Jazz in the Mountains

While Hurricane Ida was heading towards New Orleans and the State of Louisiana, we were up in the northern part of Arizona at the Prescott Jazz Summit, celebrating its 20th anniversary.

Festival Director, Founder and Leader of the Stan Kenton Legacy Orchestra and other groups, Mike Vax presented a dynamic group of professional and world class musicians. Their biographies and affiliations named anyone and everyone in the industry. Comedian and Master of Ceremonies, Pete Barbutti, kept the laughs (and some corn!) coming in between numbers and provided the audience with lots of well-placed humor. A Tonight Show veteran, he has appeared on national television over 1000 times.

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We were very excited to welcome New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp Executive Director Banu Gibson to the Summit after having just spent time with her in New Orleans (see my August column). Banu is also a bandleader, vocalist, dancer, banjo/guitar player, director, choreographer, and manages her own record label (Swing Out Records). She has lived in New Orleans since 1981.

Jazz in the Mountains
At the Prescott Jazz Summit: Dave Russell (cl), Banu Gibson (v),
Selwyn Reams (bs), Mike Vax (flgl). (photo bt Ken Arnold)

Blues Brothers alumnus Tom “Bones” Malone, a gifted multi-instrumentalist, wrote the chart for the skit that introduced John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. Bones related a story involving Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels’ reluctance to air the original skit and after several attempts was finally convinced and the rest became history with the popular movie. At the Saturday night concert, Bones played all of his half-dozen instruments (including Sousaphone) in an extended “Sweet Home, Chicago” number and brought back lots of memories of his time with SNL and the CBS Orchestra contributing more than 1600 arrangements to the Late Show.

The Prescott High School and its beautiful Ruth Street Theater has fantastic acoustics and their Jazz Band with its 15 students sounded very good considering that six of them were freshmen who had only been practicing for three weeks!

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Both the Friday and Saturday night concerts at the High School were attended by many locals as the ticketing was by single event or an all-event purchase. The Saturday afternoon Music and Jazz Workshop held for the students and any attendees started with some videos of well-known bands with Mike Vax’s class “Teaching Jazz Performance and Improvisation Concepts Through The Use Of Historical Perspectives.”

Mike reviewed the early origins of jazz from its beginning in the 1900s and in its simplest forms started with the vocal traditions in spirituals and work songs through the rhythmic traditions and patterns retained from African roots. Military Band music also became a main influence with regard to instrumentation, form, feel, rhythms and presentation.

Jazz in the Mountains
Bones Malone and his slide trombone (Photo: Ken Arnold)

Jazz from the Jazz Age of the Roaring ’20s was the real “pop” music of the era and mainly played for dancing. The rhythms moved away from the march feel and more towards what we now call two-beat or traditional jazz. Arrangements started to be used rather than just playing by ear and improvisation became less important than the total arrangement for most of the popular bands. Solos used a lot of rhythmic variety and stabs and punches prevailed. Much improvisation was based on triads and simple chords outlying the melody. Some bands like Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 and Hot 7 broke new ground and began basing improvisation on chord changes instead of just the melody. This was a real breakthrough in the development of jazz improvisation.

The Big Band or Swing era had its reeds, trombones, trumpets and rhythm sections. Some of the successful bands used a string section and vocalists and vocal groups were used by many bands. Almost all used arrangements and improvised solos were kept to a minimum with the rhythm section keeping a very steady beat for dancers.

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The advent of Be-Bop started in “jam sessions” after the regular jobs were over for the night and the intent was to satisfy the musicians’ cravings for a more free form of jazz away from the required arrangements; it was not to entertain the audience. Many fast tempos and running 8th note patterns involved more chord changes and structures while the rhythm section was freed up to be more creative and not just time keepers.

Jazz in the Mountains
Mike Vax (flgl) and the mysterious “blue glove”

After the videos and class, the band took to the stage for a 10 minute piece and then broke up in sections (reeds, trombone, trumpet and rhythm) for additional instruction. We stayed with the rhythm section and Reggie Thomas (pianist, educator and Director of the Northern Illinois Jazz Orchestra) worked with two drummers, two bassists and a pianist to “punch up” their influence on the tune being prepared for the evening concert. Reggie would have the drummer and the student on the bongos play their section once. Then he would give them a few tips and encouragement to arrange the beats with different emphases while influencing both the piano and bass. Then all the sections came together for one final rehearsal.

For those of us that heard the piece first prior to the separate instruction, the evening performance was outstanding! The students really listened to and understood what was being challenged; the difference was very noticeable after the influence and direction of the professional musicians.

Sunday morning brought us to the Jazz Brunch in the Marina Room at the historic Hassayampa Inn in downtown Prescott. This was a playful interlude and the musicians broke off into different groups for various sets. They seemed to really enjoy the casual atmosphere and performing with one another.

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Some of the other musicians included Gary Anderson (bari), Scott Winfield (tb), Claude Askew (dr), Tony Vacca (tenor), Howard Alden (gtr, bj), Peter Welker (tp), Calvin Audis (bass tb), Kim Richmond (alto), Paul Brewer (sx), Dave Russell (reeds), Khris Dodge (p), Brian Zabriskie (tb), Kenny French (dr), Jack Peterson (gtr), Chris Finet (bs), Stefan Loncar (tp), Rick Schmidt (pedal steel gtr), Dave Coolidge (tp), Selwyn Reams (bs), Bruce Gates (tp), Derek Young (tp), and Art Swanson (tb).

What a line-up with multiple credits and histories too numerous to acknowledge here!

Vocalists Dennis Rowland and Ronnie Rose teamed with Banu on several numbers and their own solos were reminiscent of iconic Nat “King” Cole or Joe Williams renditions. Scat singing, delicious food, and lots of audience banter made for a very pleasant morning.

The afternoon session held in the same room also had different musicians playing together and various leaders on each set. The public was also able to attend this session so the room was completely sold out and the enthusiastic and attentive guests were enthralled.

The evening session was held at a local restaurant – Murphy’s – where diners or bar patrons could enjoy the last of the Summit offerings.

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It was a very pleasant weekend and we were able to deliver a very special “blue glove” to Mike Vax from New Orleans trumpeter Kevin Ray Clark, both of whom have been leaders of the well-known DUKES of Dixieland. A fun rivalry exists between them and you will have to get the full story from one of them. We remain committed to silence unless of course we are once again engaged in the conspiracy!

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After 48-1/2 years, Shelly Gallichio is a retired Real Estate Associate Broker in Tucson, Arizona and despite growing up in Chicago, fell in love with the clarinet and the New Orleans sound at the age of three—she intends to spend the next 48-1/2 years seeking that sound! Reach her at [email protected]

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