The San Diego Jazz Party began in 1988 and recently celebrated its 32nd anniversary on the weekend of February 21st at the lovely Hilton San Diego/Del Mar.
I attended the Master Classes given by the attending musicians on Friday morning with students from the Mission Bay High School (MBHS). Each instructor occupied one of the adjoining rooms alongside the Grand Ballroom and provided over an hour’s worth of individual words/actions of wisdom to the aspiring musicians.
2019 Jazz Legend Eddie Metz, Jr. (dr) explained his version of “doo-da-boppa” and how his creative word mimicked the sound of the sticks for a certain passage.
Dan Barrett (tb) had a wind-up manually-operated portable player with some old 78 records (he acknowledged there were no “new” 78s). He made a point of referencing some of the riffs as he encouraged his students to pay attention to the various interplay of melodies and harmonies. He wanted them to hear the passion emanating from the instruments. As Musical Director for the San Diego Jazz Party, Dan has lots of experiences to share with these students.
2020 Jazz Legend Richard Simon (bs) had his students play along with him and then gave them tips and advice for this chordal instrument.
Paolo Alderighi (p) and Becky Kilgore (v) had each of their five vocalists sing along with a tune and then created some harmonic phrasing to illustrate the interweaving of their voices. The number “Blue Skies” never sounded so sweet!
Jon Erik Kellso (tp) helped his students by emphasizing the trumpet’s role in the ensemble.
Vinnie Raniolo (gtr) held court in the ballroom’s lobby area and captured the attention of his group with some expert picking and strumming.
Evan Arntzen (reeds) with both clarinet and sax students, had them play “Watermelon Man” as an introductory, basic jazz tune. He encouraged them to pick an artist and listen to them constantly for at least a month or even just two weeks—“Learn their styles so you can develop your own”—sound advice from a professional musician.
I should also note that the San Diego Jazz Party organization awards scholarships to promising young musicians “to allow them to pursue their dreams of furthering world-class jazz to the world.” Last year they awarded one young multi-instrumentalist and this year they honored two individuals. They will soon be receiving and reviewing applications for this semester to be announced next year.
There is a New Orleans and French Quarter Connection! Jean-Paul “JP” Balmat is the (MBHS) Music Director. With 170 students in the program, he has a Preservationist band, a vocal jazz section, a salsa/mambo orchestra, a choir, a concert ensemble and a jazz group. The Preservationist band will be visiting New Orleans for the Easter weekend in April with a workshop at local radio station WWOZ on the 10th. Later that afternoon they will receive similar instructions at Preservation Hall with Wendell Brunious (tp), Craig Klein (tb), and others. On the 11th there will be a performance at the Jazz Park on North Peters. Easter Sunday will find them at the Palm Court Jazz Café at 7:00 pm before the Sunday Night Swingsters take the stage at 8:00 pm. (Editors Note: this article was submitted before the Covid-19 outbreak.)
I wish I could attend their performances at three of my favorite venues and classes with two of my favorite musicians!
Before the Friday afternoon Patron Cocktail Party, Jason Wanner (p) took over the baby grand in the lobby of the hotel while other musicians and attendees were still arriving. It was like having my own private pianist in my living room while enjoying the welcoming coffee cart and cookies provided by the Jazz Party Board.
The hour dinner break gave us time to enjoy the delicious and well-priced buffet at the Del Mar before getting ready for the next sets.
That evening everyone had an opportunity to perform. Ken Peplowski (reeds) and Chuck Redd (vibes) recreated the Benny Goodman/Lionel Hampton classic, “Airmail Special.” It was a delight to see Bill Allred (tb) who was subbing for his son, John Allred, originally scheduled but who had to answer the call of a Broadway rehearsal. Stephanie Trick (p) and Paolo did one of their famous duets and Harry Allen (sx), Nicki Parrott (bs, v), David Stone (bs), Danny Coots (dr), and Rossano Sportielo (p) got additional time on stage along with all the other musicians previously mentioned.
Ed Polcer (cnt) made his 33rd appearance at this Party and showed a true mastery of the horn. I was also very happy to see Houston Person, Jr. (sx) as he missed the party last year but was very glad to “be back” and swinging! He has a true blues sound and is enjoyable to watch.
The following morning’s breakfast buffet gave us a chance to enjoy the musical accompaniments and then various sets. The fun and original component of a Jazz Party is that these musicians have not played these pieces together until they ascend the stage before our very eyes. As individual performers, each knows their own role in the band but the leader of each set sends “instructions” by way of nods and glances.
A tip of the horn here and a wave of a hand there, gives the musicians the roadmap to weave their magic. I always enjoy watching them at the end of the number with looks of joy and wonderment as the band ends the tune together. Yes, they are having fun themselves and as Ed Polcer commented “there is a lot of work behind the scenes” before the leader “strikes up the band!”
I had the opportunity to finally meet Lew Shaw, columnist with The Syncopated Times, and author of Jazz Beat—Notes on Classic Jazz. He had a few copies with him and autographed one for me including an inscription I will cherish forever. This 2013 volume has been recently been given a sequel and the 2020 version soon will be available on Amazon. He and his wife, Carol, often attend these gatherings and I was thrilled our paths crossed at this one.
Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo made their guitars resonate in perfect sync. It was incredible to watch and listen to these two outstanding musicians (who do play together in New York) as I swear I could hear three notes instead of two. Each pick was distinct, precise and clear and when performing a Django Reinhardt classic, their hands moved faster than the eye could follow. As if that wasn’t enough to command their total concentration, they also managed to smile, laugh, dip, kick, and pose when appropriate! I was amazed at how beautiful it sounded.
The “surprise set” on Saturday afternoon had the musicians trading their instruments on stage with the addition of a flute that Nicki Parrott brought to the stage. Harry Allen played the piano and drums; Becky Kilgore strummed her guitar; Eddie Metz, Jr. tackled the bass and had an issue with his now sore fingertips while lamenting the fact that his reign as the 2019 Jazz Legend was coming to an end; Rossano Sportiello slid the trombone quite well and Ed Polcer struck the vibes. Dan Barrett took over the cornet and Chuck Redd tickled the ivories. As it turns out Dan actually does play the cornet—a long cornet—and displayed his talent in a later number. Their renditions of “Jada” and “St. Louis Blues” were like no other.
The newly engaged and soon-to-be-married Evan Arntzen phoned his betrothed while on stage so he could have her listen to the tune “It Had To Be You.” With the cellphone on the stage floor, Ed Polcer gently knelt down to softly play his cornet in its direction. Evan and Scout will be married when this column is published, so we all wish them much love and happiness!
Later that evening Nicki Parrott and Becky Kilgore were in perfect harmony on a set of vocals with other instruments. Nicki declared Becky the “Queen of Ballads” and the title was well deserved.
The Sunday sets begin early and end in the late afternoon. Jason Wanner (p) and Evan Arntzen (reeds) did a thoughtful duet and the entire day was filled with beautiful songs and interpretations. Evan’s grandfather, Lloyd, was an accomplished musician and Evan sang one of his original songs “So Come With Me to the Thrift Shop on the Corner” a nostalgic piece about how we don’t need all the “stuff” we end up acquiring during our lives.
Dan Reid, President of the San Diego Jazz Party, presented the 2020 Jazz Legend Award to Richard Simon who had to accept the gift and “give a speech”—as a retired English teacher, Richard gives new meanings to many words—puns intended and deliberately offered. He is both silver-haired and silver-tongued!
He maintains the bass is the referee between the “war” at the rear of the stage that occurs between the drums and the piano. The bass is the heartbeat of the band and as such takes direction not only from the leader in the front line, but tries to keep up with the glances from the others in the back line. Richard called upon his special friend, Jeannie Cheatham, who had some interesting stories about our guest of honor. Jeannie together with her husband, Jimmy, led The Sweet Baby Blues Band which won many recording awards in its past. Richard spoke of the importance of tempo and timing.
Ed Polcer ended the sets with Louis Armstrong’s “Swing That Music”—one of my many favorite pieces with lyrics that describe this event: “From what I understand, it must be just grand to play in a band when they swing that music—Oh, I’m as happy as I can be when they swing that music for me!”
The Musician’s Dinner was well attended and I had a chance to sit with both Dan Barrett and Becky Kilgore in addition to the 2021 Jazz Legend Awardee, but I’ll let Dan Reid make that announcement with next year’s Jazz Party informational materials.
After the dinner, the jam session in the hotel lobby is one of my favorite parts. Paolo sat at the piano for a while as most of the other musicians took turns on various instruments. Hotel patrons not affiliated with the Jazz Party were full of smiles and also enjoying the music. Some of the musicians had to leave for the airport but most of the others joined in a few numbers with several visiting musicians that attended the Party also bringing their ax. I had a nice conversation with Len Kellogg (tb), leader of the Poudre River Irregulars from Fort Collins, CO and look forward to seeing that group sometime in the future.
The next morning we headed off to the Mission Bay High School for a combination performance/instruction period. Dan Barrett, Jon-Erik Kellso, Eddie Metz, Jr., Jason Wanner, Houston Person, Jr., Vinny Raniolo, Frank Vignola and Richard Simon commandeered the stage while over 500 students enjoyed the sounds of early jazz and Armstrong classics. Richard made a point of explaining that these eight musicians had never played this song together until now—that is the allure of live music. Then each musician offered some personal anecdotes and advice to the crowd.
Houston has been playing for 55 years and encouraged the students to study hard and get an education. Frank has played for 49 years and told them to learn lots of songs and stay out of trouble. Eddie, a Disney World veteran, has played for 56 years and said to give 110% in whatever path you choose to follow. Jon-Erik has been playing for 45 years and suggested they take every opportunity to hear live music and immerse themselves in their craft.
Dan, a Disneyland vet, learned from the elder musicians from New Orleans that moved to California. He also cautioned them to stay out of trouble. Vinny has played for 22 years and noted that a person doesn’t work a day if they love what they are doing, so follow that passion. Jason has been playing for 38 years and commented that jazz “spoke to him” and everyone should find their own voice. Richard acknowledged that as soon as he heard a particular piece, he was entranced and crossed “that threshold” to delve into this genre. I knew exactly what he meant.
Then the (MBHS) Preservationist band (whose students were in the Master Classes the previous Friday) took to the stage to perform “After You’ve Gone”. When finished, the Jazz Party band members gave a critique of their efforts. Overall the band was very good but the musicians were there to instruct them individually and as a whole.
Richard emphasized how they need to be communicating with each other and how the chordal instruments are responsible for the rhythm. He cited that jazz is “never playing the same song once.” Dan noted that the front line needs to stay out of each other’s way. Jon-Erik said to show the melody first then any vocal or instrumental variation can occur. It is a conversation on stage, all instruments together for a collective improvisation versus solo interpretations. Jason cautioned them not to get too far ahead of the basics.
After that the Jazz Party musicians and the (MBHS) Preservationists gave it their all with the St. Louis Blues being the final number. And yes, they all ended at the same time and had a lot of fun, too!
The school bell rang and 500+ students returned to their classes with a fuller appreciation of jazz and its blessings. We headed for home after a wonderful weekend with lots of memories.
(All Photos Ken Arnold)