a Joshua Redman fan or a Nicholas Payton supporter.

It could happen.

Which brings us to the marching band. I joined the band in seventh grade, after deciding that my path to worldwide superstardom would be smoothest as a trumpet player. I was instead given a baritone horn (later taking up trombone as well), which meant that I would have to wait for the invention of the Internet to achieve my well-deserved level of international acclaim. But it was my first band director and music teacher, Carolyn Altizer, who both saddled me with the baritone horn and sowed a few of the seeds that would later contribute to me becoming the Dean of American Jazz Humorists®. At a time when most music programs in small Southern schools still consisted of jug bands and shape-note choirs, Mrs. Altizer made certain that we were versed in the fundamentals of music theory like how to tell that thing that looks like a backwards capital cursive S from that other thing that looks like a big comma.

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