Monthly Archives: January 2014

Year Two- Old Friends, New Faces and Dynamite Food

jazz logo One of the challenges of keeping a jazz series going is finding the right mix of performers- musicians who will attract an audience and programs that will be fresh and enticing. During the twenty years that I directed Highland Jazz I had many successes but also a few misses. One example of a miss occurred in the fall of 1984. I decided to hire a local news personality who claimed to be a jazz vocalist. Think of how much free publicity we would get; imagine how many people would flock to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to see this newscaster in person. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. What did I learn? The audience is really knowledgeable and won’t come out to hear someone perform just because she reads the news on television.

So I returned to presenting musicians who were true professionals. The Grey Sargent Trio performed in November.

stan strickland

Blues for Stan
watercolor by Nancy Alimansky

In December Stan Strickland presented a program with the intriguing title of The Blues and Other Abstract Truths; Stan was accompanied by Frank Wilkins on keyboard, Jim Bridges on guitar, Jun Saito on drums and Sa Davis on percussion.

 

 

Mario suggested a jazz brunch to start off 1985. The church hall was not only unavailable for a Sunday brunch but would also be too small. The details elude me now,  but we managed to rent a small hall at the Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre. I hired the Greg-Hopkins-Wayne Naus Big Band with vocalist Maggi Scott to perform. The guest MC was Ron Della Chiesa of WGBH-FM. Ron was a great fan of Mario’s cooking and was delighted to join the fun.

jazz brunch

Jazz brunch
photograph by Art Illman

I had an additional agenda for this concert. I wanted to help the band get some additional bookings. A big band with 17 members can be expensive to hire and generally doesn’t get a large number of gigs. So I sent out an invitation “Be our guest” to a variety of managers of clubs, hotels and restaurants, hoping that some would come to hear the band and realize what an outstanding group of musicians they were. Here is a copy of that invite.

invitation

“Sounding Off Invitation”

It was Ron who pointed out to the audience what was so special about the music. They played standard jazz tunes but, according to Ron, “their arrangements are real fresh. Old tunes sound new. That’s where the arrangement comes in.”

It was the kind of event that Mario relished. He was dressed in a sterling silver tux, with winged collar and white tie. The food was lavish and delicious, including Chicken Pasquale, flounder stuffed with shrimp, Beef Stroganoff, tortellini with primavera sauce and more.

Where are they now?

Greg Hopkins has had a distinguished career as a professor at The Berklee College of Music, a bandleader and composer/arranger. He has been a regular performer at Highland Jazz concerts, recently with his Nonet band and with Tim Ray’s Tre Corda featuring Greg on trumpet, Eugene Friesen on cello and Tim on piano. His website is full of rich information about his recordings, bio etc. Here is a splendid video  of Greg playing his arrangement of “Body and Soul” with the Tokyo Brass Art Orchestra in 2010.

Wayne Naus is a an associate professor in the Harmony Department at the Berklee College of Music. His website will bring you up to date on his current interests and activities. Here is his rendition of “Amazing Grace” in which you can hear his distinct, clean trumpet sound.

In this video Maggi Scott talks about her work as a voice coach at Berklee where she has been teaching since 1978.

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The Second Summer and Our First All-Day Jazz Festival

jazz logo Sometime in the spring of 1984 Mario set up a meeting to discuss a new project. He suggested that we organize an all-day jazz and arts festival. How and why he came up with this idea is still a mystery to me. Perhaps he was inspired by the Newport Jazz Festival, a yearly summer tradition which attracted crowds of thousands of people. His enthusiasm swept me right along.

The first order of business was to find a venue. Clearly the parking lot behind his bakery was not an option. We first investigated a retirement home for priests; I can’t exactly recall where it was, possibly in Weston, but we agreed that it was pretty remote and the clergy were not all that enthusiastic about hosting a jazz concert.

After considering several other venues we found a scenic location at Mount Ida College in Newton. Behind one of the main buildings was a beautiful sloping lawn leading to a large oval pool with a white statue rising out of the middle of it.  There was also a huge parking lot adjacent to the lawn.  It seemed ideal. We negotiated a reasonable price for renting the space and set the date for Sunday July 15, 1984.

I hired four bands for the event, many of whom had already preformed for Highland Jazz during our first season. Here’s the publicity flier announcing the event.

all-day festival

All-Day Jazz and Art Festival

What a line-up of outstanding musicians: the Semenya McCord  Quartet with Stan Strickland, the Alex Elin Quartet, the Wayne Naus-Greg Hopkins Big Band with vocalist Maggie Scot and the Rebecca Parris Quartet. Fortunately Semenya and Rebecca shared the same rhythm section and that helped to reduce the costs on the musical side.

The Big Band read like a Who’s Who of Boston musicians at the time: Joe Calo, Alex Elin and Bill Pierce on tenor saxophone; Jimmy Mosher and Larry Munroe on alto saxophone; Jerry Ash, Gene DiStasio, Tony Lada and Kenny Wenzel on trombone; Paul Fontaine, Greg Hopkins, Wayne Naus, Roy Okatani and Jeff Stout on trumpet; Mick Goodrick on guitar; John Lockwood on bass and Joe Hunt on drums.

Imagine- all this music for a modest entrance fee of $5.00!

Tony Cennamo, Ron Della Chiesa and Eric Jackson were MC’s for the day. They introduced each group and kept the audience entertained while the musicians set up on stage.

We also invited a number of local artists to exhibit their work: painters, potters, portrait artists, and jewelers. We even had a juggler to amuse the children.

Prior to the day of the festival Mario informed me that he had hired an Italian ensemble to perform – an ethnic group who wore traditional Italian costumes, danced and sang. I was shocked. Why would he introduce an Italian ensemble in the midst of a jazz festival? This was our first argument and I quickly learned that he could be a very difficult man to oppose. So in the end, in spite of my protestation, we had a 25 minute performance by the Gruppo Folkloristico Orsognese.

I still remember how obsessed I was the week before the festival. What would the weather be like? I spent hours watching and listening to weather reports. I was especially worried about rain. Yes, there was a contingency plan; we could move the concert indoors if necessary, but that would mean a crowded space without air conditioning.

To protect the instruments and electronics in case of a sudden downpour and also to shade the musicians from the sun we had hired a huge blue tent to cover the stage.  That was a fortunate decision, because July 15 turned out to be one of the hottest days of the summer- scorching heat, more than 90 degrees with non-stop sun.

Stage and audience

Stage and audience

By the middle of the afternoon a lot of people were wading in the pool to cool off. I felt very grateful that nobody had to be carried off in an ambulance from heat exhaustion.

taking a break

Mario and Nancy taking a break

Musically it was a great success. Financially we lost more than $2,000. In addition to musician fees, rent for the venue, the stage and the tent, we had to pay for a professional sound system and an engineer to monitor the sound.

I think Mario made some money on the refreshments and drinks. He sold plenty of both, but overall for Highland Jazz the event was a substantial loss.

The free summer concerts continued in the same format as the preceding year on four Wednesday evenings. We heard Wanetta Jackson and New Moon, the Alex Elin Quintet, Mili – a Latin and American Band featuring Mili Bermejo on vocals, and concluded with Jeff Stout and his Red Hot Dixieland Band.

 

 

Semenya McCord Brings Billie Holiday to Life

jazz logo In the 1980s vocalist Semenya McCord was well-known to Boston jazz enthusiasts. I wanted to include her in the first year of Highland Jazz concerts, especially because I had no idea how long the series might last. She was very interested and told me she had been working on a program about Billie Holiday. That sounded like a wonderful idea to me and we set a date for April 7, Billie’s 69th birthday.

Semenya McCord

Semenya McCord
photograph by Ruth Williams

Semenya chose the title I Know About the Life, a Tribute to Billie Holiday. Eric Jackson agreed to act as narrator for the evening and to read the script that Semenya had arranged. Many years later I learned that Eric had been quite reluctant to appear on stage and had told Semenya that he preferred to read the narration from behind the curtain.  She convinced him that he was part of the show and had to be seen.

When news of the concert broke, I was bombarded with phone calls and requests for tickets. We had to add a second performance to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend. I remember being amazed when I saw the line of people winding around the block, waiting to get into the second show.

It was a magical evening. In her hair Semenya wore a gardenia which was Billie’s signature. The combination of Semenya’s husky voice and Eric’s compelling narration made me forget my surroundings. The vestry hall at the church disappeared and I was back in one of the smokey clubs where Billie often performed.

On the stage with Semenya were Stan Strickland on reeds, Frank Wilkins on piano, Herbie King on drums and Ira Coleman on bass.

Here’s a copy of the program from that night, listing the tunes the group performed.I know about the life1

Where Are They Now?

Semenya moved back home to  returned home to Galesburg, IL to assist her mother in the fall of 2003; she continues to perform, teach jazz voice at Knox College; and is a member of the National Association for Music Education.  She was recognized with an Alumni Achievement Award by Knox College in February, 2006.  That spring she completed her Masters degree in Music at Northern Illinois University.  In 2012 she was appointed Director of Jazz Awards & Scholarships for Sigma Alpha Iota International Music Fraternity.

Semenya has been teaching General Music and directing 7th and 8th grade choirs at Lombard Middle School in Galesburg since 2008.  She earned her License to Preach in the AME Church in January 2013 and is striving to merge her jazz experience with her spiritual endeavors through current performances, sermons and workshops.

Her website lists more of her current activities. She visited the Boston area in July 2013 and performed a  reprieve of the Billie Holiday concert, with many of the same musicians as in the original production. (semenyamccord./index.html)? Even  Eric Jackson was there as narrator. I brought a copy of the old program with me and we enjoyed a few moments remembering that glorious concert almost 30 years ago.

Herbie King

Herbie King
Nancy Alimansky watercolor

Herbie King passed away on November 6, 2007. He and Semenya were principals in Hemisphere Associates, a collaboration of New England performing artists. Their organization promoted local jazz events and jazz education by offering programs in the public schools. I remember fondly a concert they performed yearly in tribute to the life and “dream” of Dr. Martin Luther King. It ended with a dazzling drum solo by Herbie.

Both Frank Wilkins and Stan Strickland remain active members of the Boston jazz scene. In the fall of 2013 Stan performed at Highland Jazz with the Lazlo Gardony quartet. The concert featured Stan on vocals as well as numerous reed instruments. This recording of the Lazlo Gardony sextet features Stan on bass clarinet playing “Motherless Child” from another concert in November 2013.

In searching for a video featuring Frank Wilkins I found a wonderful example from a television program called What’s your Jazz?   (sbellotti) Not only can you hear Frank on piano but also vocals featuring Semenya, Dominque Eade and Wanetta Jackson.

Ira Coleman graduated from Berklee in 1985.   (http:www.iracoleman.com/). pince then he has had an impressive career performing with Cab Calloway, Freddie Hubbard, Betty Carter, Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jessye Norman and Sting.  He was the musical director for vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater from 2002 until 2009. In this video he performs a duo with vocalist Dominque Eade in “Tea for Two.” (Rodriguez).

 

Welcome Home Becky- Rebecca Parris Comes Home to Newton

jazz logoI first heard Rebecca in 1982, the year before I started Highland Jazz. At that time a jazz series called “Jazz at Noon” took place every Friday at Jasons, a popular restaurant in the Back Bay. The series usually featured a guest artist to start the afternoon and then morphed into an open jam session.  One afternoon a very tall (six foot) blond woman took the mike and I was amazed at what I heard. She had a powerful and truly beautiful voice. She often included her rendition of “Over the Rainbow” in these sessions and her version was frankly stunning.

Rebecca Parris

Rebecca Parris in 1983

I later found out that she had grown up in Newton and had attended Newton High School. It didn’t take long for me to decide to present her in a “coming home” concert- the first gig in which she would be the featured performer. She agreed and we set the date for March. She was scheduled to have back surgery before the concert but told me not to worry. Everything would be fine.

In fact, she had a difficult recovery and showed up at the concert, strapped into a tight fitting back support. In spite of everything, she sounded fantastic and the concert garnered her a lot of good press and exposure-exactly what I had hoped would happen.

During intermission she was awarded the keys to the city by two aldermen, George Mansfield and Rodney Barker. The MC that evening was Tony Cennamo from WBUR.FM.

And what about the piano? This time I rented a white grand piano for her pianist Frank Wilkins – well worth the money and the effort.

Where are they now?

Becky has had an exciting and successful career which is described in her official website. (rebeccaparris.com)

(rebeccaparris.com)since that first concert she has been a frequent performer for Highland Jazz. Although I wasn’t able to find a video of her singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” this video of her from the Apollo Theatre shows what a talented and special musician she is. (Kleman).

Opening Concert of 1984 Reunites Two Old Friends

jazzlogo2 Jimmy Mosher and Paul Fontaine became friends at Lynn Classical High School. In fact, Paul took music lessons from Jimmy’s father at his music store,  Mosher Music.  As teenagers they formed a band and played at local dances and school events. They attended the Berklee School of Music together and both played with Woody Herman and the Thundering Herd where Jimmy doubled on baritone and alto.

jIMMY mOSHER

Jimmy Mosher

Jimmy went on the road for eight years with the Buddy Rich Big Band where he played lead alto. When Jimmy came off the road the two friends continued their tradition of playing together in a big band that they organized. By the time I met them they were both on the faculty at Berklee.

Paul Fontaine

Paul Fontaine
Nancy Alimansky watercolor

The February concert was titled the Paul Fontaine-Jimmy Mosher Quintet; Joining Jimmy and Paul were John Lockwood on bass, Bob Dogan, piano and Bob Kaufman, drums. Little did I know at the time that in a few years Jimmy Mosher would be gone.

In this excerpt from a memorial for Jimmy Mosher  Paul reminisces about his friend.

Where are they now?

Jimmy died in 1987; he was only 49.  Here is a article about Jimmy which includes an interview with his wife.

Paul Fontaine is still actively playing but has retired from Berklee.