I've now attended three of the semi-annual gatherings sponsored by Ken Poston and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute, and have learned that even though the performers and programs vary, there's one truism you can take to the bank: just when you're thinking "it can't get any better than this, it gets better than this. The most recent event, Encores in Big Band Jazz: Artistry in Rhythm Meets the Woodchoppers Ball,
which celebrated the music and the legacy of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, was a cornucopia of marvelous sights, sounds and camaraderie, one that should be tenderly inscribed in everyone's book of memories and reclaimed whenever he or she wishes to recall those mystical moments that raise life beyond the ordinary and into the sublime.
Encores, held May 25-28 at the Four Points Sheraton-LAX hotel, was enlivened by three vintage film presentations, seven provocative panel discussions and sixteen superb concerts, all but one performed by world-class big bands whose power, precision and bravado left their audiences breathless and clamoring for more. The exception was a solo recital Sunday afternoon by one of the world's most accomplished Jazz composer / arranger / pianists, Bob Florence. Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau, which performed for an SRO audience Saturday evening, is actually a nonet (plus Maynard), but sounds so much like a big band that we won't split hairs and will number it with the larger ensembles.
While this was the third time around for me, it marked a first in that I was accompanied by my wife, Betty, who was attending only her second large-scale Jazz event in our twenty-six years together (the first was last year's Prescott, AZ, Jazz Summit). Even though this was akin to running a marathon for her, she persevered to the finish line, listening intently to almost every concert and soaking up as much of the atmosphere and musical shop talk as she could. Betty did doze off a couple of times, but that's understandable (I keep telling those trumpeters to play louder!). As a whole, however, it was a positive experience for her, another memorable one for me.
We arrived early Thursday afternoon (the pre-event bus tour of Kenton sites was still in progress), and after checking in at the hotel and unloading the luggage, headed straight for the first panel discussion, "Keepers of the Flame: Maintaining the Legacy, moderated by Kirk Silsbee and featuring Herman alums Frank Tiberi (the orchestra's present leader) and Mike Brignola, and Kentonites Mike Vax and Joel Kaye. The breezy and instructive forum was followed half an hour later by the first of the concerts, with trumpeter Vax leading his hard-charging band of Kenton alumni in an inspired performance whose highlights included trombonist Dale Devoe's "Alex's Tune," Johnny Richards' "Nada Mas (arranged by Kaye), Norm Tompach's exquisite arrangement of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are featuring Florence, Kim Richmond's refurbished treatment of Ray Wetzel's classic "Intermission Riff (in which he transcribed Carl Fontana's trombone solo for the ensemble) and Florence's picturesque salute to Kenton, "Appearing in Cleveland. Vax was featured on "Vax Attacks, a Lennie Niehaus chart written especially for him. Others making their mark included saxophonists Richmond, Kaye, Jerry Pinter and Billy Kerr; trumpeters Steve Huffsteter and John Daversa, trombonist Scott Whitfield, bassist Kristen Korb and drummer Gary Hobbs, the last a sturdy mainstay in several bands during the weekend.
Next came the dinner break (none too soon for Betty), after which we enjoyed a pretty decent closing act, the newest edition of the Woody Herman Orchestra directed by Tiberi who sat in for Woody on clarinet, tenor and alto sax. The program was a mixture of old and new including the indispensable "Apple Honey and "Four Brothers, a lovely reading of "Body and Soul showcasing trumpeter Ron Stout, trombonist John Fedchock's wonderful arrangement of another standard, "Laura, on which he delivered one of his typically breathtaking high-register solos, a couple of songs ("I've Got the World on a String, "I've Got News for You ) by the band's excellent vocalist, Brienn Perry, and Bill Holman's offbeat arrangement of "After You've Gone. The band closed the set with an entertaining version of the venerable "Woodchoppers Ball. The second set included one vocal by Perry, on "Sonny Boy, Fedchock's bright arrangement of "Theme for Ernie, Horace Silver's finger-snapping "Opus de Funk and the dramatic finale, "Fanfare for the Common Man.
Friday morning's first film, covering the years 1938-45, featured clips of Stan, Woody and the bands from various sources including Kenton home movies, courtesy of Shelly Manne and Eddie Bert. Much of the footage was culled from films and television, as was the case with the others to come on Saturday (1945-55) and Sunday (1956-72). Some segments, especially the earlier ones, were Hollywood's way of depicting big bands, so outlandish as to cause one to cringe or laugh, but nonetheless captivating for their historic importance. The second panel discussion, "The Bob Graettinger Story, was presented by Robert Morgan, an educator at the University of North Texas and authority on Graettinger's music, with panelists Max Cramer, Chuck Hall, Frankie White and Bob Graettinger's nephew, John Graettinger. Betty and I couldn't make that one but from what we heard later, it was an informative and entertaining discussion. I'll let my friend Robert J. Robbins carry the ball for a moment: "Morgan . . . displayed several of Graettinger's compositional graphs, in addition to photos and concert programs from Graettinger's high school days in Ontario, CA. Perhaps most notably, the original autograph score of 'Thermopylae' (the first Graettinger opus ever recorded by the Kenton band, as the flip side of 'Peanut Vendor') was also on display.
Poolside concerts were held at noon on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, each one showcasing a topnotch college ensemble from the Los Angeles area. Friday's headliner was the Cal State University-Long Beach ensemble directed by Jeff Jarvis, followed on Saturday by Cal State-Los Angeles under director Jeff Benedict, and on Sunday by the Fullerton College band directed by Bruce Babad. Regrettably, Betty and I were unable to catch any of them, as there was simply no room to sit poolside, so we had to eat lunch indoors. If I were by myself I'd have stood, but couldn't ask Betty to do that. Memo to Ken Poston: Perhaps a few speakers could be discreetly placed inside the hotel (there's a lounge area facing the pool with a picture window through which one can see but not hear everything). That way, those who weren't lucky enough to find a table could at least hear the music at low volume (assuming the hotel would allow it). Some may say that as there's a small admission charge for the concerts that might lessen the cash flow, but I think most people would rather dine by the pool if they could find a place to sit.
After lunch we hurried to the California Ballroom for a concert by the explosive Buddy Charles Jazz Orchestra. Buddy opened with three songs from the band's first album, We're Here, which was released last year, before previewing some of the material to be included on a follow-up album to be recorded later this summer. Among the high spots were features for bassist Chuck Berghofer (Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism ), guitarist Mike Higgins (Frank Mantooth's arrangement of "That Old Black Magic ) and lead alto Charlie McLean (Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You ). The orchestra really hit its stride on the last two numbers, "Tom's Tune (showcasing the band's blue-chip trombone section Bill Watrous, Andy Martin, Bob McChesney, Craig Gosnell) and "You and the Night and the Music, both conducted by Buddy's friend and orchestrator, Don Hanna. I think the gentleman who asked me before the concert, "Who's Buddy Charles? was no doubt dashing across the hall to Herman Moreno's table to buy a copy of the CD, as were many others in the audience.
Panel three, "Double Trouble, comprised of musicians who had played with both the Kenton and Herman orchestras trumpeter Al Porcino and saxophonists Bill Trujillo, Bill Holman and Joel Kaye was ably moderated by Herb Wong who asked interesting questions and received thoughtful and succinct answers. Holman went directly from panel to ballroom to lead the Bill Holman Band, which was being recorded by Jazzed Media Records. Betty and I were there but I'd rather reserve comment until I've heard the CD. What I can say is that the band opened with Billy Strayhorn's "Raincheck, showcased Ron Stout's flugel on Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now, and closed with Holman's extended "Homage à Woody, based loosely on "Woodchoppers Ball. There was more, but as I can barely read the notes I scribbled in the darkened auditorium, that will have to suffice for now.
Friday evening offered a vigorous change of pace with Artistry in Rhythm Meets Artistry in Gillespie, three dynamic sets conducted by Joel Kaye ("Rhythm ) and Bobby Shew ("Gillespie ). In each case, these were all-star groups that had no problem handling the often difficult tempos and rhythms. Kaye's first of two sets began with Pete Rugolo's rumbling "Machito and closed with Bill Russo's strapping "23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West (the location of Havana, Cuba). Sandwiched between were three more compositions by Rugolo, Chico O'Farrill's "Cuban Episode, Holman's "Cuba Jazz and the Latin staple "Peanut Vendor. Superb solos abounded, from saxophonists Kim Richmond and Billy Kerr, trombonists Scott Whitfield and Dale Devoe, pianist Rich Eames, and trumpeters Steve Huffsteter and Carl Saunders (who I later learned was playing superbly, as always only three weeks after hernia surgery).
Shew's set, devoted to compositions by Dizzy Gillespie, underscored what an underrated writer the legendary trumpeter was, including as it did such indelible themes as "Manteca, "Tanga, "Con Alma, "Woody 'n You, "Tin Tin Deo and "Cubana Be, Cubana Bop, and closing with the "Manteca Suite. The standout soloists included Shew, tenor saxophonist Rickey Woodard, trombonist Jack Redmond, trumpeter Don Rader and pianist Bill Cunliffe. Kaye then returned to conduct the entire "Cuban Fire suite, composed by Johnny Richards and recorded by the Kenton orchestra in May 1956, changing the order of the individual selections for maximum impact. According to Joel (my notes are again illegible) the sequence was as follows: "Fuego Cubano, "Quien Sabe, "Recuerdos, "La Suerte de los Tontos, "La Guera Baila, "El Congo Valiente. Another near-perfect performance. "Just think, I said, turning to Betty, "we still have two more days to go! I'm sure that if her eyes had been open she'd have rolled them.
Saturday morning's second film presentation was followed by Panel No. 4, "The Terry Gibbs Dream Band," during the course of which moderator Kirk Silsbee must have been asking himself, "Why me? The panelists were Gibbs, saxophonists Med Flory and Charlie Kennedy, trumpeter Al Porcino and club owner Bob Gaefell who had booked the Gibbs band in the late '50s (or was it the Porcino band?). I can't (won't) go into any great detail here, other than to observe that what began as a light-hearted difference of opinion soon turned deadly serious (these guys weren't acting), with Gibbs and Flory in one corner, Porcino in the other. The bone of contention was the origin of the Dream Band, and exactly who was responsible for its success. The gloves soon came off, and the adversaries sparred toe-to-toe through half of the hour-long session. Perhaps sensing he was outnumbered and outgunned, Porcino sat silent for the last few minutes, but the expression on his face spoke volumes. Silsbee must have been quite relieved to say, "Time's up. The audience filed slowly out, perhaps trying to convince themselves they hadn't dreamed what they had just seen and heard, and headed poolside to cool off with the Cal State-Los Angeles Orchestra.
Porcino returned after lunch, bringing with him his own big band and an entirely new persona (Jekyll to his earlier Hyde?), presiding over a concert that was a pure delight from start to finish. Seated in front of Al was none other than Med Flory, leading the sax section and soloing smartly on the opening number, "Jazzwise (at least, I think that was the name). Again, my hastily scribbled notes leave much to be desired, but the band performed two numbers by Al Cohn ("No Thanks!, "The Goof and I ), Bill Hood's "Papa's Gone, Goodbye, Frank Wess' "Half Moon Street, Ellington's "Moose the Mooche (in SuperSax style), "You Took Advantage of Me, Bob Enevoldsen's sparkling arrangement of "It Could Happen to You and Neal Hefti's mercurial "Whirlybird. This was another all-star group, anchored by a smokin' rhythm section (pianist Mark Massey, bassist Chuck Berghofer, drummer Frank Capp). The standout soloists included trumpeters Rader and Bob Summers, trombonist Whitfield, saxophonists Flory, Bob Hardaway, Lanny Morgan, Dick Hafer . . . and another whose name I've saved for last. Porcino brought one sideman with him from Germany, where he has lived for many years baritone saxophonist Michael Lutzeier who knocked the audience dead with a gorgeous solo on Ellington's "Warm Valley. Great set, Al.
That was a tough act to follow, and it fell to the latest edition of the Four Freshmen to give it a shot. Their program was a charming blend of old and new (they can't leave the stage without crooning the umpteenth rendition of "It's a Blue World ), and the musicianship was first-class all the way. I didn't catch their names (and they weren't in the program), but each of these guys is an accomplished musician as well as singer one plays drums, another bass, a third guitar, and last but not least, the fourth plays trumpet and flugelhorn, and does so about as well as anyone. The Freshmen were followed onstage by ta da! the Terry Gibbs Dream Band, featuring several of the sidemen who had enlivened the Porcino band less than two hours before. Flory was featured on "The Masquerade Is Over, vocalist Joan Carroll on "You've Changed and "I'm Playing the Field. The rhythm section was the same as Porcino's save for pianist Tom Ranier who switched to clarinet for a three-way duel with Bob Efford and Terry Harrington on a sizzling version of "Avalon. While Ranier was away, he was replaced at the keyboard by the indefatigable Carl Saunders. Gibbs, who made no secret of the fact that this was a "battle of the bands with Porcino, was a bundle of kinetic energy throughout, showing his vibes no mercy. The band raised the curtain with Sy Oliver's "Opus One and brought it down with a blistering version of "Flying Home. Other numbers included "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, "Too Close for Comfort, "Tico Tico, "The Fat Man and "What's New. Great set, Terry.
Extra seating was added for the Saturday evening concert, headlined by high-note maestro Maynard Ferguson and Big Bop Nouveau. While some members of the audience had to leave early to save their ears from permanent damage, I stayed to the end. Maynard's tentet exudes power, and the ballroom's p.a. system amplified the fact (pun intended). Maynard was playing more than the last time I saw him (quantitatively speaking) but his once-glorious high notes sound more like a horse's whinny these days. On the other hand, his enthusiasm is undimmed, and he's sharp enough to surround himself with talented young sidemen, especially lead trumpeter Patrick Hession. I don't recall everything that BBN played, but the set did include Slide Hampton's quintessential "Frame for the Blues, a splendid version of "But Beautiful that featured pianist Christian Jacob, the obligatory medley of "MF's Greatest Hits (or, as Maynard says, "Some of the tunes that helped put my kids through college ), and a barely recognizable "Girl from Ipanema with a seemingly interminable drum solo by Stockton Hellbing (to paraphrase the late Lloyd Bentsen, "I knew Buddy Rich, and you're no Buddy Rich ). But Hellbing's hammering did serve to give the band, if not the audience, a well-earned break, and drew a large ovation, so I guess most of them liked it.
The last of the film showings, on Sunday morning, included three rare clips from the Ed Sullivan television show on which Woody was a guest, courtesy of Graham Carter, the head man at Jazzed Media who's a longtime Herman admirer. It was followed by the next-to-last panel, "The Woodchoppers, moderated by author Peter Levinson and including as panelists Ron Stout, Don Rader, Bobby Shew, Dick Hafer and Roger Ingram. After the previous day's set-to, the polite conversation was like a breath of fresh air. And speaking of fresh air, the Fullerton College Jazz Ensemble was next up at poolside, preceding another pleasurable concert in the ballroom, this one by the hand-picked Collegiate All-Star Neophonic Orchestra, ably directed by Jack Wheaton. This was a large orchestra, the reeds and brass augmented by horns and tuba, and Wheaton put their best foot forward by opening with a lovely ballad, Rodgers and Hart's "Isn't It Romantic. Also on the program were Miles Davis' "So What, "Spring Will Be a Little Late This Year, Holman's arrangement of "Tico Tico, Marty Paich's "Neophonic Impressions, Wheaton's breezy "Boppin' at the Ritz, "America the Beautiful, Leonard Bernstein / Stephen Sondheim's "Somewhere (from West Side Story) and a concerto for tenor saxophone and orchestra on which Kristen Edkins was outstanding. Outstanding also describes the orchestra, comprised of top students in the Los Angeles area who are nominated by their music departments or instructors, as Wheaton had them well-prepared and ready to rumble. The future, as Ken Poston observed, is in good hands.
The last of the panels, "The Kentonites," moderated by Mike Vax, was also the largest, consisting of Kenton alumni representing orchestras from the beginning to the end of Stan's long career. Panelists were (left to right) Howard Rumsey, Lennie Niehaus, Mike Suter, Dale Devoe, Carl Saunders, Kim Richmond, Joel Kaye, Gary Hobbs, Steve Huffsteter and Roy Wiegand. Rumsey, the elder statesman, was the bassist in Stan's first band; Saunders joined the band around 1960 while still a teen-ager ("playing mellophonium, which I've been ashamed of ever since ). In spite of the large numbers, the panel was a model of decorum, Vax asked interesting questions, and everyone, as they say in Washington these days, stayed on message, spicing their remarks with brief but pertinent (and sometimes humorous) anecdotes. An hour that went by much too quickly.
Now comes the tricky part. First, my apology to Bob Florence and Ron Stout, whose sessions we missed. Before we flew to L.A., Buddy Charles had said he wanted to take Betty and me to dinner, and as it turns out, Sunday was the day. And so we had to pass on Bob's solo piano recital, which we later heard was typically brilliant, and Stout's tribute to the music of Woody's First Herd, performed by yet another all-star ensemble with a number of the usual suspects plus newcomers Sal Lozano and Roger Neumann in the sax section, trombonists Dave Ryan, Charlie Morillas and Bryant Byers, trumpeter Scott Englebright, pianist Marty Harris and bassist Jennifer Leitham. If only we could have been in two places at once . . .
We returned from dining in time for the evening program, "Big Band Broadway, conducted by Lennie Niehaus (The Stage Door Swings) and Joel Kaye (Kenton's West Side Story). Niehaus, of course, arranged Stage Door in 1958 for the Capitol album and Kenton's "dance book, and it was a thrill to hear again his wonderful arrangements of standards like "Younger Than Springtime, "On the Street Where You Live, "I've Never Been in Love Before, "Lullaby of Broadway and others including "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye (written by Cole Porter, not Harold Arlen), even though the solos were few and brief (no more than sixteen bars, usually less). Kaye and the orchestra then ran through the various themes from West Side Story ("Prologue, "Something's Coming, "Maria, "America, "Cool, "I Feel Pretty, "Gee, Officer Krupke, "Somewhere ) before closing the set and the event with Stan's pulse-quickening theme, "Artistry in Rhythm, performed to a standing ovation.
Encores was beyond question an exciting and memorable four days, and Ken Poston and the Los Angeles Jazz Institute deserve another standing ovation for putting it together. Having said that, and not wishing to belittle anything that was presented, least of all West Side Story, I should confess that on the final evening, I thought that The Stage Door Swings coupled with Woody's My Kind of Broadway would have comprised an even better and more balanced concert. Of course, I don't know how such decisions are made, so perhaps it simply wasn't possible to revisit Woody's Broadway. But it would have been a perfect fit.
Minor quibbles aside, I must say that I can hardly wait to see what Poston has up his sleeve for the next go-round, scheduled, I believe, for October 5-8. If it's anything like Encores, my advice to big-band fans is to mark your calendars now, start making travel arrangements when the dates are confirmed, and register as soon as Poston gives the go-ahead. Once there, you'll find yourself saying, "It can't get any better than this. But take it from one who's been there, it can and does.
I had planned to say a few more words this month about "desert island CDs, but you must be exhausted from reading this, so we'll save it for next time. Until then, keep swingin'!
Visit the Los Angeles Jazz Institute on the web.
New and Noteworthy
1. Phil Woods / Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra, Unheard Herd (Jazzed Media)
2. Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra, Port Chicago (Noir Records)
3. Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Up from the Skies (Planet Arts)
4. Junko Moriya Orchestra, Points of Departure (Spice of Life)
5. Millennium Jazz Orchestra, Oatts Notes (Jazz 'n Pulz)
6. Scott Whitfield Jazz Orchestra East, Diamonds for Nat (Summit)
7. Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, Sacred Music of Duke Ellington (Origin)
8. Dutch Jazz Orchestra, The Lady Who Swings the Band (Challenge)
9. Manhattan School of Music, Contemporary Jazz Composition (MSM)
10. Bob Mintzer Big Band, Old School: New Lessons (MCG)
11. Vic Vogel Big Band, Hangin' Loose (VV Records)
12. Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, Take One (KCJO)
13. US Navy Commodores, Three Shades of Blue (USNC)
14. Magnus Lindgren / Malmo Opera Orchestra, Music for the Neighbours (Amigo Musik)
15. UMO Jazz Orchestra, Sauna Palaa! (UMOCD)