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.


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

After the opening film and a brief lunch break, the first band onstage was director Jeff Jarvis's well-schooled Cal State-Long Beach Concert Jazz Orchestra, fondly remembered for their electrifying presentation at poolside of Stan Kenton's "Cuban Fire" suite a couple years back, this time presenting a tribute to the Clarke-Boland Big Band, the multi-cultural ensemble that reigned in Europe from 1969-81. The program consisted mainly of standards, opening with a blazing rendition of Rodgers and Hart's "Johnny One Note" and closing with a tasteful version of Cole Porter's "All Through the Night." Sandwiched between were the standards "Get Out of Town" (also by Porter), "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Lullaby of the Leaves," "Love for Sale," Sweet and Lovely," "My Favorite Things" and one original, Michel Legrand's "I'm All Smiles." The orchestra was tight and swinging, the soloists likewise.

Drummer Tim Davies' band was next up, echoing his sunny personality with a snappy program that opened with a smooth ride on Juan Tizol's "Caravan" and included several of Davies' original compositions, not all of whose names I was able to decipher from my usual seat in the back row of the Marquis Ballroom. I do know the second number was the groovy "Gubernatorial Recall" (written during the California by-election several years ago and retitled, in light of more recent events there, "Gubernatorial Withdrawal"), the third "Pythagara," featuring the fine trombonist Nick Daley. "Saraband" may have been the name of a ballad whose soloist was tenor saxophonist Andrew Park. The next name I missed completely, and can say only that it was a flat-out barn-burner (with a blistering solo by alto saxophonist Mike Acosta), as was the finale, "Blacknail," whose shouting brass brought the session to an exhilarating close. The soloists were alto Alex Budman, tenor Lee Secard and keyboardist Alan Steinberger. As I wrote in the darkness of the hall, "good band, good charts" with emphasis on dynamics and shifting tempos.

Following the Sandoval interview, Christian Jacob's Big Band Theory (representing France) opened (and closed) with music by the German composer Kurt Weill, beginning with the overture and "Ballad of Mack the Knife" from Weill / Berthold Brecht's Threepenny Opera. "Mack" was enhanced by a typically enchanting solo by alto Rusty Higgins. Following Jacob's original composition "Bud Powell," written for one of his pianistic role models and featuring bright solos by trumpeter Bob Summers and tenor Bob Sheppard, vocalist Denise Donatelli was invited onstage for two numbers, Cole Porter's "True Love" and "Love for Sale." More music from Weill's Threepenny Opera followed including a concert highlight, the "Jealousy Duet" between trumpeter Carl Saunders and trombonist Scott Whitfield. Other soloists were Jacob, trombonist Derick Hughes and drummer Ray Brinker. Jacob's brisk arrangement of "Moment's Notice" (fine solos by trumpeter Summers and alto Higgins) led to the tender finale, Weill's "Lost in the Stars" (from Street Scene), on which Jacob played piano and sang. Another first-class session.

After supper, Sandoval ushered his all-star band onstage for the evening's final concert. The ensemble opened in a bright Latin groove with a number whose name, alas, Sandoval never announced. Suffice to say it was a dandy, with forceful statements by Sandoval, tenor Rob Lockart and pianist Wally Minko. Dizzy's "Woody 'n You" (solos by altos Dan Higgins and Rusty Higgins [no relation], trombonists Jacques Jacques Voyemant and Andy Martin, guitarist Dusty Higgins [no relation] and Minko) preceded Sandoval's ballad feature, "The Man I Love," and another original by Gillespie, "And Then She Stopped," which showcased Sandoval and Gary Grant on trumpet, muted and open. Sandoval was out front again, this time with Minko, on Dizzy's "Tin Tin Deo." The highlight came next: Sandoval's fiery duet with fellow high-note maestro Wayne Bergeron on Gordon Goodwin's "Maynard and Waynard" ("You play Maynard—no pressure," Bergeron said to Sandoval, "and I'll play Waynard"). And play them they did, with gusto. The songs that came after—Perez Prado's schmaltzy "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White," a slow bolero called "Closely Dancing"—were largely anticlimactic, even though Sandoval offered a splendid solo on the latter. Time for bed.

Friday, May 27

Another day, another film, this one much earlier (9:30 a.m.), followed by the first of two "meet the bandleaders" panels, moderated by Ken Borgers and including Jacob, Davies, Ponomarev and Altman. After lunch came the weekend's anomaly: the Montreal Jazz Kidz, ranging in age from six to sixteen, presenting a program of well-known standards whose renditions ranged from passable to slipshod. Not putting them down, simply reporting the facts. I enjoyed the concert, as the Jazz Kidz, formed in 2008, radiated energy and enthusiasm and were obviously having fun. As for the musical content, it sounded like kids ages six to sixteen who had recently been introduced to music and jazz. No Wunderkinds here. The youngters hurried through their book of fifteen numbers, roughly half of which were vocals, opening with "C-Jam Blues" and ending with the crowd-pleasing "Mambo Italiano." Few people were in the audience when they began, fewer still when the last notes of "Mambo" were struck. The Kidz, I was told, also performed during Wednesday's "bonus" event aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, a dinner / concert salute to Ted Heath by Altman's superb band.


Big Band Report Jack Bowers United States Stan Kenton Dusko Goykovich Guido Basso Ian McDougall Rob McConnell Don Thompson Terry Clarke Tim Davies Christian jacob arturo sandoval John Altman Valery Ponomarev Toshiko Akiyoshi Tommy Vig Chris Walden Milcho Leviev Bill Holman Django Reinhardt Stephane Grappelli Glenn Miller Ted Heath Quincy Jones John Dankworth Tubby Hayes Dizzy Gillespie Doc Severinsen Ed Thigpen Billy Taylor Bobby Jaspar Eddie Safranski Lars Gullin Bobby Shew Rick Keller Elvis Presley Michel Legrand Juan Tizol Alex Budman Bud Powell Bob Summers Bob Sheppard Denise Donatelli Carl Saunders Scott Whitfield Eric Hughes Ray Brinker Rob Lockart Voyemant Andy Martin Wayne Bergeron Gordon Goodwin Perez Prado Gigi Gryce Clifford Brown Bob Efford Gregg Field Mike Lang Chuck Berghofer Rein de Graaff Chris Conner duke ellington Thelonious Monk Ron Stout Billy Kerr Peter Erskine Bill Green Roger Neumann Clare Fischer Art Blakey Bobby Timmons Clifford Jordan benny golson Jon Mayer Charles Owens lew tabackin Gary Foster Steve Huffsteter Mike Price Jeff Driskill Bruce Otto John Beasley Putter Smith Bruce Fowler Kim Richmond Bob McChesney Peter Herbolzheimer Michael Brecker Andrew Lippman Dave Grusin Don Ellis John Chiodini Alan Kaplan Fred Selden Gary Herbig Kai Winding Cannonball Adderley Bill Evans Billy Strayhorn Sweets Edison Loonis McGlohon Shorty Rogers Woody Herman Terry Gibbs Dave Pell Gerry Mulligan Russ Garcia Johnny Richards Joel Kaye Sue Raney Jimmy Giuffre Marty Paich Pete Rugolo Spud Murphy Don Fagerquist Duane Tatro Bud Shank Bob Cooper Chet Baker Jack Montrose John Graas Johnny Mandel Shelly Manne Graham Carter Jimmie Lunceford Count Basie Thad Jones Mel Lewis Bob Dorough


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