We Will Miss Ralph

As you probably know, Ralph Knowles passed away on July 18 at the age of 93. Talk about an avid Jazz Pensacola supporter! He could always be counted on as a hard working volunteer, steadfast financial supporter, enthusiastic attendee at virtually all events, active leader as a Board member and interested advisor in the Sparks group –  Ralph gave his all for Jazz Pensacola for a long time.

When Kat and I moved to Pensacola in 2003, it was Ralph and Janet at the door for our first Jazz Gumbo. They were so friendly and inviting. We were hooked on Jazz Pensacola, and we began a very close friendship with them. We were so sad when Janet passed in 2009, and now Ralph. But hey, 93 is an enviable age to reach, and he led a fantastic life – one to be celebrated as well as missed. 

Ralph was a truly kind and good person, and he loved jazz too. He loved that hot traditional jazz, with a toe-tappin’ beat, and I think he was warming up to that progressive jazz I presented from time to time. You could always find him in the merchandise tent or the VIP tent or around the Gazebo or at the Jazz Jams and Jazz Gumbos or at the college band concerts or wherever Al Martin was playing. Of course, many more good things can be said about him. Just want to say again – we will miss Ralph.

Roger and Kat

Remembering Carol Leigh and Pensacola Jazz Parties

Musicians assemble at the 1990 Pensacola Jazz Party. Photo by Norman Vickers

Just received the sad news about death of jazz vocalist Carol Leigh (Whitman). She was one of the guest artists for the second of three Pensacola Jazz Parties (1989-1991) held at the (then) Pensacola Hilton Hotel. These were produced in conjunction with record producer Gus Statiras. Gus was a native New Yorker who met his bride during WWII and moved to wife’s hometown of Tifton, Georgia. Because of Gus’ connections to the music world, we were able to get a variety of jazz artists, many of whom Gus had recorded, for our jazz event.

Carol Leigh in performance at the Pensacola Jazz Party. Photo by Norman Vickers

Carol Leigh was a soprano who was particularly interested in early jazz. In fact, she frequently performed in 1920’s style dress. By the time she appeared at our 1990 event, her reputation was well established. She had married trombonist Russ Whitman of the Salty Dogs group. She had gained an international reputation and had traveled both to Europe and the Orient. She had recorded with GHB, Stomp Off and Arbors Labels. In fact, I called Rachel Domber of Arbors Records seeking a copy, but the supply was exhausted. Ms. Leigh had recorded up until the early 2000s. Because of demands of the many details of the Jazz Party, I didn’t have opportunity to visit with Ms. Leigh. But, at a subsequent event where I was a guest and she was a performer, we both had leisure time to visit.

This leads me to discuss our three jazz parties and why they didn’t continue. These weekend jazz events have been successful in various parts of the country. In fact, West Texas jazz parties have been continuous for more than 50 years. Our situation was suitable in that The Pensacola Hilton, now Pensacola Grand Hotel, had an ideal seating space with a large stage. As locals know, it was originally a passenger train depot and the hotel tower was added. It also had large lot for parking.

So, it was up to us in the Jazz Society to make local arrangements, advertising, and sound crew. Gus Statiras made the arrangements with the musicians and helped with the scheduling and announcing. We advertised nationally and held the event in January. This was beneficial since many tourists bound for South Florida for winter vacation would be coming through the area. We were successful nationally in that we had patrons from as far away as California and Maine. Cost for the three days of jazz events was about $200. Patrons made own arrangements about accommodations and meals but most stayed and dined at the Hilton. However, we had minimal turn-out from locals. In fact, I had one or two persons stop me and ask, “How can the Jazz Society justify asking $200 for a musical weekend?” My reply was, “That’s what our overall costs require; but, if you can put this on for less, we’ll let you produce it!”

Gus Statiras and Carol Leigh. Photo by Norman Vickers

Our third Pensacola Jazz Party lost a little money. It was held the weekend which began the first Iraq War and Eastern Air Lines died that same weekend! Gus had invited New York record producer and Commodore Record Shop owner Milt Gabler for a press conference. Gus had worked for Mr. Gabler as a young man and had interesting stories to tell. Of course, there were no press people attending since all personnel were out doing local stories related to security precautions at the military stations as related to the declaration of war. But Gus did the interview to the delight of many attendees. And, as a bonus, I had opportunity to interview him privately for a weekly publication, now out of business.

So, you might logically ask why the Pensacola Jazz Parties didn’t continue. The logic of our board was such that we felt that energies should be placed on building our local Jazz Society first. And this was the correct answer because we assumed full responsibility for Pensacola JazzFest in 1999 and this requires year-round effort to assure success. However, the Atlanta Jazz Party picked up where we left off and produced an excellent annual party for 27 years thereafter, closing in 2016.

Thanks, Gus Statiras and Carol Leigh. We still miss you!

CD Review: ‘Cartoon Bebop’ – The 14 Jazz Orchestra

The 14 Jazz Orchestra
Dabon Music
Release Date January 15, 2021

This interesting and unique CD crossed my desk recently and I was intrigued. This is a CD with eleven tunes, but none were familiar standards. The music was arranged for a 13-piece orchestra and all have been associated with the Miami musical community either as faculty of the Frost School of Music or having performed in the Miami jazz scene. Another aspect which will be of interest to our readers in the Florida Panhandle is that pianist Mike Levine is a frequent performer in this area, as he is a frequent part-time resident in our Port St. Joe area and when that occurs, Panama City’s Gulf Jazz Society engages him to perform. I’ve been privileged to hear and meet him there. Another appeal is that the CD is dedicated to Miami musicians who have passed away this year, multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan and studio musician Mark Colby. Sullivan had appeared in our area on several occasions and was beloved by this jazz community.

The 13-piece band provides back-up for excellent solos by the various musicians. Most of the arrangements are by Dan Bonsanti with compositions by, among others, Chick Corea, Wayne Shorter, and has used motifs by Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk.

The accompanying information sheet explains that Cartoon Bebop contains two of Corea’s compositions “Got a Match?” and “Duende.” Bonsanti was inspired to write the title tune “Cartoon Bebop” after hearing a Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon, favorite of his. He used piccolo and tuba while adding Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk motifs.

In essence, an interesting and fun recording. It will be available online on January 15, 2020. For additional information: 14jazzorchestra.com and facebook.com/14jazzorchestra.

When Gus and Bunk spent the night together

Willie Gary “Bunk” Johnson was an early New Orleans trumpet player. There is uncertainty about his actual birth date. He gave his birthdate as 1879 but it is supposed the deliberately gave an earlier date so that his claim of performing with Buddy Bolden, an early New Orleans bandleader and trumpeter.

He performed in New Orleans from 1915 to early ‘20s both locally and traveling with minstrel shows and then moved to New Iberia, LA. He was a farm worker and sometime trumpet player until he lost some teeth either due to decay or fights. In the late 1930’s he came to the attention of some jazz writers who put him in contact with Sidney Bechet’s brother, a dentist, who repaired his teeth so that Bunk could resume his trumpet playing.

Bunk returned to New Orleans and performed with another older jazz clarinetist George Lewis. Their band played both in New Orleans and also to New York City, San Francisco and Boston.

Record producer Gus Statiras, a New York City native who made Tifton, Georgia his home after WWII told of his encounter with Bunk. Gus was visiting in New Orleans shortly after the end of WWII. He searched out the jazz events and made acquaintance with Bunk. Since Gus was visiting and had not secured lodgings, Bunk invited him to spend the night in his home. Gus reported that Bunk’s house was in the Treme’ district, elevated on short brick pillars. It was the kind of wooden house with space underneath for the dogs to rest. It was such a cold, windy night that Bunk’s home became unbearably cold. Consequently, Gus and Bunk “bunked” together for the rest of the night!

Editorial Note: The late Gus Statiras was a good friend to Jazz Pensacola. When we planned our three jazz parties ’89 to ’91, he supplied contacts for our visiting musicians and advised about certain technical aspects of our event. He also brought his recordings and sold them at our events. He also came to some of our later Pensacola JazzFests and sold his recordings. Gus subsequently sold his recording interests to late record producer George Buck in New Orleans. And, when Jazz Pensacola started its Jazz Room collection at downtown West Florida Public Library, we engaged George Buck and Gus Statiras to advise during the first couple of years on that collection. Perhaps it was jazz guitarist Marty Grosz who put it best, “It is impossible NOT to like Gus!”

Experiences at UNT Jazz – Part 3 – Jazz Chamber Music

The continuing the saga of Roger at the University of North Texas (UNT) Jazz Studies program included 5 semesters of Jazz Chamber Music classes.

This was the UNT small jazz ensemble program. First of all, much like the Lab Band classes, your degree program would call for 1 instance, but everyone would enroll multiple semesters because it was so important to your skill development and overall experience at UNT Jazz. Here’s the way it worked.

The whole group of 100 or so of enrolled students would attend the first session of the semester in the Kenton Hall. The purpose of the first meeting was to assemble the combos for the semester. At the go command, we would mingle and discuss and join with other students you knew or maybe people you just met that day. We would, in essence, make a deal with fellow students to form a group for the rest of the semester. As a trumpeter, I would work to assemble or join a group with a piano-bass-drums trio plus one or 2 other horn players. Result was a quintet with sax, or maybe a sextet with sax and trombone. Sometimes a guitarist in the mix, with or without piano. The worst case scenario would be having to walk around the room asking, “Does anyone need a trumpet player?” And the likely answer also explains why trumpeters often lead their own groups.

Your newly formed combo would then set up a rehearsal schedule, usually in the evenings, outside of normal school hours. Locations varied, to include at school facilities and at member’s homes. I was group leader 3 times. In addition to the music aspects, this was also an exercise in teamwork development. After all, any musical ensemble functions as a team – small groups even more so. Personalities, likes and dislikes, punctuality and reliability, and many similar traits get involved. Sometimes things went well, sometimes they didn’t.

I was in two groups that had problems. Often the sticking point was tune choices. One time I really pushed hard to play one of my latest compositions. We tried and tried. It was fast in tempo and complex, and it wasn’t working. Finally some members voiced their displeasure, and I backed off. We picked something else and worked well together from then on.

The main performance venue for all the groups was called the Jazz Forum. Meeting mid-afternoon each week in Kenton Hall, each group got to put on the show once or twice in the semester for the rest of the Jazz Chamber Music students and selected UNT Jazz faculty, who would critique your groups performance at the end of the show. Performances ran the gamut from very good to brilliant; many were quite adventuresome in trying new approaches. The results made for very interesting jazz before a very discerning audience.

The groups thus formed often reappeared in graduate recitals and formed relationships lasting long after graduation. Snarky Puppy probably started in the UNT Jazz Chamber Music program. Playing in small ensembles is probably the greatest and most valuable experience you can have in jazz. As a soloist in a big band, you wait for your turn to come up in the music. As a member of a small ensemble, your turn always comes up in the music. If you enjoy playing and have something to say, this is great fun.

So there you have it. UNT Jazz and other fine jazz programs in the nation offer a wide range of educational experiences. In addition to the discussed Lab Bands, improvisation and Jazz Chamber Music, I could also share experiences learning theory, composition, arranging, musicology, music history and more. It was a great adventure that led to our wonderful 17 years in Pensacola and being a part of the Pensacola Jazz scene.