Experiences at UNT Jazz

Before moving to Pensacola in 2003, Kat and I lived in Denton, Texas, home of the University of North Texas (UNT), where I completed possibly the longest master’s degree program in history – six years – leading to a Master of Music Degree majoring in Jazz Studies. 

In 1964, when I was in high school jazz band in Altus, Oklahoma, UNT, which was then North Texas State College, was my dream college to attend. I auditioned and visited the campus, listening with awe to a concert that featured all of their Lab Bands (that’s what they called their large jazz/stage bands). Mostly for financial reasons, that dream was put on hold.

Thirty some years later, the dream reappeared. I could afford it. I had an opening in my schedule. And they approved my admissions application. There I was – an over 50-year-old, retired U.S. Air Force aviator (25 years) with a rather old Music Education Degree, some old band directing experience, some musical talent and experience, and a 30-year old Conn Constellation trumpet that I had resurrected and was working to sound better on. So enter I did – to a musical world full of young, highly talented musicians from all over the World. Boy, did I fit in.

And why did it take me six years to graduate? Well, for one thing, earning a masters degree in jazz studies at UNT requires proven proficiency or requisite course completions at the undergraduate level. That means you either show up for your masters program as a professional jazz performer listed on a Downbeat Jazz Poll, or you have earned a suitable undergraduate degree in jazz, or you have to take most of those UNT undergraduate courses in progressive order – you can’t just skip from Improv 1 to Improv 4. The latter option was my road to the mountain top. But hey, I had some time, and it was a fun journey.

UNT Jazz Studies was like a musical meritocracy. Neither students or faculty cared about your non-musical experiences or credentials. Your previous rank in the U.S. Air Force or your leadership and management experience or your age or lots of other things made little day-to-day difference. It was all about your last jazz solo or arrangement or other school performance in a very competitive environment. Neil Slater, then head of Jazz Studies, conferred with me well into my program, that getting in was one thing, getting out with a degree was quite another. Dan Haerle, a renowned pianist and one of my instructors, told his class something like: one of our jobs here is to help you in making your career choice in the field of jazz. In other words, maybe it’s not really the best fit for you.

One of the highlights of attending the UNT Jazz program is playing in one of the Lab Bands, or large jazz ensembles. The term Lab Band came from the historic experimental nature of often playing student arrangements/compositions and exploring new frontiers of jazz. Bands were named by the hour they met: one o’clock thru eight o’clock (the last 2 actually met earlier using a second room). The upper level bands met in the Kenton Hall Monday thru Thursday. All the bands were very good to excellent. The top one o’clock and two o’clock bands were highest level professional quality.

Placings, band and part/chair (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), were by audition each semester. The jazz staff would deliberate our audition performances and assign placings in the various bands. The results, typed on 8.5 by 11 sheets of paper, would then be posted in the foyer of Kenton Hall for all to see. Hundreds of students would mass around the bulletin board to see what their fate would be for the upcoming semester. I remember being happy and sometimes sad at my placing. I was mostly in a solo position (4th or 5th trumpet part), which I liked, in bands ranging from 6 to 3 o’clock.

I was often disappointed to not make the one or two o’clock bands. It was considered the UNT badge of honor and ultimate sign of success. I worked and tried hard and gave it my best – and never made it. Once, I felt really good going into the auditions – this could be the year, I told myself. I looked at the placing sheets and found my name as 4th trumpet in the 4 o’clock lab band. Not only that, but one of the trumpet soloists in the one o’clock was a freshman. It turns out, he was really good. Welcome to the competitive world of jazz.

Staying in the upper two bands could also be a challenge. They were very unforgiving of any lapses in proficiency or participation. I remember a young trumpeter who made the one o’clock and in the first week announced to Neil Slater that he had a conflict with one of the scheduled concerts. A new guy was in place the next day.

Once when I was in the 6 o’clock band the lead trumpeter from the one o’clock substituted as lead with our band. The rule was, if you can’t be at a rehearsal, you must arrange a substitute. No exceptions were allowed. Your honor was at stake. Anyway, he was sight reading, so you might expect an occasional small error. None were made. He played perfect. I was impressed.

I did sub in the 2 o’clock a couple of times. The first time I remember, and learned a lesson, about what it is like to play in a top level ensemble. The slightest imperfection – hold a note a little longer than the others, crack an attack, not perfectly in tune in a unison section – made you stand out like a shark fin at the beach. You are motivated to bring your best skills and attention to the task at hand. When great players do this – great music happens. 

The Lab Band music library was huge and diverse. Lots of original charts from famous big bands. Stan Kenton willed his library to UNT, and we played quite a few Stan Kenton charts. Always copies, never originals, which were of course quite valuable. Kenton charts were fun and exciting to play. Characterized by BIG sound. BIG climactic parts with VERY LOUD brass with VERY HIGH lead trumpet parts. And by the way, the 8 UNT jazz bands were all set at Kenton size: 5 saxes, 5 trombones (with 2 bass trombones), 5 trumpets (solos split between 4th and 5th players), plus piano, guitar, bass and drums.

I remember playing Bill Holman’s Malagueña in a 3 O’clock Lab Band concert at a high school in Dallas. The lead trumpet part is one of the most difficult I have ever seen – super high, with some fast fingering and complex note combinations. The other trumpet parts are also challenging. In one climactic part the whole section plays the melody in unison up to a high D above the staff, over the very big sound of the rest of the band. Very exciting!

So there you have it. I did graduate (that’s what DG really means), and we moved to Pensacola, mostly because of the beach, but also attracted by the musical and jazz scene in our beautiful area. 

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the 6 years experience at UNT Jazz. 

And, for those interested, I plan to write more about some other UNT experiences. Next up: improv classes and playing in UNT jazz combos.

Norman Vickers featured in Syncopated Times

Norman Vickers, Jazz Pensacola Volunteer Executive Director Emeritus, is featured in the August 2020 edition of The Syncopated Times, a popular publication for fans of jazz, ragtime and swing.

Norman Vickers is known as a harmonica-playing physician who was a pioneer in his field in his adopted city, and who for the past 40 years, has been the jazz ambassador and moving spirit behind Jazz Pensacola, one of the country’s more active jazz societies,” reads the article, with the headline “Norman Vickers: Jazz Doc and More.”

Read the complete article here or via the PDF below.


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 Bucky Pizzarelli and the joys of jazz parties

I recently received a delightful note from Joe Galetovic of Denver, Colorado. He is a jazz friend who I first met in the 1980s while we were both attending the famous Dick Gibson Labor Day weekend jazz party in Denver. We have kept in contact and he and his wife Linda are now more active than I in traveling to similar events. Consequently, he updates me on their activities and comments about the performers.

He had recently attended the San Diego Jazz Party and kindly sent me the program. Interesting, duo pianists Stephanie Trick and Paolo Alderighi were among the performers. (I’ve blogged about this couple and saw them a week or so later at the Ragtime Festival in Starkville, Mississippi.) Interestingly, some of the other performers at the SD Jazz Party had performed for us previously in Pensacola. They include saxophonist Harry Allen, trombonist Dan Barrett, vocalist Rebecca Kilgore, bassist/vocalist Nicki Parrott, clarinetist Ken Peplowski and guitarist Frank Vignola.

Painting by Nina Fritz of jazz violinist Johnny Frigo, left, and guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, based on a photo by Norman Vickers.

Longtime guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli was a recent death, along with his wife, both victims of COVID-19. Bucky was a wonderful person and a wonderful jazz ambassador. Bucky was a regular performer at the Gibson parties and jazz host Dick Gibson always would schedule a duo performance along with jazz violinist Johnny Frigo. There is a Nina Fritz painting in the jazz room at our downtown West Florida Public Library depicting Bucky and Johnny. It was painted based on a photo I took of them rehearsing — each had their instrument in hand. In five minutes, they would discuss songs and keys and then perform them for one hour.

We had Bucky and Johnny perform for Pensacola JazzFest but separately, as their schedules did not mesh. Frigo came with Frank Vignola and, a few years later, Bucky came with Nicki Parrot. Both duos were marvelous.

I want to quote the tribute that Joe Galetovic wrote me about loss of Bucky and wife to the virus:

“Linda and I were left breathless — like losing a member of the family. Over the years Bucky was a regular at Summit Jazz in Denver, so it was Bucky who ‘took us’ to San Diego Jazz Party first time. It was Bucky who made us go to West Texas Jazz Party, Bucky was ‘the reason’ we went to Atlanta Jazz Parties. Bucky introduced us to Matt and Rachel Domber and Arbors Jazz parties. He also took us to Elkhart and Cleveland … not to speak of all the times we went to New York to listen to him; tape new CDs ad NOLA studies, heard him at 92nd Street Y, at Symphony Hall on the West side, in Cavatappo; at Hotel Carlisle, Feinstein’s at Regency etc …”

Yes, Bucky will be greatly missed, but his son John is carrying on the legacy.

So thanks, Bucky for brightening our lives and leaving loving children to honor your tremendous musical legacy. Also, thanks Joe and Linda Galetovic for your friendship and enthusiasm for jazz. Keep us in the loop!

Drum Roll, Please: Trying times

Trying times, indeed.

Jazz Pensacola President Fred Domulot

We are in the summer months still trying to plan how to hold a Jazz Pensacola event. it is very frustrating.

Just when you think it is safe to go back in the water (“Jaws” theme in a jazzier version ), no it is not. Yes, we planned a July Jazz Jam and Jazz Gumbo, only to cancel.

Safety first. Nobody needs to be reckless. We certainly do not. Truth is, we are not sure when we will be ready to have an event — an event where everyone feels they are not in harms way if they attend; an event where no one feels on edge by the fact a musician is blowing air through a horn, a vocalist is projecting breath, all in the air. Outside? Many feel it’s too hot. We are in Florida.

We will continue to plan, and, of course, hope for the best — the best time when we are all OK with being together. We are in the middle of a jazz improvisation section, waiting to play the melody again. It’s not time.

Stay healthy. Listen to Coltrane.

Please continue to support Jazz Pensacola.

We are still here.

Trying times…yes.

Fred Domulot
President Jazz Pensacola