Deck the Halls with Big Band Carols
That leaves us with five, and while these are perhaps a step beneath the others they are nonetheless bright and entertaining in their own way, and should help gladden anyone's holiday season. In alphabetical order, they are Music & Mistletoe by Wayne Bergeron with the After Hours Brass; Christmas with the Dallas Christian Jazz Band; Family Holidays by the Gap Mangione Big Band; Christmas Day, My Favorite Day by the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble; and A Message from Santa Klaus by Klaus Weiss and the NDR Big Band.
As a whole, a bumper crop of seasonal big-band music, more than enough to fill anyone's stocking to overflowing or enhance his/her gift list. But why wait? I think I'll start listening right away.
It's About Time
Two long-overdue awards were recently announced, the first to legendary trumpeter Snooky Young, the second to the distinguished educator Leon Breeden. Young, who recently turned 90 and still plays and records with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, has received the inaugural L.A. Jazz Treasure Award from the LACMA and Los Angeles Jazz Society. Young was the lead trumpeter for the Jimmie Lunceford band from 1939-42 and later played with Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, the Thad Jones / Mel Lewis Orchestra and Doc Severinsen's Tonight Show band from 1967-92.
Breeden, who directed the University of North Texas Jazz Studies program and the award-winning One O'Clock Lab Band from 1959-81, was awarded an honorary doctorate degree at UNT's commencement ceremony in August. The degree is given by the university to a candidate who has demonstrated high standards of excellence through his or her scholastic achievements, professional accomplishments, philanthropy or public service record. Under Breeden, UNT's Jazz Studies program rose to international prominence, and the school's lab bands earned almost 50 national awards for group and/or individual performance while Breeden helped establish the country's first bachelor's degree program in Jazz Studies. Breeden received Outstanding Professor honors from UNT in 1976, and in 1985 was inducted into the National Asssociation of Jazz Educators' Hall of Fame. In 2003, the North Texas Jazz Festival introduced the Leon Breeden Award for best middle or high school big band.
Out and About
Betty and I were in Arizona in late August to attend the ninth annual Prescott Jazz Summit. During the Friday evening concert I stepped outside for a moment, and on my return I could hear the piano rocking on a spirited rendition of "Route 66" but couldn't see the pianist. When he stood up later to acknowledge the applause and take a well-deserved bow, I discovered why: the young man was not much taller than the piano itself, and the room was buzzing about the bantam-sized "nine-year-old pianist" who'd not only played with the big guys but held his ground among such heavyweights as trumpeter Carl Saunders, trombonist Scott Whitfield, tenor saxophonists Tony Vacca and Rusty Higgins, guitarist Jack Petersen, drummer Gary Hobbs and bassist Ted Sistrunk. This was too good not to look into further, so the next day I sought out the pint-sized prodigy and sat down for a brief chat. The first thing I learned, aside from his nameGrant Cherrywas that he's not nine years old but thirteen, an eighth-grader in Tucson who's been playing piano for less than two years (he'd started as a drummer when he was eight). Cherry was in Prescott to sit in with the Tucson Jazz Institute's premier Ellington Band whose regular pianist was unable to make the trip. Among his influences on piano, Cherry said, are Oscar Peterson and Red Garland. Pretty fair role models. While he is comparatively small for his age, Cherry's talent is king-size. Nine or 13, the kid can play, and more should be heard from him as he grows, literally and figuratively, into a first-rate jazz pianist.
Two Sad Goodbyes
The jazz world has lost two more outsanding performers, vocalist Chris Connor and tenor saxophonist Gianni Basso. Connor, who came to prominence in the 1950s with the Claude Thornhill and Stan Kenton orchestras, died August 29 at age 81. Fortunately for her many fans, Connor's entire recorded legacy has been reissued on CD including the albums The George Gershwin Almanac of Song, Witchcraft and Lullabys of Birdland. While she is perhaps best remembered for the song "All About Ronnie," Connor recorded a number of other hits including "Trust in Me" and "I Miss You So."