On Friday evening, May 10, I attended a wonderful event in Scranton. I normally would not report on a one-off such as this, but once I learned that it occurs annually, I decided it was worth telling you about. Just recognize that the program varies year to year, so next year’s offering could be something entirely different.
The annual Gene Yevich Memorial Concert at the University of Scranton honors a former city fire chief, who was also a musician and singer and had friendships with quite a few jazz notables of his time, including the writer George Avakian. Gene’s widow Julie was in attendance, and their daughter, Cheryl Yevich Boga, is the Director of Performance Music at the university and the mother of trumpeter Joe Boga, a graduate of Juilliard who lives in New York. Joe is a member of Adrian Cunningham’s band and is a regular sub with Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. Music clearly runs deep in that family: Joe’s sister Magdalyn is on the Performance Music staff and the history department faculty at Scranton.
The evening’s program honored Louis Armstrong, so what better way to do that than to have David Ostwald’s Armstrong Eternity Band perform, and include a narrated audio-video show by Armstrong archivist Ricky Riccardi. Ricky is the author of What a Wonderful World, covering Louis’s later years, as well as a second book now in the editing stage. The Eternity Band has had a continuous gig at Birdland for 19 years.
Ricky’s presentation, interspersed among music selections, was truly memorable. In the band, besides David on tuba and Joe on trumpet, were Arnt Arntzen on banjo and guitar and Alex Raderman on drums, both of whom are regulars at the band’s early Wednesday evening gig at Birdland, which has been running continuously for 19 years. Rounding out the troupe were Will Anderson on reeds and Wycliffe Gordon on trombone. Although I had not seen Wycliffe with the band before, Will was on hand when I saw them a little more than two weeks earlier while I was volunteering at the New York Hot Jazz Camp (about which more elsewhere in these pages). Wycliffe received an honorary doctorate at Scranton in 2006 and has been returning regularly. The band here, as it does at Birdland, played tunes associated with Louis, but did not limit itself to the most well-known Armstrong warhorses.
The evening began with a few numbers from the university jazz band, one of which was Gordon’s tribute to Armstrong titled “Hello, Pops.” Cheryl Boga conducted these 26 musicians, none of whom are music majors. The band included nine saxes—four altos, three tenors and two baritones—four trumpets, six trombones, tuba, guitar, piano, two basses, and two percussion. No amplification was needed in the cavernous Houlihan McLean Center, which formerly served as a church before being acquired by the university. The building also houses a 3,178-pipe organ built in 1910. I seemed to notice an echo when the bands were playing, which I attributed to the design of the hall.The campus is on the edge of downtown, one block from the access road to I-81. There is plenty of free on-street parking during the evening. To learn more about the Gene Yevich concert series and the other music programs at the university, visit scranton.edu/music.