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Gold Medalists Abound at Big Band Olympics

Jack Bowers By

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As this is being written, Betty and I are just back from a ten-day visit to California, the first six days of which would be of absolutely no interest to readers of this column. The last four, however, were spent at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel attending the L.A. Jazz Institute's "Big Band Olympics," which brought together bands from a number of countries around the world (well, the leaders at least were from various countries; the bands were comprised for the most part of world-class musicians from southern California and other parts of this country). As is true of any such event, it had its highs and lows, ups and downs, ins and outs, pleasurable components and tactical errors (more about that later). In sum, the Olympics embodied four days of high-quality big-band jazz, admirably performed by a series of all-star ensembles.

Overview

Fifteen concerts were presented from Thursday afternoon through Sunday evening including tributes to the legendary Clarke-Boland Big Band from France and Canada's peerless Boss Brass, amplified by four films, half a dozen panel discussions and a special presentation by the LAJI's Ken Poston on Howard Lucraft and Stan Kenton's Jazz International enterprise from the mid- to late 1950s. A sixteenth concert was scheduled but trumpeter Dusko Goykovich, who was to lead his own big band, was taken ill and had to cancel, as did two key members of the Boss Brass, trumpeter Guido Basso and trombonist Ian McDougall. Four other members of the late Rob McConnell's formidable ensemble—trumpeter John MacLeod, pianist Don Thompson, drummer Terry Clarke and French hornist Brad Warnaar—were on hand and able to perform in Sunday evening's final concert. Other bandleaders hailed from Australia (Tim Davies), France (Christian Jacob), Cuba (Arturo Sandoval), Great Britain (John Altman), Russia (Valery Ponomarev), Japan (Toshiko Akiyoshi), Hungary (Tommy Vig), Germany (Chris Walden), Bulgaria (Milcho Leviev) and the U.S. (Bill Holman). The music, suffice to say, was as varied as their backgrounds.

Each day began with a film whose theme was "Big Bands Around the World." The clips were roughly chronological, spanning a period from the early '30s to the '70s (and perhaps beyond). Among the many highlights was an interview with Willis Conover, who for many years hosted a jazz program beamed around the world via the Voice of America's shortwave network and possessed one of the world's most exquisite speaking voices. It was a thrill to hear him again, even if only briefly. Aside from that, the films covered a potpourri of renowned groups and players, from Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli through Glenn Miller, Ted Heath, Quincy Jones, John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, a young Toshiko Akiyoshi, the Boss Brass, Dizzy Gillespie's big band with Arturo Sandoval, all-star sessions with Doc Severinsen, Ed Thigpen, Billy Taylor, Rolf Kuehn, Bobby Jaspar, Eddie Safranski and many others including a brief clip (now available on YouTube) of Swedish baritone sax legend Lars Gullin.

The panel discussions, ably moderated by Kirk Silsbee, Ken Borgers, Larry Hathaway and bandleader Altman (who did a splendid job with Americans in Europe—Holman, Bobby Shew, Rick Keller—Friday afternoon), covered a wide range of topics both biographical and personal. Silsbee had one of the easier tasks, as he simply asked Arturo Sandoval a question, then relaxed for 15-20 minutes while the trumpet giant weaved tales that mesmerized his audience. The panelists from eastern Europe—Ponomarev, Leviev, Vig—acknowledged their debt to Conover and the Voice of America for introducing them to jazz at a time when the music was either banned or strongly discouraged in countries behind the Iron Curtain. Ponomarev and Leviev, it should be noted, are gifted storytellers, always ready with an appropriate quip or one-liner, as are Vig, Davies, Sandoval and Altman, among others. Poston's presentation on Jazz International began with its formation in 1954 by Lucraft, a journalist / radio personality from the UK who also led his own bands both here and abroad, in association with his friend and colleague, Stan Kenton. It was Lucraft's idea to form an organization that would promote jazz around the world, and with Kenton's name in the forefront it succeeded well for a number of years before the music began losing ground to new trends exemplified by Elvis Presley, the Beatles and others.

Thursday, May 26

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