West Texas Jazz Party Celebrates Fiftieth Anniversary in High Style

WTJP president Margaret Gillham, music director Johnny Varro and the dedicated members of the West Texas Jazz Society pulled out all the stops in observing the 50th anniversary of their mid-May jazz party in Odessa. From all reports, it was an absolute GEM!

One of the most memorable moments was the return to action of Bucky Pizzarelli, back on the bandstand after suffering a mild stroke. “Bucky’s Back!” tee-shirts were a hot seller, recognizing the beloved guitarist who first performed for the Texans in 1968. Son Martin backed his father on bass and kept a watchful eye on his Dad like a mother hen watching her chicks.

Red Wood Coast

The celebration kicked off with a Thursday night dance party led by saxman Houston Person, along with Varro, Joel Forbes and Butch Miles. The Four Freshmen made a special appearance Friday, followed by the usual mix-and-match performances involving the 21 all-star musicians throughout the balance of the weekend.

Good humor was never in short supply as Bucky Pizzarelli played a requested solo of Send in the Clown, and son Martin then introduced Ken Peplowski, who appropriately asked Bucky if there was any significance between the song and his being announced to do the next number.

2nd Oldest Jazz Party

While Dick Gibson is credited with initiating the jazz party concept in 1963 when he brought a group of musicians he liked and some of his friends together over Labor Day weekend in the mountains of Colorado. One of the attendees was a physician (Dr. O.A. “Jimmie” Fulcher) from the Lone Star state who wondered why West Texas couldn’t host a similar party. The first Odessa Jazz Party was held in 1967 over five nights and attended by 124 stalwart jazz enthusiasts.

Hot Jazz Jubile

The Midland Jazz Association was formed in 1977, and the Midland Jazz Classic was born. The two groups merged in 1998 under the umbrella of the West Texas Jazz Society. The lineups of those early parties included such famous names as Teddy Wilson, Barney Kessel, Eddie Miller, Vic Dickenson, Joe Venturi, Billy Butterfield, Zoot Sims, Dick Hyman, Bob Wilber . . . and the list goes on. Overall, 173 musicians have performed for the West Texas Jazz Party Collaboration (1967-2016).

The WTJS website lists some fond memories of past parties that mention additional legendary names that have appeared “deep in the west of Texas” over the years:

– Jack Lesberg was Music Director for the first 35 years.
Flip Phillips was the ultimate set leader, based on his Jazz at the Philharmonic experience.
– Pee Wee Erwin was right behind Flip and provided high energy sets.
– Ralph Sutton always set the tempos in his sets. (Just ask Ed Polcer).
Milt Hinton liked to turn his bass up louder as he got older.
Red Norvo was deaf, and the rhythm section had to follow him.
– Bud Freeman affected a British accent, but was born in Chicago.
Wild Bill Davison was arrested in New York after firing a gun in a taxi.
– Jake Hanna was wickedly funny and disliked people with no sense of humor.
– Peanuts Hucko liked the same arrangements played the same way.
– Bob Haggart was considered by some the finest overall musician of his generation.
– Milt Hinton was on more recording sessions than any bass player in history.
– One musician with pre-Alzheimer’s was caught trying to check out a couple of days early.
– Musicians who could not hold their liquor did not get asked back.

by Lew Shaw, in collaboration with Jan Ostrom

Lew Shaw started writing about music as the publicist for the famous Berkshire Music Barn in the 1960s. He joined the West Coast Rag in 1989 and has been a guiding light to this paper through the two name changes since then as we grew to become The Syncopated Times.  47 of his profiles of today's top musicians are collected in Jazz Beat: Notes on Classic Jazz.Volume two, Jazz Beat Encore: More Notes on Classic Jazz contains 43 more! Lew taps his extensive network of connections and friends throughout the traditional jazz world to bring us his Jazz Jottings column every month.

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