Jacksonville: Big City, Big Band, Big Plans

Jack Bowers By

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Almost everyone who's even mildly interested knows that the big band scene in the US isn't what it used to be. On the other hand, the big bands aren't yet dead, as some alarmists have claimed, or even on life support. Thanks in part to college and armed services programs, there are perhaps as many or more admirable bands in cities large and small than there were during the peak of the so-called big band era. The problem is, fewer people are able to hear them, as economics have prevented the bands from traveling cross-country as they once did, thus giving rise to the premise that they are no longer viable. While that isn't really the case, there's no doubt that big bands as an entertainment choice are on the decline, and have been for some time now. But in places where big bands seem to have died, or at least disappeared, the news isn't uniformly grim; enterprising supporters have sometimes taken bold steps to help ensure their survival. One such place is Jacksonville, FL. In the midst of doom and gloom, it's a success story that should be heard.

In 1984, Jacksonville resident Ira Koger, having seen and assessed a need, formed the St. Johns River City Band to "help keep Jazz and American music alive through performance and education." One year later, the mayor and city council named the SJRCB Jacksonville's Official Band. That same year, the band entered into a long-standing partnership with the Duval County School Board. Its popularity grew throughout the 1980s, bolstered by an appearance at Carnegie Hall with guitarist Chet Atkins and performances with jazz legends Al Hirt, the last at the annual Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

In May 1990, the state legislature designated the SJRCB Florida's Official Band, and it was chosen to take part in the 1990-92 State Touring Program. By this time, ancillary groups had been added (as of August 2009 the number is eight), and the Jazz in 3D Series showcased the brass and swing bands performing with pianist Dave Brubeck, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and singer Della Reese. Meanwhile, the SJRCB commissioned an anthological history, Jazz: A Great American Tradition, at four high schools. This provided the impetus for the St. Johns River City Youth Band, comprised of twenty-six students who performed at various events in the Jacksonville area. In March 1990, the SJRC Brass Band performed with trumpeter Doc Severinsen at the Florida Theatre.

With momentum now on its side, the St. Johns River City Band Guild was formed in 1992, while the band appeared with singer Rosemary Clooney, again at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. In 1994-95, Rhythm on the Road traveled to neighborhoods in Orange Park, Jacksonville Beach, Mandarin and Riverside, presenting free concerts, while the SJRCB was chosen again for the State Touring Program, a tradition that would continue for the next ten years. The band also performed in '95 at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, this time with Dr. John. Three new programs were begun in 1996-97. Lollipop Pops, in partnership with Theatreworks and AT&T, entertained about 3,500 children and their families. The SJRCB partnered with WJCT public radio for Oktoberfest, which drew more than 1,400 attendees. And through the mayor's office, the band performed for the Mayor's Intensive Care Neighborhoods program in Royal Terrace and College Gardens. As a bonus, the Maynard Ferguson band performed in concert and conducted afternoon clinics for local high school and college students.

The narrative since then epitomizes one achievement after another.

1998-99: The Youth Band presented a concert for 1,200 elementary school children from the Mayor's Intensive Care Neighborhoods on jazz instrumentation and sounds, and also performed for schoolchildren at Metropolitan Park. Jazzin' It Up concerts were presented for more than 3,000 elementary and middle school children. At the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, the band performed with the New York Voices and The Manhattan Transfer. As plans were being discussed on starting the SJRCB School of Music, the band established a concert series at a local college and performed in Hemming Plaza for Gov. Jeb Bush, at the Historical Society's Preservation Celebration, and at the inauguration ceremonies for Mayor John Delaney and Sheriff Nat Glover. Also in 1999, the SJRCB released its first CD, Swingin' Up the River. That summer, the band opened negotiations to purchase and renovate the historic Snyder Memorial Church to be used as a performance venue as well as an administrative office and home for the School of Music. Weekly concerts were held along with a summer music camp. In the fall, the organization was awarded two state grants for the renovation of the Snyder Church.

2000-2007: Besides taking part in the state's Touring Program, the SJRCB presented a Tribute to Benny Goodman at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, while more concerts were held in San Marco, Jacksonville Beach and other parts of Jacksonville. The Youth Band expanded to include a high school Jazz ensemble and middle school and high school concert bands. In December 2003, the St Johns River City Band was chosen to present the closing concert at the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago. In 2006, the SJRCB hosted the World's Largest Concert, an annual program of the National Association for Music Education. The concert is a world-wide music sing-along held in one day and coordinated by music educators. The band also performed with singer Diane Schuur at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

2008-2009: The SJRCB was again chosen to take part in the State Touring Program and opened the concert series at North Florida Community College, performing also at the Glenridge and Parker Ranch in Sarasota, at Advent Christian Village and at Santa Fe College's annual Boots 'n BBQ, and was featured with guitarist / singer John Pizzarelli at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. The band continues to support the mayor's office and the city's Office of Special Events, performing for more than 40,000 children and adults each year. Through a partnership with the Jacksonville Public Library, an annual holiday concert is presented for schoolchildren and the general public. The band recorded a DVD, Busy Betsy and the Big Big Band, a children's story written by Frances Key, and donated copies to preschools and elementary schools in Duval County. To celebrate its twenty-fifth anniversary, the SJRCB released its second CD, Silver Threads (see review in Big Band Caravan at AAJ), and was invited by the Daytona Beach International Festival to perform at its opening night dinner and gala for the London Symphony Orchestra.

Besides the River City Big Band, the SJRC ensembles now include River City Satin Swing: The Little Big Band (a nine-piece version of the larger band); River City Back Beat (a smaller ensemble providing light jazz and jazz education for schools); River City Brass Pack (a quartet or quintet that performs a variety of music from classical to pops for parties, weddings, schools and other events); River City 126 (one to six musicians who play at various events); St. Johns River City Brass Band (performing marches, patriotic themes and American folk songs); River City Fusion (three or four horns and rhythm blending jazz and rock); and River City Dixie Jazz (performing music reminiscent of New Orleans and Bourbon Street). All that in only twenty-five years! The SJRCB biography is a textbook example of what can (and should) be done to help resuscitate big-band Jazz. If you'd like more information about the band and / or its programs, e-mail [email protected] or go to the web site, www.RiverCityBand.com

Out and About

I must confess that during its first three years, for various reasons I won't summarize here, Betty and I have had almost no connection with the annual New Mexico Jazz Festival, held for two weeks each summer. That changed on Sunday, July 19, when I drove to Santa Fe (Betty was indisposed) to see and hear tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath leading the Generations Band in concert at the Lensic Theatre. I was prompted not only by the rare chance to see Jimmy but to check out one of my favorite young(er) tenors, Eric Alexander, who shared the front line with Heath, trumpeter Terell Stafford and alto saxophonist Andrew Speight. The concert was preceded by an afternoon "meet the musician" session in which Heath was interviewed by J.B. Spellman, former deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who flew in from Washington, DC, to conduct the session. As it turned out, his was a relatively easy task, as Heath is an accomplished raconteur with a sharp memory and a wealth of interesting anecdotes. He is also, at age 82, a marvelous saxophonist, as he proved that evening. Alexander was also on his game, as was the former Aussie, Speight, and especially Stafford, a dynamo on every number. Once onstage, Jimmy Heath explained the group's name, the Generations Band: "The three guys standing next to me," he said, "are all in their forties; Eric's the youngest at exactly forty. Our pianist (David Hazeltine) is fifty, our bassist (Ray Drummond) is sixty, our drummer (Jimmy's brother, Tootie Heath) is seventy-four, and I'm not gonna say which one of us is in his eighties!"

The septet played one ninety-minute set without pause, opening with Billy Strayhorn's venerable "Take the 'A' Train" (well, they'd not had much time to rehearse). After Jimmy Heath's "The Quota," the front-liners played a "ballad medley," each one choosing one song. Stafford began with "Old Folks," Speight was up next with "Autumn in New York," followed by Heath ("Lover Man") and Alexander (Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time"). Blue Mitchell's lively samba, "Funjii Mama," preceded Jimmy Heath's solo feature, "'Round Midnight," and his funky "Gingerbread Boy," which would have ended the concert save for the audience's demand for an encore. For that, the band chose a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, "On Green Dolphin Street." A splendid concert all-round.

A week earlier, Betty and I were at The Cooperage steakhouse in Albuquerque for a concert by the Albuquerque Jazz Orchestra whose leader, trumpeter Bobby Shew, had been taken ill and was unable to be there. Nevertheless, the ensemble was in fine form. Instead of closing with "Green Dolphin Street," the AJO opened its first set with the Bronislau Kaper standard. The rest was familiar fare (to us) with only one new chart, "Where or When," which featured pianist Stu McAskie, sitting in for Chris Ishee who continues to recover from a heart attack. The capable soloists included two newcomers, alto saxophonist Brian Donahoe (subbing for Glenn Kostur) and trumpeter Dan Jonas (for Kent Erickson). Tenor Lee Taylor was admirable as always on his features, "Here's That Rainy Day," "When You're Smiling" and "My Funny Valentine," as were Donahoe on "Cherokee" and trumpeter Bruce Dalby on "Mulholland Falls." Alas, the attendance was slight (we counted less than thirty), and future engagements at The Cooperage remain in doubt.

On the Horizon

The thirtieth annual Detroit Jazz Festival will be held September 4-7, 2009 in the downtown area of the Motor City. This year's event will celebrate Family Jazz Dynasties and the Detroit Jazz Legacy, with bassist John Clayton as artist-in-residence. "Family guys" to set to perform include 91-year-old pianist Hank Jones (the last surviving member of a family that includes brothers Elvin and Thad), the Clayton brothers (John and Jeff), Dave Brubeck and sons, the Heath brothers (Jimmy and Tootie), John and Bucky Pizzarelli, Larry and Julian Coryell, Pete and Juan Escovedo, and Brian Auger and his family. The "heirs" (those with strong family traditions) include T.S. Monk and Chuchito Valdes, son and grandson of pianists Chucho and Bebo Valdes.

Among those coming "home" to perform are vocalists Sheila Jordan and Dee Dee Bridgewater (from nearby Flint), pianist Geri Allen, drummer Louis Hayes, saxophonists Charles McPherson and Benny Maupin, bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Karriem Riggins, trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and last but not least, bandleader Gerald Wilson who will conduct a work commissioned especially for the Festival's thirtieth anniversary celebration.

But that's not all. Concertgoers will also have a chance to see and hear the Chick Corea Trio, saxophonist Wayne Shorter with bassist John Patitucci, drummer Brian Blade and pianist Danilo Pérez, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and bassist Christian McBride's quintet, Inside Straight. Other presentations include a 100th anniversary tribute to Benny Goodman by clarinetist Eddie Daniels and the Wayne State University Big Band, and a piano salute to Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Milt Jackson by pianist Antonio Ciacca. The Michigan State University Big Band will perform works by John Clayton. Other big bands set to appear are those from Boston's Berklee School of Music and North Carolina Central University. For more information, phone Matt Lee, Festival publicist, at 248-931-2443, or e-mail [email protected]

On October 8-11, the Los Angeles Jazz Institute returns with another Ken Poston event, "Artistry in Rhythm: A Stan Kenton Alumni Reunion," at the LAX Sheraton Four Points Hotel. The lineup is typically awesome, with performances of Bob Graettinger's "City of Glass," Innovations in Modern Music, Contemporary Concepts directed by Al Porcino, 7.5 on the Richter Scale: Kenton in the 1970s, Rugolomania: The Music of Pete Rugolo, the music of Frank Rosolino played by trombonist Andy Martin, the music of Bill Russo, a tribute to June Christy, the Art of Pepper (Art Pepper, of course), the Bud Brisbois Big Band directed by Bobby Shew, the Shorty Rogers Big Band: Cool and Crazy, the Maynard Ferguson Dream Band directed by Don Menza, Shelly Manne's Men, Howard Rumsey's Lighthouse All-Stars performing arrangements by Bob Cooper, a presentation of Progressive Jazz, special salutes to Brisbois, Bud Shank, John Park and Anita O'Day, and appearances by the Bill Holman and Mike Vax Big Bands. All that in addition to the usual films, panel discussions and noon poolside concerts by area college ensembles. For information phone 562-985-7065.

In Other News . . .

On July 10, Madavor Media, a Boston-based publishing and trade-show group, acquired Jazz Times magazine, which otherwise would have gone under. Madavor intends to resume publishing JT and its web site, jazztimes.com, immediately. Jazz Times was founded in 1970 as Radio Free Jazz by Washington, DC-based record-store owner Ira Sabin. Even though the All-Music guide called JT "arguably the number-one Jazz magazine in the world," the current economic downturn took its toll, and the magazine was on the verge of going out of business before Madavor Media stepped in. Current editor-in-chief Lee Mergner and managing editor Evan Haga will stay with the magazine to maintain continuity.

Trombonist Steve Wiest has been named director of the award-winning University of North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band, succeeding such legendary directors as Leon Breeden, Gene Hall and Neil Slater. Wiest, who played in the One O'Clock Lab Band when he was a master's student at UNT, returned to the school in 2007 to direct the U-Tubes, a trombone band, and was named interim director of the One O'Clock Lab Band in August 2008. Wiest has recorded two CDs: Excalibur, with his own Midwest-based big band, and Out of the New, a small-group session with UNT jazz faculty members Fred Hamilton, Stefan Karlsson, Lynn Seaton and Ed Soph. John Murphy, who was recently named director of the school's Jazz Studies division, served as chairman of the search committee that recruited Wiest.

On June 1-2, more than 35 leaders from the jazz education community and affiliated groups met in Chicago to launch the Jazz Education Network (JEN), an association whose focus will be on advancing and expanding jazz education, performance opportunities and audiences. The meetings were facilitated by Gene Wenner of Arts & Education Consultants. After two days of dialogue and deliberation, the group agreed enthusiastically to form JEN. Mary Jo Papich was elected president. Other officers are Lou Fischer, vice president; Bruce Silva, treasurer; and Julie Traenkenschuh, secretary.

After more than twenty years at the helm, trumpeter Rob Parton has decided to deactivate his superb Chicago-based JazzTech Big Band. Future plans, he says, may include either bringing back his nonet, Ensemble 9, or putting together a new big band "with different strengths," although how one could be stronger than his current ensemble is a premise that's hard to comprehend. In any event, Parton has made his decision, and the JazzTech Big Band has been terminated, leaving as a part of its legacy seven high-quality CDs—JazzTech Big Band with Conte Candoli, The Count Is In!, What Are We Here For?, Fascinatin' Rhythm, Just One of Those Things, Eleventh Hour Live and Two Different Days. As Dorothy said to the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, "I think I'll miss you most of all . . ."


Bill Finegan, a composer / arranger who produced hit songs for Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey and was co-leader of the groundbreaking Sauter-Finegan Orchestra in the 1950s, died June 3 at his home in Bridgeport, CT. He was 91 years old. Finegan arranged Miller's first big hit, "Little Brown Jug," and virtually everything the Miller band recorded in 1938-39 before becoming a regular arranger for Dorsey. The innovative Sauter-Finegan Orchestra enjoyed great popularity among music-lovers who were charmed by its quirky arrangements and unusual instrumentation. At its peak, the orchestra's twenty-one musicians played a combined seventy-seven instruments. In its arrangement of the "Troika" from Serge Prokofiev's "Lieutenant Kije Suite," Finegan emulated the pounding of horses' hooves by beating out the rhythm on his chest. The orchestra also made extensive use of flutes, chimes, bells and other lesser-heard instruments.

Alto saxophonist Charlie Mariano, who was a standout in a number of big bands including the Stan Kenton Orchestra before settling in Europe in the early 1970s, died June 16 at age 85. Mariano joined Kenton's orchestra in 1953 and stayed for two years before joining drummer Shelly Manne, with whom he recorded several albums including The Gambit. Mariano returned to his hometown, Boston, in 1958, where he began teaching at the Berklee School of Music while performing in various groups with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy. It was there that he met and married pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi, forming a quartet that first recorded in 1960. The group (and the marriage) lasted for seven years. Mariano also arranged for Akiyoshi's Japanese All-Star Big Band. Also in the 1960s, Mariano recorded with Charles Mingus, most notably on the album The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Mariano's interest in fusion was growing, and he worked with the European free jazz / fusion band Pork Pie Hat with guitarist Philip Catherine and pianist Jasper Van't Hof. In 1975, Mariano was invited to join the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, where he played reeds alongside British saxophonist Barbara Thompson. Also in the band were trumpeters Kenny Wheeler and Ian Carr, bassist Eberhard Weber and drummer John Hiseman. From the late 1980s on, Mariano was a widely sought freelance artist, returning to his earlier bop-style of playing for occasional reunions of Kenton alumni and gigs with Al Porcino's German-based big band.

Bassist Pete Chivily, an alumnus of the Stan Kenton Orchestra who performed with such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, June Christy and the Four Freshmen, died May 6 in Hicksville, NY. He was 68 years old. With Kenton's orchestra, Chivily was heard on the albums Cuban Fire, A Merry Christmas and Kenton's West Side Story. As recently as 2002, he recorded Then and Now with Dennis Bell, and was honored more recently by the NY State Assembly as a Legend of Jazz for his contributions to the arts.

Who's on First?

I seldom comment on so-called Jazz Festivals, preferring to vote with my feet, but a flyer I received from Jazz Aspen Snowmass left me speechless, my lower jaw hanging as if unattached to my face. This year's "headliners" include the Allman Brothers Band Band, Black Eyed Peas, the Doobie Brothers, Michael Franti, Citizen Cope, Umphrey's McGee and the Drive By Truckers. Say what? Okay, I do recognize a couple of names (Allman, Doobie) but not in any jazz context I can recall. I know these events have to make money, but why call them jazz festivals? They seem to have about as much kinship to jazz as Guy Lombardo or Lawrence Welk. As a lifelong jazz fan, I'm somewhat troubled by festivals such as Snowmass who (mis)use the name "jazz" as a basis for presenting rock and other forms of "pop" music to an audience. Perhaps some of the above-named are "jazz" artists, but I've heard nothing to bear that out. In the final analysis, however, my opinion carries about as much weight as a bulimic super-model. "Jazz Aspen Snowmass" will continue as before, and perhaps that's a good thing, as the thousands who attend may at least think they are hearing jazz and be more open to the real thing should it ever stray past their ears.

And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin' . . . !

New and Noteworthy

1. Bob Florence Limited Edition, Legendary (MAMA)
2. Paul Ferguson Jazz Orchestra, Live at the Bop Stop (Azica)
3. Resonance Big Band, Plays Tribute to Oscar Peterson (Resonance)
4. Dave Siebels, With Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band (PBGL)
5. Jason Hainsworth, Kaleidoscope (DW Jazz)
6. Vaughn Wiester, Herb-al Remedy (BRC)
7. University of Northern Iowa, Thinking Globally, Acting Locally (UNI Jazz)
8. The London Horn Sound, Give It One (Cala Records)
9. DePaul University Jazz Ensemble, Next Season (DePaul Jazz)
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11. Dave Rivello Ensemble, Facing the Mirror (Allora Records)
12. Howard University Jazz Ensemble, HUJE 2008 (HUJE Jazz)
13. Jentsch Group Large, Cycles (Fleur de Son)
14. Fat Cat Big Band, Meditations on the War (Smalls)
15. Northeastern Oklahoma State Jazz Ensemble, Global Citizen (no label)



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