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The AZ Jazz Academy: Onward And Upward

Jack Bowers BY

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The Arizona Jazz Academy, a meeting place for some two hundred aspiring jazz musicians of high school and middle school age, is modestly housed on the third and upper floor of the First Baptist Church Educational Building at the corner of 5th Street and 6th Avenue in downtown Tucson. After climbing two flights of stairs and entering the rather nondescript work area, one's initial impression is that the young people from more than thirty schools who gather there, mostly on weekends, to learn the intricacies of jazz performance and improvisation deserve better than this.

But after meeting director Doug Tidaback and listening to him speak enthusiastically about the great strides forward the Academy has made in less than four years, that perception starts to change. "Actually, he says, "this is the best facility we've ever had, pointing out that there are three rehearsal rooms, a control room for recording, a library for charts and other materials, storage rooms, and offices for Tidaback, director of advertising/promotions Rodney Burton, and other staff.

Unfortunately, the quarters are only temporary, as the church intends to sell the property, and that has been the story of the AJA's life since it was born in 2003. Its first home has been reduced to a hole in the ground about a block or so away; its second was made uninhabitable by a landlord who went out of his way to abort the Academy's four-year lease after only one year; and its third, the community music-based Prime School, was forced to close its doors at the end of 2005 owing to a lack of financial support.

Tidaback, a trombonist who arrived in Tucson five years ago to conduct one high school and one middle school band in addition to his temporary teaching duties at the University of Arizona, takes it all in stride. He's confident, he says, that the Academy can find a new home as more people in Tucson become aware that it is an important and perhaps indispensable part of the city's cultural/educational scene. After all, he says, a little more than three years ago there was no AJA, and look how far it has come since then. Tidaback was actually hired by Ed Ulman, then director of the Tucson Jazz Society. In January 2003, when the TJS discontinued its education program and Tidaback's contract with UA had ended, he was given an opportunity by parents who wanted their children to continue learning music to establish an organization devoted entirely to jazz education.

When Tidaback was named director there were two big bands, one high school, the other middle school. Now there are eight, four high school and four middle school, plus ten smaller combos that include Latin and vocal jazz. Besides serving as director, Tidaback teaches, and has assembled a staff of professionals that has included at various times Malik Alkabir, Mike Kuhn, Akila Fields, Ken Tittlebaugh, Dan Bigler, Rick Padilla, Tony Franks, Rob Boone, Greg Armstrong, Les Baxter, Neaman Lyles, Sam Eagon, Scott Black, James Williams, Jeff Fritel, Joel Gottschalk and Don Noddingham. The Academy is funded through tuitions, performances (more than a hundred this year in Tucson alone) and sponsorship donations from civic-minded Tucsonians.

Tidaback has given the young musicians plenty of chances to prove themselves, taking the various groups to jazz festivals in Arizona and elsewhere, and last July the AJA's top two big bands, Ellington and Basie, visited Europe, appearing at prestigious jazz festivals in Montreux and Geneva, Switzerland; Paris and Vienne, France; and San Sebastian, Vittoria, Segovia and Madrid, Spain. A second trip, to Italy, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands, is planned for summer 2007. At this year's Fullerton (CA) Jazz Festival, ten of the Academy's eleven groups earned first-place honors, the other a second-place, while AJA soloists won the top seven awards among high school entrants (in all, the Academy received fifty-two awards). The Ellington band has taken part for the past two years in the Prescott (AZ) Jazz Summit.

As if that weren't enough, a number of the students perform on weekends at local "partner venues that include hotels, restaurants and other eating places as part of a Jazz Apprentice program through which students earned $32,000 in 2005-06 to offset tuition costs, and the Academy sponsors a Jazz in the Schools program in which ten local schools presently take part. A Jazz-a-Thon is held in May, a Christmas party/concert in December. Jazz trumpeter Orbert Davis, a regular visitor from Chicago, has called the AJA "the most creative school jazz program that I know of, and it has received high praise as well from Lennie Niehaus, Bob Florence and others.

In spite of the many obstacles it has encountered, the Academy continues to move forward, and Tidaback's passion for the music and the young musicians who come there to learn is contagious. At a time when it's easy to despair about the future of jazz, the Arizona Jazz Academy provides an oasis of hope in a largely barren desert—which is entirely appropriate, as Tidaback, his staff and students have led a nomadic life to this point. Should they ever find a more permanent place to call home, there's no telling how far they may go.

Ulman Steps Aside at NMJW

Speaking of Ed Ulman, as I was a few paragraphs ago, he has resigned after five years as executive director of the New Mexico Jazz Workshop to take a position at a local public television station in Albuquerque, and the Workshop is seeking a replacement. Applications are being accepted through December 6.

Here are some details from the group's web site: "The NMJW desires candidates with a visible, vested long-term interest in jazz, blues, salsa, and Latin jazz with the ability to work cooperatively and effectively with area arts organizations and with the support of a volunteer board of directors. Qualified applicants must have: at least two years experience in a management position with a non-profit, government entity, or business; bachelor's degree or equivalent; M.A. desired; strong oral and written communication skills; computer skills. Successful candidates will possess a track record of proven leadership, with skills in personnel and time management, annual budgeting and finance, public relations, advocacy, and entrepreneurship, experience in programming, strategic planning, and successful fund-raising. Evidence of expertise in managing a non-profit organization and examples of collaboration with culturally diverse individuals and organizations should be indicated in the application materials. Annual salary: $45,000+ depending on experience and qualifications. Compensation package includes medical benefits.

To apply, candidates should send a detailed résumé, references and cover letter by Dec. 6, 2006 to: Search Committee, New Mexico Jazz Workshop, 5500 Lomas Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87110. (Electronic applications will be accepted at [email protected]).

Coming Events...

A final reminder that the 34th annual Conference of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) will be held January 10-13 at the New York Sheraton and Hilton hotels. More than 8,000 educators, musicians, industry executives, media and students from 45 countries are expected to attend. If you've never attended an IAJE conference, it's hard to describe in words what you've been missing. It's a great four days, filled with music, lectures, clinics, audio-visual presentations and a 75,000-square-foot exhibit hall that must be seen to be believed.

As always, there'll be awards too—the President's Award to French composer Michel Legrand; the NEA Jazz Masters Awards to Toshiko Akiyoshi, Curtis Fuller, Ramsey Lewis, Jimmy Scott, Frank Wess and Phil Woods; the IFO International Jazz Award for New Talent to Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick, and a special award for Jazz Advocacy to Dan Morgenstern, among others.

Of course, the music's the drawing card, and this year's performers are a rich and diverse group from big bands to combos, traditional to avant-garde. Big bands include Finland's UMO, the Air Force Falconaires, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, NewYorkestra, the Henry Mancini Institute Big Band, ensembles led by Charles Tolliver, John Fedchock and John Hollenbeck, plus the usual number of high school and college bands.

The first Jazz Arranging Competition sponsored by the University of South Florida in Tampa is a tribute to Michael Brecker. The university's Center for Jazz Composition welcomes submissions of scores for big band from composers of all nationalities. Submissions may be made in either of two categories: Open (no age restrictions) or Young Artist (30 years of age or younger as of June 1, 2007). Submissions must be received by February 23, 2007. Winning selections will be premiered by Chuck Owen and the Jazz Surge in three concerts dedicated to the works of Michael Brecker in April 2007.

And last but not least... The Los Angeles Jazz Institute is planning another spectacular event for big-band lovers, "Swing Into Spring, next May 24-27 at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel at LAX. There's no tribute to any specific band or bands this time, simply four days of great music by nearly twenty outstanding West Coast ensembles including the Don Ellis Alumni Band directed by Milcho Leviev and featuring Sam Falzone and Fred Selden; the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra playing the music of Charles Mingus; the Bob Florence Limited Edition; and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Completing the lineup are Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, the Carl Saunders Bebop Big Band, Maiden Voyage, the Frank Capp Juggernaut, Roger Neumann's Rather Large Band, Gerry Gibbs and the Thrasher Big Band, the Scott Whitfield, Buddy Collette, Wayne Bergeron, Mike Barone and Steve Huffsteter big bands, Stan Kenton's Adventures in Time, and the Collegiate Neophonic Orchestra of Southern California directed by Jack Wheaton.

There's also a special VIP level that includes front seats in the ballroom and a bus trip to Balboa Beach on May 23 that includes a walking tour of historic sites including the Rendezvous Ballroom, lunch at the Balboa Pavilion and a concert by the Mike Vax Big Band featuring Stan Kenton alumni. Wow!

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

New and Noteworthy

1. Steve Cannon/Blow Hard Big Band, Full Blown (BRP)
2. Jim Cutler Jazz Orchestra, In Progress (Pony Boy)
3. National Youth Jazz Orchestra, London Pride (NYJO)
4. hr Big Band, Once In A Lifetime (TCB)
5. Doug Lawrence & His Orchestra, Big Band Swing (DLM)
6. Jazz Project Big Band, Thanks For The Memories (no label)
7. Colin Byrne Jazz Orchestra, Leaving For Home (TDCB)
8. U Wisconsin—Eau Claire, Lockbox (Sea Breeze Vista)
9. Vic Vogel/European Jazz Orchestra, Hommage à Oscar Peterson (VV Records)
10. John C. Smith & The Pecos River Brass, What a Wonderful World (PRB)
11. Joey Sellers Jazz Aggregation, El Payaso (Nine Winds)
12. Mt. Hood CC Jazz Band And Combo, My Foolish Heart (Sea Breeze Vista)
13. Buddy Collette Big Band, Live At El Camino College (UFO Bass)
14. West Australian Youth Jazz Orchestra, WAYJO Live (no label)
15. Marilyn Harris & The L.A. All-Stars Big Band, Round Trip (Wrightwood)

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