Prescott: Jazz at the Summit
On arriving, we found that the motel I'd booked was actually in Prescott Valley, about half an hour from the Summit (as the salesmen chorused in Meredith Willson's The Music Man, "...you've gotta know the territory! ). Betty, who was attending her first-ever Jazz festival while in the throes of a nasty head cold, said she wasn't up to making that drive several times a day. "Find something closer, she decreed. So I made a few phone calls, located a motel at the southern end of Prescott and booked a room. So far, so good.
On Friday morning, as we were packing to move to the new digs in Prescott, I remembered that I'd laid my reading glasses on the bed. Unfortunately, the memory was sparked by the fact that I'd just sat on them, popping out both lenses. Not really the best way to start the day, I thought to myself (well, I cleaned that thought up a bit for general audiences). Happily, the Kokopelli Eye Care Center was a few minutes away on Highway 69, and there a helpful young woman named Pam quickly put the lenses back where they belonged. "No charge, she said, smiling (or was it smirking?), and we were on our way.
After checking in at the new motel, we headed for the Courthouse Square where trumpeter Mike Vax was getting a septet ready for a free everyone-is-welcome hour-long concert. Like much of the weekend's events there was an air of easy spontaneity about it, which suited the laid-back ambiance of Prescott itself, a charming city of about 35,000 nestled between scenic hills (a bit too small to call them mountains) in almost every direction. I was reminded of those upbeat Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films from the early '40s in which the kids were always in some sort of trouble but would invariably come up with a simple yet clever plan to save the day "Let's put on a show! And so they did. Talented as they were, however, Mickey and Judy had a lot of help choreography by the incomparable Busby Berkeley; music by some of the greatest songwriters in the business; and the master craftsmen and women at the MGM Studios' Freed Unit who made sure there were no unwelcome bumps in the road. Vax, who has coordinated the Prescott Summit for each of its five years, has no such resources at his disposal but does the best he can with a little help from his friends. This year, those friends included trumpeter Marvin Stamm, pianist Bob Florence, tenor saxophonist Tony Vacca and drummer Gary Hobbs, a sturdy nucleus around which to build any Jazz festival.
The nucleus was enlarged at various times by high-school bands from Arizona, a number of first-rate players from the Phoenix and Prescott areas, and three musicians who were classmates at Prescott High School before going on to establish successful careers in New York and elsewhere tenor saxophonist Dan Faulk, trumpeter Steve Annibale and bassist Zirque Bonner. Besides those already mentioned, musicians who performed at the Summit included guitarist Jack Petersen; trombonists Doug Tidaback and Peggy Vax; pianists Les Czimber, Armand Boatman and Joel Robin; bassists Tom Winker, Dwight Kilian and Denny Garr; drummers Keith Brush, Dom Moio, Larry Kantor and Mel Zelnick; mandolinist Steve Batt, and vocalists Blaise Lantana (who doubled as mistress of ceremonies), Sherry Roberson and Delphine Cortez. Another guitarist, Brian LaChance, entertained at a fund-raising "meet the musicians dinner Friday evening at Prescott's popular Hassayampa Inn.
The high-school level bands included those from Prescott, Chino Valley and Thunderbird (Phoenix), the Mountain Youth Jazz Ensemble and the superb "Ellington Band from the Arizona Jazz Academy in Tucson. The Courthouse Square concert on Friday set the tone for the weekend, with a sharp three-trumpet front line (Vax, Stamm, Annibale) backed by Petersen, Czimber, Winker and Brush (great name for a drummer). Hobbs sat in on one number, "Route 66, while Brush assumed the role of "band singer. About two hundred people, give or take a few, seated in lawn chairs or on the Courthouse steps, listened to the concert, whose highlights included Gershwin's "A Foggy Day and the ballad "Here's That Rainy Day, each of which represented wishful thinking on an August afternoon in Prescott (the weekend weather was sunny with high temperatures around 90 degrees, warm but still far more comfortable than Phoenix).
The Friday evening performance, at the Elks Opera House on midtown Gurley Street, was preceded by the fund-raising dinner at the Inn, directly across the street from the Opera House. After brief sets by the Thunderbird and Prescott ensembles, the Summit's core group began to take shape Vax and Stamm, trumpets; Vacca, tenor sax; Florence, piano; Petersen, guitar; Kilian, bass; Hobbs, drums (with the veteran Zelnick sitting in on several numbers and beaming while Vax read a proclamation from the mayor of Prescott declaring August 26 "Mel Zelnick Day in the city).
Following a well-received set that included a torrid reading of Juan Tizol's "Perdido, Florence was left alone onstage to perform two solo numbers, a medley of "Just Friends and "The Wind Beneath My Wings, followed by the Sinatra favorite "Come Fly with Me, played as a sensuous ballad. Stamm, Petersen, Kilian and Hobbs then joined Florence for captivating renditions of "Like Someone in Love, "Alone Together and "The Shadow of Your Smile, after which Betty and I had to take our leave, as she was wiped out by the day's events.
As nothing was scheduled Saturday morning, Betty and I visited Prescott's Sharlot Hall Museum, established by a truly remarkable woman, a poet and historian who, among other things, was the first woman in Arizona to hold a paid position with the federal government. The museum, which covers 3.5 acres of galleries and gardens and includes the log cabin that served as the Territorial Mansion for the first two governors of the state, was opened in 1928. A fascinating glimpse of local history, and well worth one's time. After lunch we headed for the Ruth Street Theatre, next door to Prescott High School, where the afternoon session consisted of brief performances by the high school bands, critiques by Vax, Stamm, Hobbs, Florence, Faulk and other professionals, and break-out sessions with members of the various sections.
The Saturday evening concert, also held at the Ruth Street Theatre, was opened by the Thunderbird High School Jazz Ensemble, which acquitted itself well. Stamm's quintet (with Petersen, Florence, Kilian and Hobbs) was next, cruising easily through "Green Dolphin Street and "Lover Man, adding Vacca's tenor on "Have You Met Miss Jones? and Vax's trumpet on a high-octane reading of Monk's "Straight, No Chaser, one of the evening's highlights. Soloists were forceful and engaging, with Stamm and Florence leading the charge.
Drummer Dom Moio's trio (Kilian, bass; Boatman, piano) swung hard on "Too Close for Comfort before lending support to bluesy vocalist Sherry Roberson whose set included splendid versions of "This Can't Be Love, "The Days of Wine and Roses, "God Bless the Child, "Bye Bye Blackbird and exuberant "How Long the last with audience participation. The Prescott High School ensemble was next, after which the "Three Prescotteers tenor Faulk, flugel Annibale, bassist Bonner were reunited onstage with Florence and Hobbs to perform "Autumn Leaves, "'Round Midnight and "What Is This Thing Called Love. The hour was growing late, and Betty and I had to excuse ourselves and get some sleep.
Sunday's program included a Jazz Brunch at the Hassayampa Inn and afternoon concert at the Elks Opera House. There were two seatings at the Brunch, and Betty and I opted for the later one, at 12:30. The food was quite good, and while we ate we were treated to performances by many of the Summit's habitués (Vax, Stamm, Vacca, Petersen, Florence, Kilian, Hobbs, Faulk, Annibale, Czimber, Tidaback, Bonner, Moio) and a couple of guests, trumpeter Ken Taylor and tenor saxophonist Mike Moynihan. It was especially pleasing to see young Moynihan, a standout soloist with the Arizona Jazz Academy, given an opportunity to play with the "big guys and holding his own on a fast-paced version of "I'll Remember April.
Speaking of the Jazz Academy, the Ellington Band, ably directed by Tidaback, who established the Academy four years ago for aspiring high-school-age Jazz musicians in Tucson, opened the afternoon concert and captivated the audience as it thundered through Sammy Nestico's "Wind Machine, Ellington's "Happy-Go-Lucky Local, Benny Carter's "Katy Do and "Vine Street Rumble, and another strapping version of "Perdido. A group of high-school kids posing as a college-level ensemble and getting away with it.
There was more to come, but alas, that's all we had time for, as Betty and I had to hurry back to Phoenix to catch the last plane to Albuquerque. It was an exciting three days, and our hats were off to the Vaxes, Mike and Peggy, and the unsung volunteers who helped put the Jazz Summit together and kept it running smoothly. Mike Vax, who dreams large, sees the Prescott Summit as some day rivaling other well-established festivals such as those in Sedona, Telluride, Vail and elsewhere. There's a long way to go before that happens, but the Summit has made a good start, and who knows what may lie ahead. Prescott is a lovely area, not too far removed from Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Reno or even Albuquerque, so the potential for growth is there. Stay tuned...
A Kenton Concert in Ohio
A concert honoring the music of Stan Kenton will be held on Sunday, December 4, in Galion, Ohio, with special guest artist John Von Ohlen, the Kenton Orchestra's drummer in the mid-'70s. He'll be sitting in with Vaughn Wiester's Famous Jazz Orchestra from Columbus, a high-powered 21-piece band (including two French horns) that will perform "authentic Kenton charts (as opposed to bogus charts, I presume). For information about the concert (or to find out where Galion, Ohio, is), send an email to the concert's organizer, Kent Gimbel.
And that's it for now. Until next time, keep swingin'! ...
New and Noteworthy
1. Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Live at MCG (MCG Jazz)
2. Mark Masters Jazz Ensemble, Porgy and Bess... Redefined! (Capri)
3. Stockholm Jazz Orchestra, Homage (Dragon)
4. Dave Stahl Big Band, Live at the Ritz (Abee Cake)
5. U North Texas Two O'Clock Lab Band, Best of the Big O (North Texas Jazz)
6. New South Jazz Orchestra (NSJO)
7. Mike Vax Big Band, Next Stop: Live... On the Road (Summit)
8. Lars Halle Jazz Orchestra, Speaking of Apropos (no label)
9. Craig Raymond/Next Generation Big Jazz Band, Straight Ahead (Star Satellite)
10. Brussels Jazz Orchestra, Meeting Colours (Dreyfus Jazz)
11. Neophonic Orchestras, New Horizons, Vols 1 and 2 (Tantara)
12. Whitworth College Jazz Ensemble, 2004 (WCJE)
13. Dallas Christian Jazz Band, Sermonette (DCJB)
14. New Talent Jazz Orchestra, The Sound of NY Jazz Underground (Fresh Sound New Talent)
15. Howard University Jazz Ensemble, HUJE 2004 (HUJE)