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

Experiences at UNT Jazz – Part 2 – Jazz Improv

Continuing the saga of Roger at the University of North Texas (UNT) Jazz Studies program included 5 semesters of jazz improvisation (improv) classes.

As mentioned before, I had to complete quite a few undergraduate courses on the way to my masters program. Hence, 4 semesters of undergrad jazz improv leading to the the masters level course that actually applied to my degree. Normally, these would be preceded by some jazz theory, but somehow in the early evaluations process I demonstrated sufficient theory knowledge, so those theory courses were waived.

Jazz Improv at UNT was a great learning experience. Being one of the top jazz schools in the nation, I was expecting good things, and was not disappointed. There are no doubt many ways to learn jazz improv in the many college programs out there. And, probably, if one attended UNT today, things might be done differently, as methods and technology progress. This is how it happened at UNT jazz improv classes during the years 1997 thru 1999.

My three improv instructors were Mike Steinel, Fred Hamilton and Dan Haerle. Mike Steinel is a renowned trumpeter, composer, educator and author of several jazz study books notably including the Essential Elements for Jazz Ensemble series used by most middle school jazz bands. Fred Hamilton is a great guitarist with a solid career as a performer and educator. Dan Haerle is one of the great jazz pianists of today and authored several books about jazz piano and theory. He can be heard on many Jamey Aebersold jazz play-a-longs. All three are regular presenters at annual Jazz Education Network conferences.

You attend class with your instrument, ready to play. Class size is 10 to 12. Drummers also play vibes. Some singers were in my classes, but the requirements were high – they had to be good music readers and be able to sing scales and arpeggiated chords, which are a big part of the first courses. Jazz theory matches scales/modes with the many chord types. We would have to play from memory just about all possible combinations, at a brisk tempo. Other theory related stuff involved multiple note patterns and various tricks and licks such as diatonic and chromatic stair steps, rotations, II-V-I vocabulary and jazz phrasing. There’s a lot of stuff to learn and be able to play.

One thing I don’t recall is much talk about how we needed to listen to lots of great jazz artists. It seemed that by virtue of being in the UNT jazz studies program, you had already done lots of listening. Musicians in UNT jazz improv classes were for the most part already experienced jazz performers. The goal was to get better, not start from scratch.

I remember shopping for jazz theory books at the local Denton Music Store. What a great music store – they had a huge selection of everything musical for all instruments. I would pick up a rather large book, look at the table of contents and peruse a section or two. The resulting experience I will describe as “swirly brain.” That’s where your brain is overwhelmed by the information and kind of locks up for a while. In learning complex music theory, and probably math/science too, you must keep thinking and processing and hope that it really makes sense some day. It’s a great feeling when you finally get it. But then, on to the next level.

A typical daily drill would be to delve into a standard jazz tune, using a recorded version by a notable jazz artist as the main learning tool. For example, “Dolphin Dance” by Herbie Hancock. You were tasked to learn the chord progression and melody and play both at tempo from memory. You demonstrated the chords by making up an arpeggiated rendition that outlined the chords of the tune. Of course, those on piano or guitar would just demonstrate by comping the chords. Then you would need to chose one of the solos in the recording, usually one that fits your instrument (like trumpet for me), transcribe one or two choruses of the selected solo from the recording (listen closely, repeating phrases, maybe slowing down if technology allows, and notate what you hear), then play the solo transcription in class. This is a great way to learn jazz improv – it has been described as a personal lesson from the selected jazz great. It is also time consuming and requires considerable skill and knowledge to do.

One of my classmates during third semester improv, I think 1998, was now famous singer/pianist Norah Jones. I recall she was a very good pianist with an easy going personality. I had no idea she was also a vocalist, since that was not demonstrated during that class nor any other performance at UNT Jazz that I witnessed. She was at UNT for a while, and then she wasn’t. Next thing I know, some years later, she presents  her first Grammy Award winning, hit recording, and the rest is history. Seems she had gone to New York City and worked her way up the ranks gaining a contract with the Blue Note recording company. “Crossover,” they called it – melding jazz with pop and a little country thrown in. Apparently, the music audience approved, and they are still approving. 

Final exams were always performance based. You select tunes and perform jazz improv with a rhythm section, usually other students in the class. Most of the time they were video recorded. The instructor would then critique your performance and assign a grade. Sometimes I proudly got an “A.”

Up next: UNT Jazz Chamber Music – the small ensembles.

Joe Occhipinti featured in Pensacola News Journal profile

Joe Occhipinti

Jazz Pensacola’s own Joe Occhipinti is the subject of a feature article in a recent Pensacola News Journal.

The beloved saxophonist is this year’s Gulf Coast Ethnic & Heritage Jazz Festival Hall of Fame inductee.

Reporter Erin Stephens’ article looks at Occhipinti’s life and career and features comments and anecdotes by Jazz Pensacola Executive Director Emeritus Norman Vickers.

“Those of us in Pensacola can recount all the contributions Joe has quietly made over these many years,” Vickers said. “Joe is not a good self-promoter, but he’s always there. He’s done the things that need to be done. He’s kept music alive.”

Click here to read the PNJ profile.

Book Review: ‘Jazz Beat Encore: More Notes on Classic Jazz’ by Lew Shaw

Jazz Beat Encore: More Notes on Classic Jazz
By Lew Shaw
AZtold Publishing, Scottsdale, AZ

Lew Shaw is a multi-faceted writer, having a dual career as both sports and jazz writer who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. Our paths crossed when we were both active in The American Federation of Jazz Societies and both had served as president of that organization. He was an organizer and served as president of Arizona Classic Jazz Society in Phoenix.

Shaw has written for jazz publications “West Coast Rag,” “The American Rag” and, for the past few years, “The Syncopated Times.” His first book, Jazz Beat, Notes of Classic Jazz was a collection of his columns from “West Coast Rag” and “The American Rag.” His current book, Jazz Beat Encore, is a collection of forty-three columns from the past few years.

Each column features a jazz musician, or group, along with a photograph and occupies about four pages. Most of the artists are American born but also feature clarinetist-bandleader Adrian Cunningham of Australia and pianist Paolo Alderighi, a native of Milan, Italy.

Of special interest to will be featured artists who have appeared for the Jazz Society of Pensacola events: guitarist Howard Alden, saxophonist Harry Allen, trombonist Dan Barrett, clarinetist Evan Christopher, trumpeter Duke Heitger, vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, clarinetist Tim Laughlin, The Midiri Brothers, and clarinetists Ken Peplowski and Allan Vache.

Also, as a bonus, cartoonist Bill Keane’s Family Circus cartoons related to jazz were included courtesy of Jeff Keane, son of the late cartoonist.

This book, as well as Shaw’s previous one, will grace the shelves of our Jazz Room at the downtown West Florida Public Library. It awaits your reading. The book, of course, is available at Amazon and other booksellers.