The Bumble Bee's View of the Garden:
Opinions on Jazz and other topics


Warning: The author is highly opinionated, and given his relationship to the main topic, could be accused of having a "conflict of interest." Further, unless otherwise noted, his research is most unscientific.

Greetings! I am a musician and educator active on the Jazz scene in New England. Lately I have seen a renewal of interest in Jazz locally and in general, and have decided to take advantage of the space offered me here to try to encourage that interest. First some news. Some folks in the area, myself included, have gathered together to create the Marrimack Valley Jazz Society. The purpose of this organization is to facilitate communication among those who have an interest in Jazz in the Merrimack Valley (roughly from Concord, NH to Haverhill, MA), and to further the cause of jazz education in this region. On Sunday, October 17, from 1:00 to 3:30 PM, The Society will present its second Jazz Brunch and Membership Call. This will take place at Madden's Restaurant, 37 Crystal Ave. in Derry, NH, 603-432-8403. Hosting the jam session will be Joan Watson-Jones and her Trio, with special guests Paul Combs and Jay Ford. Also featured will be the art work of internationally known painter, and New Hampshire resident, Mel Bolden. Refreshments will be served, and if you are a player, you are invited to bring your instrument and join in the fun.

It intrigues me that although Jazz music is alive and well in all corners of the United States, and most urban centers of the rest of the world, it gets so very little attention in the mainstream media. Perhaps some answer can be found in the fact that this phenomenon also applies to several other musical idioms and art forms. Much of the mainstream media attention is focused not on those things that people are doing because it matters to them, and often many others as well, but on the things that make a lot of money quickly. The latest "pop" music star, who may well be forgotten in a couple of years, will sell, thanks to all the hype, one, two or three million copies of his or her CD. This person will be profiled on TV entertainment news magazines, and invited to shmooz with the late night comedian/hosts. Where as, artists who has worked all their lives at their music (and made a living at it, too) such as Clark Terry or Tokisho Akioshi, in jazz, Koko Taylor or Gatemouth Brown, in Blues, or others who are recognized masters of real Anglo-American folk music (as opposed to the stuff on "country"radio), Classical music and other less codified idioms, are rarely, if ever seen, on TV or mentioned in the press, outside of their own field.

I have struggled against this trend all of my adult life. And yet, the situation seems to worsen. When I was a child I watched and heard Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, and Nat Cole, as well as Leonard Bernstein and performances from the Metropolitan Opera on the "mainstream" TV stations. I first heard Ellington's early music accompanying the old "Farmer Brown" cartoons. Can you imagine a child of today watching cartoons to a sound track of, say, the music of Charles Mingus. How about being able to watch a great symphony conductor of today sit down with a bunch of kids and talk about Classical music with them, on prime-time television.

Organizations such as jazz societies, folk music societies, friends of chamber music, community theaters, community concert bands and symphony orchestras are all very important in the struggle against the corporatization of the arts. I encourage you to support them, whatever your interests, and get involved in them or with them if you can. Personally, I prefer this kind of activity to watching yet another mindless sit-com on the tube, and being assaulted by pleas to purchase a bunch of shoddy and/or over-priced products and services. I would raise the "Burn Your TV" banner here, except it sounds too much to me like killing the messenger because one does not like the message.

Speaking of Jazz locally I would like to introduce you to the work of some of your neighbors. These CDs have come into my possession in a rather random fashion. I run into a colleague who has just released a CD and I swap one of mine for one of his or hers. A series of technological developments over the last fifteen years have made it possible for musical artists to make their own high quality recordings. The equipment and the process of replication has become relatively affordable, and one no longer needs to wait for a record company in order to make the music available. Of course, access to distribution is another matter; however, we now have available to us the work of many more artists, and more often than not, it is very good. As the title says this is a bumble bee's view of the garden. Since I like all of these folks and I cannot think of any good reason to start with one rather than another, I will proceed in reverse alphabetical order starting with Joan Watson-Jones.

Joan's album, her second release, is titled "One More Year." Some of you may know Joan from her cable TV show "Joan's Jazz Jam," which was on for three years in New Hampshire, and has been syndicated elsewhere. Others of you may know her from her performances over the last twenty years. Stylistically, Joan is very interesting. She performs with a "modern" piano trio and horn players, and yet there is something in her singing that recalls singers from earlier in the century, like Ethel Waters or the "classic" blues singers. It takes on by surprise, in a subtle way, but Joan makes it work. After all, Jazz is a continuously developing art, and this stylistic juxtaposition is a bit like the "post-modern" movement in architecture. Joan is accompanied by the trio of Hakim Law, piano, Skip Smith, bass and Gordon Grottenthaler. She also has several fine horn players: Jay Daly, trumpet; Fred Hass and Curtis Rivers, saxophones; David Eure, violin; and Sonny Stanton, flute. Each of them is featured on one or two tracks. This album gives one the chance to sample the work of several excellent New England Jazz musicians, all in one disc.

Kathleen Kolman has just released her first CD "The Dreamer." Kolman is returning to the scene after taking several years off to focus on being a parent, which is something that I can certainly relate to. Kathleen sings not only songs from the "standard" English language repertoire, but also has great affection for the work of Brazilian songwriters. Kathleen takes this affection seriously enough to have studied the Portuguese language and the singing of it with Brazilian singer. There are also more representatives of the incredibly deep pool of Jazz talent among us in this part of the country. At the piano is Mark Shilansky, the bassist is John Lockwood, Les Harris is on drums and Catherine Birrer percussion, and Charlie Jennison is heard on flute and saxophones (Charlie is also a very good pianist and plays bass and probably anything else he can get his hands on).

Speaking of Charlie Jennison, he too has a new CD available. Jennison has been on the scene in New Hampshire and Northern Massachusetts for a long time, having first made a strong impression while still a teenager. "Iridescence" finds Charlie in the company of pianist Jim Butka, bassist John Hunter and drummer Ken Clark, (yet some more fine musicians) and features his compositions as well as his playing of soprano, alto and tenor saxophones. I have made something of Charlie's instrumental versatility, but it is the quality of his playing that really matters. Whether accompanying someone else or leading his own group, Charlie always plays with taste and a sensitivity to the whole piece of music. The tunes here are also outstanding. Hey Charlie! Could I have the lead sheets for a few of these?

Another veteran saxophonist from our neighborhood is Richard Gardzina. I think I first heard Rich in the late 70s or early 80s and he knocked me out then. His CD "Play This" features his own compositions, presented in a "radio friendly" adult-contemporary or "smooth" jazz style. This was a shock for me at first because I had previously heard these tunes performed in a more "straight ahead" manner. However, once I set aside my anti-smooth-Jazz bias, I could hear the same intensity I had enjoyed in Rich's live performances. My aversion to "smooth" jazz is due to the feeing I get that the smooth is often more important than the jazz. Anyone who puts some spark into this genre has my respect and appreciation. As with the other discs mentioned here, we have some more of our musically strong neighbors: Steve Aubert at the keys, Roger Kimball, bass, Dave Berman, drums, and on three of the tracks guitarist Joe Gattuoso.

These discs may be difficult to find in your local record store. Only Charlie Jennison's disc is on a label with any kind of distribution; they also have a Web-site: http://www.invisiblemusicrecords.com. Joan Watson-Jones can be contacted at 800-544-2931; Rich Gardzina at Diamond Cut Productions 617-267-1310. You will have to keep your eyes and ears open for Kathleen Kolman, however she performing more and more frequently these days. In most cases, you need to get these kinds of recordings from the artists themselves. More often than not they are worth it; and when you find one that you really like, go back and get one for a friend.

Paul Combs, Vyü Magazine, vol. 1