Time To Strike Up The Jazz Band

JAZZ ECHOES 2009 Now that the last notes of the 2009 Elkhart Jazz Festival have faded away, here are some of the images I’ll remember. Guitars Times Three My favorite set of the entire weekend was at 3:30 Saturday afternoon in the New Life Community Church when Howard Alden, Joe Cohn and Bucky Pizzarelli created musical magic on their guitars, with a two-number assist from Fumihiko Kono of Yoshimi and Carolina Shout. Maybe it was just the “golden oldies” they played including “Moonglow,” “Tangerine,”“’Til I Had You” and “Three Little Words,” which are, to quote someone, “the music of my life,” but there is something about the sound of those guitars that erases the years. At my age, that’s a welcome thing!

Guitarists (from left) Howard Alden, Bucky Pizzarelli and Joe Cohn acknowledge applause at the end of their set Saturday afternoon in the New Life Community Church.

Also noted that Pizzarelli and Alden are instrumental (pun intended) on the soundtrack of the Sean Penn film, “Sweet and Lowdown.” Alden taught Penn the fingering necessary for the actor to believably portray a guitarist and he even learned to play a couple of tunes. The actual sound, however, was supplied by Alden. Check out the movie which airs periodically on one of the Encore channels. Arriving early for his 1 p.m. Sunday set at the Knights of Columbus stage, Alden shared instruments with a couple of player in BED’s. Standing behind Cohn, he doubled up on Cohn’s guitar strings to produce an duet on one instrument, followed immediately by an assist for BED brass man Dan Barrett. Barrett played his trombone and moved it accordingly while Alden held the slide. Standing In for a Friend Cohn and pianist Rosanno Sportiello were sitting in with Barrett, bassist Joe Forbes and guitarist Eddie Erickson as replacements for BED vocalist Rebecca Kilgore who became ill Friday evening and was taken to Elkhart General Hospital with a kidney infection. Happily, she was released on Sunday in time to head for home. There’s Something About the Beat Those who got up early enough on Saturday morning were treated to a mini-tutorial on the art of playing the drums by jazz master Butch Miles, whose world-wide motto could be “Have cymbals, will travel.” I still cannot fathom how both hands and both feet can move to different beats at the same time. Miles makes it look easy.

Christian Hoskins, 6, of Grand Rapids keeps the beat during Butch Miles’ drum workshop Saturday morning in the Knights of Columbus Hall.

Naming and explaining each of the individual drums and cymbals in a set, he illustrated the theme and variations used in the search for keeping drumming simple but not boring. Among the large group of youngsters and parents watching and listening to learn, no one was more fascinated — or more consistently shadow drumming on a padded stool — than six-year-old Christian Hoskins of Grand Rapids who came for the day specifically to hear Miles. His obviously natural musical ability reminded me of another young boy who could not resist trying out drum set at the Bristol Opera House. That was before he moved on to trumpet and, finally, to piano. Today, Nick Roth is making a name for himself in the world of classical music, but it all began with a couple of sticks … drum sticks, that is. Dancing Duo Not Deterred The annual mini-shows by the “dancing duo” from Chicago were not eliminated by the free stage move from pavement to grass. Indeed, they tripped their light fantastic and changed matching outfits with each session without missing a step, actually finding their own little corners at each and every one of the venues. VETERAN BASSIST GETS WELL-DESERVED HONOR There is absolutely no doubt. The two most important things in John Bany’s world are music (especially jazz) and his family — not necessarily in that order. On Saturday evening, the 63-year-old bassist received accolades and a plaque from the Elkhart Jazz Festival as the 2009 musician honoree. I have to say it was about time!  Bany has played in 21 of the 22 Elkhart festivals and his enthusiasm for the event — and the talent that has made him a natural invitee — were obvious in the special musical set that followed in the New Life Community Church venue (standing in for the Elco which is in the process of being renovated).

With son Martin on drums, Lifetime Achievement Award recipient bassist John Bany demonstrates the skill that has brought him to the Elkhart Jazz Festival 21 of its 22 years.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was presented by EJF talent coordinator Van Young, a longtime Bany friend and fan, and its appreciative inscription  underscored the standing ovation the musician received from the audience that filled the hall. It was even more special to Bany as his entire family —wife Nancy, daughter Lisa Bany-Winters an author of children’s theater books and improv teacher at Chicago’s Second City, and his two grandchildren who have dubbed him Grandpa Jazz — was in the crowd.  Son Martin, a drummer,  played the set with his dad, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and pianist Rosanno Sportiello. The list of  musicians with whom Bany has performed during his 60-year career (he started playing at age 3), is long and prestigious, but association is only a small part of Bany’s story. His bassist history goes back many generations  (he thinks “maybe seven”)  but only caught up with  him when he was 16. He looks back fondly on the summer in which he was introduced to “girls, booze, cars, smoking and the bass.” After two years in a Catholic seminary, he entered Roger Bacon High School in Cincinnati where “I hit two notes on a bass and that was it.”  His geneologic connection, however, has to be partly responsible for his natural ability. Without benefit of formal lessons, in three months of playing “I sounded like my dad,” Bany said. Being unable then to read music, it didn’t hurt that his older brother sat behind him in the school band. “He pointed to where I started (in the music) and that was all I needed,” Bany said with his ever-present chuckle. It never occurred to him that he would be anything except a professional musician. He began working in November (after the summer of his musical epiphany) and, for all practical purposes, has been working ever since.  Age was not a problem. “I mastered looking self-assured,” he recalled. “Nobody could tell what I was doing. I just blended in with the rest of the band and kept on playing. I always came close.” Not to discourage young musicians from studying the basics, Bany is quick to note that he “learned to read the notes” later and eventually studied with many outstanding players including Harold Robert, principal bassist with the Cincinnati Symphony. “I was playing eight hours a day,” he said. “I loved playing not practicing.  I never got to be a good sight reader but that’s not most important in a jazz band. I could read everything in the bass register and anyway it’s mostly all quarter notes. Eighth notes freak me out!” He memorized the music when playing with a symphony and there, too, “I could memorizes faster with my ears than with my eyes.” He was serious about classical music and declared “Jazz and classical music are like Siamese twins that are fused at the Bach.” But it was always improv that held the most challenge — and satisfaction. “You just throw the ball up in the air and you don’t know where it will land,” he said with the joy of a players who always makes the right catch. No accident that, over the years, Bany has always been put in charge of jam sessions. He recalls most fondly the early EJF impromptu sessions in the pool area of the now-gone City Center hotel which housed five EJF stages. The “pool party” was always Saturday night after the last regularly scheduled set. “Eddie Higgins, Butch (Miles) and I would set up on stage and others would line up to step up and solo. The crowd filled the area and hung over the balcony raili
ng to hear us,” Bany said, with no little touch of nostalgia. “It was great.” (Note: This year he organized a jam session at the KofC Hall from midnight ’til 2 a.m. Sunday.) Although he admits “I sometimes worry about the future of jazz,” Bany refuses to consider his art form “an endangered species.” “It can be rediscovered by the young,” he declared. “And the cycle starts all over again.” The number of young people at the festival was very heartening to the veteran player. Like the rest of the ’09 musicians, Bany has high praise for the EJF. “It’s been my favorite festival since the beginning,” says the man who should know. “It’s the way they treat us (the musicians) and the food and the fans. It’s an ideal mixture of the old and the new. It’s like an old home week.” As far as the Elkhart Jazz Festival is concerned, the feeling is definitely mutual. To read a list of Bany’s extensive (and on-growing) musical accomplishments, check his website. Enough to say that you can catch him and some of his fellows every Sunday night at Andy’s Jazz Club, on East Hubbard Street in Chicago. CENTRAL PARK EJF DEBUT  HAS ITS UP AND DOWNS The sun was hot, the breeze was slight and the sound of music wafted faintly through the air. It was Friday afternoon and the official opening of the 22nd Elkhart Jazz Festival.

Crowds gather for the first free stage in “Central Park” to open the 22nd annual Elkhart Jazz Festival Friday.

At first, things didn’t seem quite right. Especially to those who had been coming for years and whose favorite place was somewhere on level Main Street. Now located on what the city is calling “Central Park” (not to be confused with the real one in mid-town Manhattan), the validity of using the sloping grassy area as the free stage location will be determined after this EJF. There is no doubt that it poses definite problems for the elderly and physically handicapped who have difficulty maneuvering its ups and downs. “Two years ago, I had a husband in a wheelchair,” said Betty Kegerreis, longtime drummer with the Elkhart Municipal Band. “I wouldn’t have been able to get him to the grass. And not everyone can make the stairs.” Longtime attendee Sally Roth was among those who noted that on the Civic Plaza, the location of  food vendors and the choice of many as a place to sit and eat, you couldn’t hear the music. The giant speakers obviously were not aimed in a direction to make this happen. They were, however, in much closer proximity to park listeners which made some wish for ear plugs. The sound trucks, parked in past years along the east side of Main Street, were positioned in front of the free stage tent, blocking views and taking up a large flat section of grass that could have been used by listeners. Ditto for a smaller truck that blocked the west side of the stage and the sound boards that also obstructed views. Hopefully, these problems will be addressed and taken care of if the free tent is to remain on the grass.

Swinging at the EJF are (from left) Jim and Esther Buchanan of Elkhart and Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Mishawaka. nd Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Ma

Rocky and Johanna Giglio took advantage of their plaza parking spot by sitting in their car to hear the Airmen of Note, the second group scheduled Friday for the free stage.  Two couples, Jim and Esther Buchanan of Elkhart and Bernard and Kathy Blanda of Mishawaka, were on the porch swing beyond the stage, enjoying a lessening of the heat. However, “It used to be nicer on Main Street,” Jim said and the others nodded. As the 9 p.m. start time for Tim Cunningham, perennial plaza stage favorite, approached, the grassy hill was filled  with those who had brought their own folding chairs (the 400-seat tent was always full) and/or blankets and the adjoining beer tent grew more and more lively. By the end of his set, the grass crowd was melting away and the beer tent was heading for last call. The real test of the new venue will be daytime, when relief from the sun is a constantly moving goal.

Say It with Lots of Music

There is no better way to express emotion than with a song. Proof of this was displayed in two different formats last weekend. The connection was beautiful music performed by beautiful voices. The first  was a solo cabaret (her first) at Chicago’s Davenport’s by former Michiana soprano Cheryl Szucits. FYI: Davenport’s is one of THE cabaret venues in the Windy City. This was Cheryl’s weekend and, as long time fans John Shoup, Penny Meyer, Dorothy Szuits (Cheryl’s mom) and me headed into the rain. destination Davenport’s. Having seen Cheryl on stage for Elkhart Civic Theatre and South Bend Civic as well as at Brian Barr’s popular Mishawaka piano bar, I was always aware of her vocal ability.  But, as many know, there is a lot between just producing the notes, no matter how beautifully,  and interpreting the song. Therefore I have to say that, although the beautiful face was the same, the voice was bigger, richer and full of whatever emotion was evoked by a particular set of lyrics, not to mention displaying admirable control and shading and the ability to go from a belt to a lingering pianissimo with enviable ease.

The program was titled “Borrowed Time: The Life and Music of Nancy LaMott” and Cheryl emphasized the similarities between her life and that of LaMott, musically and via a brief narrative. Having always been a fan of the late Midland, Mich., native, it was a play list that, for me, was compiled of one happily familiar tune after the other. And the music could not have been interpreted or sung better than it was by Cheryl, with excellent support from pianist Joshua Kartes. “Listen to My Heart,” LaMott’s signature song, “Just in Time for Christmas” and “I’ll Be Here with You” were only three that brought more than just one tear to the eye. The fact that Cheryl’s father had passed away less than three weeks earlier made her sensitive performance even more impressive. Obviously, this was just the first of many! Will keep you posted. The perfect finale to this musical weekend was a tribute concert honoring Roy Hine Sunday evening at the Ramada Wagon Wheel Theatre in Warsaw. If there was any doubt about the impact of Hine, who served as artistic director for more than a decade, on the performers who spent a summer (or summers) with him, their remembrances dispelled it instantly. Thirteen performers took the stage to share some of their memories and recreate musical moments at the Wheel. For any who were in the audience during the “original” past productions, it was a tangible reminder of the incredible talent Hine brought together during his years in Warsaw. In an evening of highlights, among the most memorable were Mike Yocum delivering a bravura solo on turn which incorporated all the salesmen in “The Music Man’s” opening “Rock Island Line”; Jennie Sophia sailing through Rodgers and Hammerstein duets with Adrian Agular and nailing perfectly “Ice Cream” from “She Loves Me;” too-long absent Robert Joseph Miller pondering “If Life Were Like the Movies;” and Crystal VanArtsdalen, usually seen in the ensemble, belting “Give Me a Chance to Sing Melody.” Who knew? VanArtsdalen and WW leading ladies Brianna Borger and Jennifer Dow were responsible for putting the concert together. When the company gathered for the finale, “What I Did For Love” and Roy’s favorite holiday song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” there was no doubt that his spirit was in the house.