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Rob McConnell: Boss of Bosses


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Even though largely unknown to most of us south of the border, a number of world-class big bands have made their home in Canada over the years. For nearly three decades, however, there was one whose name and influence rose conspicuously above the others. That band was, of course, the incomparable Boss Brass, and the reason for its singular record of achievement can be summed up in two words: Rob McConnell. More than a superb composer, arranger and valve trombonist, McConnell, who died May 1, 2010, at age 75, was a paragon of elegance and unswerving good taste, qualities that were among the hallmarks of the Brass, which he founded in 1968 and led until he was forced by economic realities to disband in the late 1990s. He re-emerged a year or so later as leader of the scaled-down Rob McConnell Tentet, which recorded three well-received albums on Canada's Justin Time label. The Boss Brass was reunited in December 2008 for a series of three concerts in Toronto, all of which played to standing-room-only audiences.

McConnell formed the Boss Brass as an all-brass group (trumpets, trombones, French horns) with rhythm to produce instrumental versions of popular songs of the day. Saxophones were added three years later while McConnell gradually revised the book to encompass more jazz and less pops, and by the mid-1970s the Brass had become not only the foremost big band in Canada but one of the finest in the world. In 1976 the Brass added a fifth trumpet, raising the number of its members to 22 (the leader always kept the French horns).

McConnell, who won three Grammy Awards (he was nominated for 15) and a similar number of Junos, Canada's equivalent of the Grammies, was inducted in 1997 into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the following year was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. The Boss Brass made its U.S. debut at the 1981 Monterey Jazz Festival and recorded more than thirty splendid albums for Concord, Pablo, MPS, Sea Breeze, Innovation and other labels including collaborations with singer Mel Torme (twice), the Singers Unlimited and alto saxophonist Phil Woods (the brilliant album Boss Brass and Woods).

For his part, McConnell always employed no less than the finest musicians eastern Canada had to offer, and a list of Boss Brass alumni embodies such luminaries as trumpeters Guido Basso, Arnie Chycoski, Steve McDade, Kevin Turcotte, Sam Noto, Erich Traugott, Dave Woods, John MacLeod and Dave Dunlop; trombonists Alastair Kay, Ian McDougall, Bob Livingston, Dave McMurdo, Jerry Johnson and Ernie Pattison; saxophonists Moe Koffman, Alex Dean, Rick Wilkins, Jerry Toth, Gene Amaro, Johnnie Johnson and Bob Leonard; pianists Dave Restivo and Jimmy Dale; guitarists Ed Bickert, Reg Schwager and Lorne Lofsky; bassist Jim Vivian; drummers Terry Clarke and Ted Warren; percussionist Brian Leonard and jack-of-all trades Don Thompson (bass, piano, vibes, arranger). There would be more save for the fact that several members of the Brass were with McConnell from start to finish.

It wouldn't be far amiss to argue that for three decades, Rob McConnell was the heart and soul of Canadian big-band jazz. He was certainly its brightest light, the leader everyone else looked up to and aspired to emulate. It was a sad day when he had to disband the Boss Brass, an even sadder one when he left us for good. Most artists, no matter how creative or talented, can sooner or later be replaced. A Rob McConnell, never. He truly was one of a kind, and we'll never see his like again.

Two More Giants Leave the Stage

What can one say about Hank Jones that hasn't been said hundreds or even thousands of times before. Suffice to say he was one of the pre-eminent jazz pianists of the 20th century, the oldest and last survivor among three brothers (trumpeter Thad and drummer Elvin were the others) who not only made their mark as musicians but blazed new trails that others pursued with a mixture of awe and aspiration. Hank played almost to the end, performing in the U.S. and around the world until shortly before his passing on May 16, 2010, a little more than two months before his 92nd birthday. Aside from his superb technique and feather-like touch at the keyboard, Hank Jones was a gentleman, widely admired as much for his graciousness as his talent. So much in demand that he can be heard on more than five hundred recordings, he played with a who's who of jazz greats from the early bop era onward. His extraordinary skills as an accompanist made him especially sought-after by singers. A contemporary, the legendary Canadian pianist Oscar Peterson, once said, "Everything I know about comping I learned from Hank Jones." One of Jones's more memorable moments as an accompanist occurred in 1962 when he valiantly supported actress Marilyn Monroe as she sang "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.

Jones's most recent awards include a Congressional Achievement Award, NEA Jazz Master (1989), induction into DownBeat magazine's Jazz Hall of Fame (2009), the Jazz Journalist Association's Pianist of the Year award (2009) and a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement (2009). The awards came after a lifetime of performing with groups of all shapes and sizes in venues from Europe to Asia as well as in nightclubs, arenas and concert halls from one end of the U.S. to the other. Included was a 15-year tenure (1959-74) as staff pianist with the CBS Television orchestra. Jones's most recent album, Pleased to Meet You, with Canadian pianist (and Peterson disciple) Oliver Jones, was released in October 2009 on Justin Time Records, and another, an album of duets with bassist Charlie Haden, is scheduled for release later in 2010 on Universal France.

Jones was enormously popular in Japan, which he visited at least once a year. At the 1987 JVC Jazz Festival in New York City, he shared an evening of solos and duets with the great George Shearing, having performed previously in duets with John Lewis, Marian McPartland and fellow Detroiter Tommy Flanagan. As late as 2009, at age 90, Jones performed in Vienna, Paris, Geneva, Prague and Istanbul. While his singular voice has now been silenced, the music lives on, as indeed it shall for many years to come.

Lena Horne, who was not only one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century but one of the most beautiful as well, died May 9, 2010, in Manhattan. She was 92 years old. Had she been white, or born a generation or more later, there's no telling how brightly her star may have shone. Even so, there was no denying Horne's enormous talent, and though Hollywood cast her in films wherein she was able to do no more than add a song that could easily be cut when said films were shown in the South, she radiated star-power in such 1940s films as Thousands Cheer, Broadway Rhythm, Two Girls and a Sailor, Till the Clouds Roll By, Ziegfeld Follies and Words and Music. When in 1951 MGM turned the play Show Boat into a musical for the second time, the role of the mulatto Julie was given not to Horne but to a white actress, Ava Gardner, whose singing voice had to be dubbed. It was another in a series of disappointments for Horne, whose only starring roles had been in two all-black films, Stormy Weather (1943) and Cabin in the Sky (1946).

While touring Army camps for the USO during World War II, Horne was outspoken in her criticism of the way black soldiers were treated. This, she later said, was one of the reasons she was blacklisted and unable to find work in films or on television "for the next seven years" after her contract with MGM ended in 1950. Her marriage in 1947 to the white conductor / arranger / pianist Lennie Hayton may have been another reason. Once away from Hollywood, Horne found success in nightclubs and on records. Lena Horne at the Waldorf-Astoria, recorded in 1957, reached the Top 10 and became the best-selling album by a female singer in RCA Victor's history. In 1978, Horne played Glinda, the good witch, in The Wiz, a film version of the all-black Broadway musical based on The Wizard of Oz, and scored another triumph three years later with her one-woman Broadway show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, which ran for 14 months and for which she earned a Tony Award.

Horne, who credited composer / arranger Billy Strayhorn for much of her success as a singer, continued recording well into the 1990s before retiring to her home in Manhattan. She leaves a legacy far beyond what might have been expected from a singer who was forced by circumstance to perform for many years under the oppressive cloud of racism. That she emerged triumphant is a testament to Lena Horne's remarkable talent and tenacity.

Setting the Record Straight

When writing last month about the Jazz and Blues Camp for girls (August 9-14, 2010) in Montclair, CA, an error was made and the wrong faculty was listed. How could that happen? Well, when we went to the school's website for information, there was a link at the left-hand side of the page leading one to "faculty." That's the link that was used. As it turns out, however, the faculty listed there was for another camp entirely. A correction was made, but not until the column had been posted for three weeks. To set the record straight, here again is a list of faculty for the Jazz and Blues Camp. It is comprised entirely of women, most of whom are members of the excellent Montclair Women's Big Band: Ellen Seeling and Jean Fineberg, directors; Fineberg and Mad Duran (saxophones, winds, ensembles); Seeling and Christy Dana (trumpet, ensembles, theory and improvisation, jazz listening and appreciation); Mimi Fox (guitar, ensembles); Tammy Hall and Erika Oba (piano, keyboards, ensembles); Ruth Davies and Ariane Cap (acoustic and electric bass, ensembles); Kelly Fasman and Michaelle Goerlitz (drums, percussion, ensembles); Jessica Neighbor and Rhonda Benin (vocals, vocal ensembles, songwriting).

Odds 'n Ends from Here 'n There

Louis, a silent film depicting the early life and times of trumpet legend Louis Armstrong and starring Jackie Earle Haley, Shanti Lowry and Anthony Coleman, will premiere in five U.S. cities in late August 2010 with live musical accompaniment by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, pianist Cecile Licad and a ten-piece jazz ensemble whose members include Sherman Irby, Victor Goines, Marcus Printup, Ted Nash, Curt Bacher, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Dan Nimmer, Carlos Henriquez, Ali Jackson and conductor Andy Farber. Marsalis will play a score comprised mostly of his own compositions, while Licad will play music the the 19th century composer Louis Gottschalk. The film, directed by Dan Pritzker, is described as an homage to Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, beautiful women and the birth of American music. The streets, alleys and cemeteries of 1907 New Orleans provide the backdrop for the six-year-old Armstrong as he navigates the colorful intricacies of life in the city. His dreams of playing the trumpet are interrupted by a chance meeting with a beautiful yet vulnerable girl named Grace (Lowry) and her baby, Jasmine. Haley plays the evil Judge Perry who is determined not to let Jasmine's true heritage derail his candidacy for governor. Louis can be seen August 25 at Symphony Center in Chicago; August 26 at the Max Fisher Music Center in Detroit; August 28 at the Strathmore Center in Bethesda, MD; August 30 at the Apollo Theatre in New York City; and August 31 at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside (Philadelphia), PA. For more information, go to www.louisthemovie.com

The San Francisco arts organization SFJazz has announced its plans to build a 35,000-square-foot facility in the city's Hayes Valley neighborhood devoted exclusively to jazz. The building, to be called the SFJazz Center, is scheduled to break ground in spring 2011 and to open in fall 2012. It will entail a $60 million capital campaign that includes a $10 million operating endowment (which is already in hand). SFJazz, founded in 1983, sponsors nearly 100 concerts a year for a growing audience that includes a 3,000-member subscriber base. It produces the city's annual fall jazz festival as well as its own year-round series of concerts, discussions and workshops. Since 1984 it has cultivated its own in-house ensemble, the SFJazz Collective, whose membership has included such marquee names as Joshua Redman, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, Bobby Hutcherson and Nicholas Payton. The band records and tours with a new program each year.

And last but not least, a name, dates and location (but nothing more) have been announced for the next Ken Poston / L.A. Jazz Institute event in October 2010. The name is "Come Swing with Me: A Jazz / Big Band Tribute to Frank Sinatra." The dates are October 21-24, the location the Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotel. The LAJI press release adds that the event "will feature concerts of music associated with the Sinatra legacy including arrangers, lyricists and sidemen." As usual, there's a "bonus" event on October 20 but there's no use describing that, as it has already sold out.

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

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