Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival 2003 - a Musician's Log

Tuesday   February 18

The past few years I’ve been curious to what the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival is all about. Hampton and Idaho seem such a far stretch yet there is a prosperous history dating back to 1985 when Hampton first performed and donated $15,000 towards a music scholarship program.

This is the festival’s thirty-sixth year and eighteenth since being renamed for it’s favorite patron.

Over 293 schools and 10,000 students from Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming and British Columbia compete in the festival.

For nearly a decade festival publicist Virginia Wicks has kept me present with each roster change - add on performance and ceremony. I’d planned attending last February but became immersed in organizing the first National Jazz Awards, which unfortunately coincided with the event. This time tickets arrived well in advance and preparations made in timely order.

I love traveling but am apprehensive about making the first move, sort of like dress rehearsal before for a major performance. It’s during this period I battle anxiety. Once in flight I tend to settle in.

This morning was no different.

It’s been an unforgiving winter in Toronto where temperatures the past five weeks have nose-dived well below zero much of the time – minus twenty-five centigrade with wind chill. Combine that with an ever-present layer of dingy snow and granite like ice - too many days absent sunlight and you’ve got the ingredients for mass despair - hopeless depression. Not yet factored in the equation - long lineups and US Immigration.  

Check in was little more than a blemish on the day as I faced an hour and half baggage tote and pull through what seemed a six mile maze of numb bodies all striving to reach one immigration officer. Security is thick and prevalent with questions to the point and probing. This I don’t mind considering the current state of international affairs.

Next up, two hours and ten minutes holed in the cabin of my US Air flight waiting for a cue to exit. Seventeen planes lie ahead facing a rigorous deicing. The flow of air inside the cabin fluctuates between dead hot to slightly breezy. I had totally forgot packing necessary paperback and magazine in computer pouch and finished reading the Toronto Star morning edition with plenty tarmac time to kill.

A good twenty minutes pass before we get a solid bath clearing the wings of snow and ice. Just as we begin taxing to position the Captain cuts in to say we’d be returning to our original gate due to a malfunction in the nose cone. If it was as dry as my nose cone I figured a good lubing was in order.

Two hours and ten minutes pass before we taxi back in position and lift off. I love a good send off but this one only welcomed anxiety.

Throughout the flight to Denver I wondered if a connection to Spokane would be in the cards. No such luck. As quickly as I exited I was directed to the Customer Service counter to find half of the six-mile lineup waiting to reacquaint themselves. Another hour passes before a miracle occurs - I actually secure a seat on the 5:10 to Spokane and an additional five hours to will away.

I don’t know if it was the comfort of hearing those words or a sense of security moving in that made the unsettling anxiety dissipate. I think it was also the ten-dollar calling card and warm call home.

Once in Spokane, I find myself standing at a stilled baggage ramp begging for that big black case with all toiletries and clothes to come rushing forth. Not a chance. Lost!

I take a deep breath, fill out the necessary documents and meet several young faces sporting signs pointing to Moscow, Idaho and the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

Within the hour I meet drummer Jeff Hamilton, a few side musicians, and vibraphonist Terry Gibbs. Now, if you’re making an hour and half drive in deep darkness a bit frayed and confused, Gibbs is the guy you want riding shotgun.

At seventy-eight the man is a live wire capable of firing up a community twice the size of Idaho. Throughout the drive Gibbs told some wonderful stories, reminisced, laughed, talked of his new label, favorite recordings and wondered if there were any vibes around to do a bit of practicing.

Welcome to the Palouse

I’m always curious about the landscape of any given destination. To know I was in the Palouse region somewhere in the Idaho panhandle invited curiosity.

The Palouse is located in Southeastern Washington and North central Idaho in an area ripe with rolling fields and forest lands. The word Palouse originates with a large village of Palouse Indians and is from the Sehaptin Indian word for village and large rock. The village was located at the junction with the Palouse and Snake River.

Many communities lie within the Palouse region. Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho are the main hub cities, with many smaller surrounding towns nestled among wheat, lentil and dry pea fields and natural forestlands. The Palouse Hills have unusually rich soils that produce high yields of wheat, barley, dry peas, lentils and canola, which supply an international market.

The University of Idaho enrolls nearly 12,000 students from across the country and more than 60 foreign lands.


After settlers arrived in 1871, the town became known as “Paradise Valley.” In 1877, Samuel Neff filed for a postal permit under the name of Moscow because the area reminded him of his hometown of Moscow, Pennsylvania. Moscow grew with the arrival of the railroad in 1885.

Wednesday – February 19

The big discussion early morning was concerning the future of the Lionel Hampton Center.

With five million committed - an architect, advisors and site secured - supporters of the Lionel Hampton Center remain a great distance from raising $40 million to erect a center to house a national jazz archive, twenty million in scholarships and endowments for the festival, 1200 seat performance hall, classrooms, in an effort to bring jazz and education under one roof. With an economy nose-diving near recession and the great Hampton now a bold figure from jazz’s illustrious past, the ambitious project may have to linger until the economic residue of 9/11 has been cleansed from the system. The Dotcom philanthropist is no longer a potential donor going the way of the last receding Ice Age.

I met publicist Virginia Wicks promptly at ten a.m. to be carted to a morning workshop given by the instrumental quintet Five Play lead by Buffalo native and drummer Sheri Maricle.

Virginia is the international media voice in raising awareness of the event. Wicks was long time publicist for vocal great Ella Fitzgerald and trumpet icon Dizzy Gillespie. Her ties with the American jazz community are extensive and endearing.

The Sub Ballroom of the University of Idaho served as center stage for Five Play’s performance and question and answer session. The room was three quarter filled as Maiacle led the quintet through tidy versions of “Sentimental Journey, Just in Time, No Greater Love,” climaxing with “Caravan.”

Maricle on her own is a seasoned pro possessing all the given attributes a well-rounded jazz drummer needs to power an ambitious ensemble. Front line players, saxophonists Karolina Strassmayer and Anat Cohen played it safely down the middle pretty much the same temperature throughout. Bassist Nikki Parrot rolled nicely with Maricle as did pianist Chihiro Yamanaka.

The question and answer period in some ways was more compelling in that each woman comes from a country far beyond this continent - Austria, Japan, Australia. Each painted a different portrait why they chose to relocate to live the jazz dream on these shores.

Next up - University Auditorium and sixteen year old phenom - pianist Eldar Djangirov.

The young Russian has been in the United States barely five years yet he’s consumed much of jazz’s history. His solo segment attested to that.

Djangirov began with Chick Corea’s marvelous “Armando’s Song” which in many ways sounded very much like the original down to the soloing. The same could be said for Oscar Peterson’s “Nigerian Marketplace,” Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly”, Bill Evan’s take on “Body and Soul” and Monk’s “Bemsha Swing.” All were reverently played - neatly colored with the master’s harmonic and melodic preferences. Which brought me to question where is Eldar in all of this.

Djangirov played one original “Perplexity” and finished with Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” which in itself begged closer observation.

Djangirov has piano technique light years beyond most practicing players even many of the current icons but lost in the long exercise is a personal statement - room for interpretation. Some of his most original moments were in the harmonic restructuring of “Body and Soul” which Eldar performed later with Claudio Roditi and Slide Hampton at clinic number two.

Roditi plays a rotary valve trumpet whose history can be traced back a hundred years and is a popular instrument with Europe’s great gypsy musicians. Here again the music was safe, guarded and familiar.

With Hampton and Roditi probing standards “Body and Soul, Speak Low and Milt Jackson’s “Bag’s Groove” pianist Djangirov was freed of his devices and asked to think his way through solo passages. This he did with greater creativity.

During the verbal exchanges with students Hampton spoke of humility - John Coltrane’s great humility and that music is the most important thing and it should be absent ego. He also attached a dream context to the standard ”Speak low” informing everyone that it was originally sung by the beautiful big screen actress Ava Gardner in a movie.

The evening all star concert billed as the Pepsi International Jazz Concert was high on talent but short a couple headliners - Paquito D’Rivera and pianist Hank Jones both were hindered from making the trip due to the east coast blizzard of 2003.

Even without both parties the show went ahead as scheduled and as musically structured as the daytime presentation.

We arrived to catch the remaining moments of Russians - saxophonist Lembit Saaesalu and pianist Leonid Vintskevich. Next up a splendid quartet featuring pianist Benny Green, guitarist Russell Malone, bassist George Mraz and drummer Lewis Nash. The quartet played a seamless version of “East of the Sun” which gained momentum through the heated soloing of Malone concluding with a riveting display of virtuoso technique and thoughtful soloing from drummer Nash.

While settling in for what was perceived a full set of material from the headliners, pianist Eldar Djangirov slides in to do a lengthy intro to “Caravan” then rides the rhythm section through a energy filled performance.

Thursday    February 20

We took a break from day-long clinics to travel the countryside to the Lapwai community –home of the Nez Perce Indian Nation. Throughout the hour and half journey I couldn’t help but marvel at the terrain – the long hilly slope of the land, the steep valleys – land absent foliage other than a few evergreens providing shade over a few distant farmhouses.

At one time there were more than fifty bands of Nez Perce Indians covering an estimated seventeen million acres of land in northeastern Idaho, southeastern Washington, and north central Idaho.

Lionel Hampton and side musicians had made the exchange trip since 1996 entertaining school children from elementary through high school. The students gave him a feather and made him an honorary chief of the Nez Perce tribe. With Hampton’s passing tradition was carried on by drummer Wally Gator Watson and quartet. 

After an hour-long excursion through jazz and rhythm and blues a few students of Lapwai elementary performed the Iron Butterfly dance in traditional dress supported by tribal drums.

These were moments Hampton cherished. It’s a credit to festival organizers such connections remain in tact.

The evening concert billed as a tribute to the late great jazz bassist Ray Brown proved to be a first class affair.The night featured splendid duets between guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Benny Green. Performances from trombonist Bill Watrous, saxophonist David Fathead Newman and a wonderful version of “The Nearness of You” from the flugelhorn of Roy Hargrove sitting in for Clark Terry.

There were varying degrees of ability presented as four student vocal winners showcased before the large crowd along with a student big band playing a heated version of “Straight No Chaser”.

Friday    February 21

We were back at Sub Hall for an extraordinary vocal workshop with Roberta Gambarini. I found an opportune location front left facing a large speaker. The next hour Gambarini proved why she is the rarest of rare talent competing for space amongst the Diana Krall’s and Nora Jones. Gambarini is perfection. Throughout verse and course on “Lush life, Triste, Deep Purple” and other choice standards Gambarini sang with great warmth, clarity in large full-bodied tones. Each vocal phrase was delivered with purpose and just the right degree of emotion.

This was also a terrific learning session for pianist Eldar Djangirov. Accompanying a singer is vastly different proposition from playing solo. There were times the young pianist had difficulty separating himself from advancing a tune for his own purpose to that of allowing the singer free rein to guide the action. As time passes and experience comes to play Djangrirov will hear the rhythm and delivery as a silent metronome and be able to follow each vocal line with the most appropriate harmony and pacing.

Later that afternoon the Roy Hargrove Quintet were set for what would prove to be one of the grand highlights of the festival – a clinic / performance.

Surrounded by pianist Ronnie Matthews, saxophonist Justin Robinson drummer Willie Jones the Third and bassist Duane Burno, Hargrove and company soared through an original “Circus, Freddie Hubbard’s “First Light” a gorgeous read of the ballad “The Very Thought of You” and another self-penned excursion  “Promise”. All the players fielded questions about attitude, the difference between east and west coast playing, and learning. Bassist Burno and pianist Matthews reminded students that the best education for playing jazz was still on the streets. Each discussed the limitations to curriculum jazz.

The evening became a joyous occasion with the appearance of James Moody. Moody began with a brisk take on the old jazz chestnut “Cherokee” playing with great virtuosity on flute. Moody then switched to tenor saxophone and was teamed with trumpeter Claudio Roditi on “Tenor Madness” before performing his signature “Moody’s Mood For Love.” Singer Roberta Gambarini joined in to bring the tune to a rousing finale. Throughout Moody kept the humor content high even making a reference to ex-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier being in attendance after which he’d caught everyone’s attention then delivered the punch line; “Oh, that’s not the champ. I’m sorry about that lady.” The lines have been used hundreds of time and are familiar to musicians but one can’t deny the timing. It’s still terribly funny.

Singer Ethel Ennis, longtime Hampton sideman trombonist Benny Powell and Bill Watrous provided additional highlights before more students were featured main stage.

Saturday    February 22

Saturday afforded time to check out the “Celebrating Hamp and Ray” photographic retrospective downtown Moscow.

The day was bright and sunny and air as pristine as cool mountain water more than conducive for a long walk.

Destination? The Prichard Art Gallery midway down Main Street.

Moscow looks much like the renovated outlying farming communities that surround Toronto making the gallery a natural component in the cultural fabric of the populous.

I’d met curator Grayson Dantzic, son of famed jazz photographer Jerry Dantzic in Toronto a couple summers past during the outstanding photographic exhibition of jazz images., Mid Century Jazz at the Stephen Bulgar Gallery. I’d hoped to connect and involve myself in some of the striking photos once again. No such luck.

The exhibit was presented in a dark upstairs area far above the main floor arena of pop art. The images were soft copies of the originals in some cases resembling RC prints.  The young lady manning the telephone had not a clue a photographic exhibit inhabited the premises or the whereabouts of Grayson Dantzic. So much for the visuals.

Mid afternoon with vocal giant Ernie Andrews proved more compelling. I traveled with Andrews from the University Inn to Kenworthy Performing Arts Centre. I’d brought Andrews to the Beaches International Jazz Festival in Toronto nearly a decade earlier. At seventy-five he’s the last of a handful of frontline male jazz vocalists still working. If there were a comparison to be drawn it would suitably be to the late Joe Williams. In fact, Williams spouse and that of Al Grey sat by each other during Andrews somewhat confessional session.

Andrews exhibits a bit of swagger and deep blues roots which surface often throughout the sequence of material. He’s totally convincing whether singing an all out blues shout of crooning a favorite jazz standard.

Clinics are not his forte. This one played more as a reflection on a career – good choices bad choices - the children and beyond. There were lapses when Andrew’s musings neared melancholy – almost like an aging prizefighter facing his estranged manager.

The rhythm section of the Lionel Hampton New York Big Band backed Andrews. The marriage didn’t exactly take - in that the hard vein of blues that pumped life into the music had little influence over the backing unit.

Andrews fared better during an evening slot in front of the Lionel Hampton Band with bassist/conductor John Clayton at the helm. This was something to watch.

Clayton fired up the ensemble on “Lucky So and So.” If you’ve never heard the marvelous version with the Gene Harris Big Band then you’ve missed the very best of Andrews.

Clayton ruled the band with a smile, cup of the hand, rhythmic body language and brilliant instincts. Andrews for his part jazz stepped himself center stage – right to left with immense style and grace. The voice rang strong and impressive.

Before Andrews surfaced Lou Rawls did a nifty bit of bouncing blues.

Rawls has it all – huge hits, radio, television, big dollars, large arenas everything that comes with universal popularity. He’s calm, smiling and seriously comfortable in the limelight.

A few bars into a vintage blues it became apparent what a terrific talent he’s always been. It’s the blues that brings him into the light. This is the sound from which his distinguished career was launched and one abandoned along the way for soft pop. The murky choices have in some ways diminished the potential catalog of memorable recordings.

The evening also showcased the “Hampton Trombone Factory” with the Lionel Hampton School of trombones and special guests.

Spokane     February 23

Here I am once again facing Homeland Security.

I empty every possession into various trays and separate twenty spent rolls of film of which should never be radiated. An officer takes them aside and individually wipes them down and places a cloth in what looks like a Zamboni, which actually is some kind of ionizer. The process goes on an eternity as each roll is smeared with the pad. Another officer takes my shoes away to be x-rayed while another scans my backpack, jacket and body. Lord, help us!

It’s at this moment I smile with anticipation that Canada is but a few hours away.

Reflections in jazz.

The Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival is a special event unlike any I’ve ever attended. The hospitality and organization is first class much like the imported talent. Treatment of the press and photographers was a welcome relief from that accorded us by the jazz festival organizer in Barbados.

It’s hard to be critical of a situation that comes fresh as a spring breeze and a community that embraces it so passionately. Hotel rooms for next year’s event are already accounted for. The persistent cheering for every solo and formidable performer led me to question whether I was really at a jazz happening or an N’Synch concert.

A special thanks to Lynn Skinner, the crew, the performers and Virginia Wicks.  Everybody’s efforts made my stay a pleasant affair.

Bill King

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