Interactions: Interviews with national and local jazz and blues artists and writers

A. Willard Jenkins -WPFW-FM/Editor/contributor Open Sky.

Willard Jenkins does so many things we could devote an entire column just to his various activities. He’s among other things an independent arts consultant, concerts and festivals artistic director/curator, producer, writer and editor under his Open Sky banner. He is also the author of an acclaimed biography of the great pianist, bandleader, and composer Randy Weston, and a longtime jazz radio host, lecturer, and jazz advocate. He’s currently preparing another book, a volume about jazz writers of color (full disclosure: I am one of those fortunate enough to be included). You can currently hear his exceptional, “Ancient to the Future” program Wednesday nights on

WPFW-FM (online at from 6-9 p.m. CDT (7-10 EDT). Willard was kind enough to take a few moments out of his always busy day to respond to our inquiries.

(1) What initially got you interested in jazz?

My dad’s record collection. Though he didn’t go out to experience live performances actively, at least not until I began presenting concerts in Cleveland (through the old Northeast Ohio Jazz Society and later Tri-C JazzFest), he had a good record collection and was an early adapter to stereophonic sound. I fondly remember Christmas 1961 when he hooked up his first stereo system! Checking out his records I instinctively began paying attention to the musicians names, including a fascination with sidemen/women and the liner notes; I suppose I was arming myself for my later immersion in and addiction to record stores, which proved endlessly fascinating.

(2) Do you currently or have you in the past played an instrument?

Not currently; my only brush with an instrument came when my grandmother gave me a silver trumpet in grade school. But I wanted to be out in the streets playing ball with my boys so I couldn’t get next to any kind of practice regimen – much to my later regret!

(3) Who are some of your favorite musicians, past and present?

In my position, I hate to play the “favorites” game, but spending as much time as I did with Randy Weston writing his book “African Rhythms” certainly immersed me in his classically underrated artistry. Miles Davis and all the musicians from his second great quintet (Wayne (Shorter), Herbie (Hancock), Ron (Carter) & Tony (Williams) come immediately to mind, as do John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, (Duke) Ellington, Art Blakey, Woody Shaw, Bobby Hutcherson, McCoy Tyner, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orch., Lester Bowie, Betty Carter, Jimmy Heath, Joe Zawinul, Ornette Coleman, Gil Evans, the Marsalis Family, Shirley Horn, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Lovano, Chick Corea, Kenny Garrett, John Scofield, Jason Moran, the Strickland Brothers, Christian McBride, Robert Glasper, Vijay Iyer, Sean Jones (who I’ve known and been observing his development since he was 12 years old), Matt Wilson, Keyon Harrold,.. and a legion of others too numerous to list here. That’s not a question I respond to easily given my broadcast, journalism, and curating positions need to be open, discreet & impartial. Let’s just say that list is constantly expanding the more I think about it, so we’ll shut down that query for now Ron!

(4) What got you involved in jazz criticism?

You know I’ve never considered myself a critic in the purest sense, and that’s because I am not schooled in what I refer to as the science of music. That said, much evidence suggests that the average reader of jazz-related prose isn’t really interested in reading technical music jargon. But I’ve always considered myself a jazz journalist – on several fronts, including broadcasting.

(5) You’ve been involved in radio for many years. What spurred your interest in that end, and do you think radio, especially conventional broadcasting, is still an important factor in terms of getting people interested in jazz?

I absolutely and unequivocally believe in the sanctity and power of radio broadcasting, despite the myriad of other music listening options that have developed over the last 10 years or so. I started my broadcasting odyssey as an undergrad at WKSU, the radio station of my alma mater Kent State University. I had a weekly show there called Exploration Jazz that I inherited from a good friend when he relocated. From there I had my first and only brushes with commercial radio jazz broadcasting for short stints at WABQ and WGAR in Cleveland, where I was mainly involved in what could be called modular features, particularly at WABQ, which at the time was one of two black-oriented AM stations in Cleveland that were down at the far right hand end of the dial where black stations were typically relegated, and was one of those “sundowners” whose broadcast day was literally from sunup to sundown.

After relocating to Minneapolis in ’84 to take a job as Jazz Program Coordinator (a whole ‘nother story!) at Arts Midwest, I suppose the jazz radio jones was deep enough in my soul that one of my first moves after finding a place to rent in South Minneapolis was to affiliate with the Twin Cities stellar community radio station, KFAI (Fresh Air Radio), where I hosted a weekly show until relocating in ’89 to take a job as executive director of the late, lamented National Jazz Service Organization in Washington, DC. In DC I was invited by the program director to serve as a jazz show substitute programmer at DC’s community station WPFW (Jazz & Justice Radio), where I’ve been hosting weekly shows ever since; currently, my show is Ancient/Future on Wednesday evenings 7:00-10:00 pm.

In 2007/2008 my wife Suzan was a visiting professor at Loyola University in New Orleans and she established the short-lived Thelonious Monk Institute graduate studies program at Loyola. During that meaningful but relatively short time living in New Orleans, I quickly became immersed in and affiliated with their world-renowned community radio station WWOZ, where by the time we split back to DC I had evolved from a regular program substitute to a weekly new release show host.

I want to emphasize that from the start this has all been volunteer radio. The only time I’ve ever been paid for radio was when I wrote some scripts for NPR syndicated jazz radio anthologies, like Tim Owens’ Jazz Profiles series and the Louis Armstrong Centennial series.

(6) Do you consider yourself more a critic, an advocate, a reporter, or do you feel all these roles naturally converge?

Above all else, I’m a jazz advocate. And yes, in my work those roles have converged.

(7) How long has the Independent Ear been going, and why did you start it?

The Independent Ear has been what I’ve referred to as my ongoing webzine (technically speaking it’s a blog, but blog is a limiting term) on my Open Sky Jazz ( website since 2010. I started the Independent Ear at a point in my writing where I’d become a bit weary (jaundiced, leery, etc.) of writing record reviews and was more interested in writing various jazz-related commentaries on the overall state of the music, offering self-starting, enterprising musicians a forum for expression, interviewing people from other sectors of the music business, and offering commentary on various aspects of the music business, like audience development, musicians’ responsibilities off the bandstand to better cultivate audience, historical aspects, a forum on the rather peculiar plight of the black jazz journalist, trends in jazz radio, and other elements of the music, often beyond the bandstand. Bottom line, the Independent Ear is a place where I’m free to expound on any subject I wish since I’m publisher and editor; though God love JazzTimes and DownBeat, where I’m still listed on the mastheads as a regular contributor and eagerly participate in their annual critic’s polls. And as far as that record reviews matter, my interest has shifted more to the presenting/performance/venues aspects of the music since I believe that’s the lifeblood of the music, as opposed to a recordings orientation.

(8) There has always been a lot of discussion and debate over whether the term jazz should be discarded in favor of something like Black Classical music or something else. Do you have any problems with the term and is this a subject still worth discussing?

My sense of that term “jazz”… the genie has long been out of that bottle. But I do sympathize with those who subscribe to the overall sense that there are only two kinds of music, good and bad. In a perfect world there would be no labels, which were adapted purely for commercial purposes and were more meaningful when we had a thriving record store industry. I will say this, one of the most enjoyable radio show host stints I ever experienced came at WWOZ when I would eagerly sub for the nightly Kitchen Sink show. That show had an open format, befitting its name. So I was programming everything from Robert Johnson, to Bessie Smith, to Miles, to Aretha, to Motown, to Curtis Mayfield, to Hendrix, to J.B., to George Clinton, to Weather Report, to Public Enemy, to Fela, to Gnawa music, to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, to McCoy Mrubata, to Igor Stravinsky and beyond, and absolutely loving it!

(9) Another school of thought says that jazz’s popularity, particularly within the Black community, began to decline as it evolved into an art and concert music rather than a dance music. That’s an oversimplification, but how much truth do you think is in that contention and do you feel that jazz not really being part of the discussion when many people reference “pop” music hurts it?

That’s a sensibility that Betty Carter was quite adamant about, her sense also being that black folks aren’t interested in dissonance in their music. That latter contention is an oversimplification of course, but there is some truth to the original contention about the evolution of jazz from a more social, danceable music to more of an art form/listening music being a point of the diminishment of the black audience. Along with that was the demise of the soul jazz aspect and the organ joints in the black community. There was a time when I was coming up in the music in Cleveland that we could go to joints in the community and hear cats like the late B-3 master Eddie Baccus, who was the Jimmy Smith of Cleveland, and others of the soul jazz atmosphere played right where black folks were living. So I do think there’s some relationship to the evolution of the music from the “community” to various urban ivory tower venues and the price tag associated with frequenting the concert halls versus going somewhere and experiencing good jazz for the price of a couple of beers.

But on the other handI’m loathe to tar & feather the phenomenon of jazz in the concert halls because I’ve had a wealth of experience operating in that universe in my professional life and I see the benefits of the music being presented in an all-ages environment. So that’s a very complex consideration that could spur arguments from both perspectives. I also think the relative demise of the kind of jazz radio prevalent in earlier times has also contributed to the dilution of the black audience for jazz. I’ll give you an example: if you ever attend the Monterey Jazz Festival you’ll find a rather robust black audience constituency there. I asked my friend Tim Jackson, longtime artistic director at Monterey, why that was so. He explained that the founder of the Monterey Jazz Festival, Jimmy Lyons, was a revered longtime jazz radio host who was very popular in the black community (though he himself was not black) and when he founded MJF, his radio audience followed him to the festival. So perhaps the loss of much of our personality-driven jazz radio may also be a factor.

(10) What are your views regarding “smooth” jazz, fusion, soul-jazz and other styles that diverge in some fashion from mainstream sounds?

I loathe to put down any derivatives – or as I refer to it with my curatorial hat firmly in place, jazz-informed music. That said, I am not a regular listener or fan of “smooth jazz”, which from my perspective – and here we go with that label conundrum – what you’re largely talking about from that genre is instrumental R&B with little relationship to classic jazz. That said, I was an early enthusiast of what became known as jazz fusion; one who was quite interested in the music of those early jazz-rock/fusion explorers who came from the Miles Davis family tree. I still consider Weather Report the greatest electric jazz band we’ve ever had, with Return to Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra not far behind; and continue to take interest in the subsequent music of those musicians who operated in that electric area.

I just finished Bob Porter’s very informative book on Soul Jazz and that was also a branch of the tree that has given me great sustenance down through the years. That’s a very social branch of the jazz tree that has had great value in the overall consideration of jazz history.

(11) Today you don’t hear much “avant-garde” or “free” music on jazz radio. How do you feel about this style generally, and do you agree with the claims made by some Black musicians (notably in Arthur Taylor’s “Notes and Tones”) that the avant-garde was mostly dominated by people unable to master the fundamentals of jazz and was championed by uninformed critics?

Stanley Crouch has waxed poetic on that sensibility that Art Taylor put forward, not that I exactly subscribe to that opinion. When it comes to the so-called avant grade or cutting edge of this music we call jazz, there has been much valuable music made by exceptional musicians who’ve robustly contributed to the overall jazz perspective. For me, the quintessential book on that subject is George Lewis’ incredible tome on the history of the AACM. The thing that always struck me about so many of the musicians of the AACM is that they recognized the social aspects of the music and created music environments, including costuming and other humorous elements that were welcoming to audiences, as opposed to exhibiting some ‘to hell with the audience, let’s play as out as we possibly can’ perspectives.

(12) You wrote a celebrated biography of Randy Weston, who is still active today. Do you feel he has been properly recognized within the jazz community as a composer, bandleader and player?

No, Randy Weston has decidedly NOT been “properly recognized”… within and without the jazz community. And I believe part of that disparity is his steadfast African sensibility. But the fact remains that he is a virtuous pianist and one of the greatest composers of the later half of the 20th century, and I think history will continue to demonstrate his importance. Part of the issue also is that Randy – though greatly respected by his peers and younger musicians – has never truly been part of the mainstream jazz “circuit” or the ongoing jazz conversation. But he is truly an incredible master, recognition of whose importance will evolve over time.

(13) From your perspective, how global has jazz become? No one would argue that its impact and popularity extend well beyond America, but do you think today there are substantial numbers of European, Asian, African and other players whose musicianship equals that of Americans?

Jazz has certainly become an international language; and that’s something that is a core element of our efforts at the DC Jazz Festival, particularly since we are located in one of the most international cities on the planet. Some of our most rewarding year-round programming has come through our collaborations with DC’s foreign embassy community, like this past festival when we presented the great pianist Chano Dominguez in collaboration with the Embassy of Spain, and the young Korean pianist Youngjoo Song in collaboration with the Embassy of Korea (and we’re working on an ongoing project with the Embassy of South Africa among other embassy programming). Over time, and through the propagation of jazz education, cultures across the world have begun to produce their own very worthy jazz musicians, and one of the beauties of that global phenomenon is that these musicians have learned the music in the classic sense and filtered that music through the prism of their own cultures. So what has resulted is a distinct broadening of the scope of what we know as jazz… and that’s a great thing!

There was a time when jazz musicians were welcomed in other countries as something meaningful and perhaps exotically different from their own music. As a result there were a wealth of opportunities for touring jazz musicians to perform in other countries. Now with the development of jazz education as a worldwide phenomenon, these countries have produced their own jazz musicians and in some cases their own jazz scenes. Not to mention the fact that so many countries have their own signature jazz festival, and oft-times more than one. From a global perspective and in terms of the propagation of the music, that’s all good.

(14) Are you also a fan of blues, and if so, why are there jazz fans who don’t like blues and vice versa?

The blues being a core element of jazz music – and a core element whose absence I’ve often decried in print in my observations about various musicians and records (writing about “enemies of the blues”), I deeply respect and appreciate the blues.

(15) Has the jazz community begun to address sexism in its ranks, especially as it relates to instrumentalists and critics/writers? How about homophobia as well?

Those are systemic issues which slowly but surely have positively changed for the better. However there is still much work to be done. The number of exceptional and quite worthy women instrumentalists has grown as jazz education has grown. Writers like my friend and mentee the writer John Murph, and exceptional musicians like Fred Hersch and Terri Lyne Carrington have very effectively addressed issues of homophobia in jazz – more by the practical example of their mastery than by flag-waving – but like society in general we still have a loooong way to go in that department.

(16) Jazz is still heavily an acoustic music. Do you feel electronic instruments have a valid place within the music?

Absolutely; see my earlier response to the question of fusion.

(17) You are working now on a book about Black jazz critics and writers. Why do you feel that is important, and why does there seem to be so little jazz coverage in many Black publications?

Stay tuned… “Ain’t But a Few of Us” will explore these issues – from a variety of perspectives – in depth! This book project began with questions in my head about the relative few black music journalists in general, despite the preeminence of black music in world culture. So what began as simple questions to folks like yourself, has evolved into a book project. So again, stay tuned for that.

(18) Quincy Jones is planning a new jazz TV station. BET Jazz evolved into something else and what it is today isn’t exactly jazz of any sort. Do you think this will work?

Only time will tell. One would think a man like Quincy Jones who has shown such openness to developments in the form and has been an ongoing champion of young musicians, and has had his finger firmly on the pulse of modern media developments may very well have the keys to success for jazz in the video broadcast mode.

I had a very rewarding 10-year run on BET Jazz – as program participant, show host, writer and eventually producer. But I recognize the commercial demands of broadcast television and am anxious to see how Quincy addresses those hurdles.

(19) As someone still involved in jazz festivals, I’m sure you’ve seen the phenomenon of festivals marketed as jazz being dominated by non-jazz acts. Does this help or hurt the music in your view?

As artistic director of the DC Jazz Festival I recognize that phenomenon as a very thin line we have to walk in order to simply sustain our festivals. Producing a jazz festival is no small financial undertaking! What I strive to present when presenting music on our festival that may not be identified as jazz (which as you know has become a very elastic term and one which people I greatly respect (like the great Gary Bartz for example) have very little use for) is to present music that is not only complimentary to a jazz festival environment, but that is at the very least jazz-informed; music that either through the musicians who are making the music or the ultimate music they make, has from some perspectives been informed by jazz.

Examples of such musicians that we’ve presented on our DC Jazz Festival would be Common, who is also on the bill for this year’s Monterey Jazz Festival, and The Roots (who also successfully played both Monterey and this year’s Newport Jazz Festival – and those are the grandaddies of all jazz festivals!) Other examples of jazz-informed musicians and violins would be Trombone Shorty, Rhianon Giddens, and Black Violin – who we successfully presented on this year’s DCJF. Its a fine line, but we have to walk it in order to attain an aggregate audience for — as some of the old schoolers would say – ‘da real ‘ting!

(20) Are you optimistic, pessimistic or just undecided about the future of the music?

Where jazz is concerned I am forever a glass-half-full observer (as opposed to glass-half-empty); and my optimism about this music is set in stone!


B. Karl Wingruber, multi-instrumentalist and teacher

Karl Wingruber is another prolific figure in the area jazz community. He’s probably best known for his participation in and involvement with Music City Swing, a fine big band. But he’s also a multi-instrumentalist and an instructor. Facebook was how we got to know each other, and we continue to have plenty of dialog on that forum. Karl was gracious enough to take some time for our questions.
(1) What got you started playing music?

My mother played clarinet and saxophone in school. I wanted to play the saxophone, so in 6th grade I took an assessment that determined I could be a saxophone player.

(2) Was jazz your first musical interest?

When I was 14 my mother bought me a $2.99 Glenn Miller cassette from the grocery store. I was hooked as soon as I heard “In The Mood”. Big bands became my passion via the local record stores and the Time-Life monthly “Big Bands” subscriptions. I also bought many Boots Randolph albums.

(3) How did you decide on which saxophone you wanted to play, and do you play more than one or specialize? Also do you play other instruments?

Like most kids I started on the alto sax. I really liked the sound of it. Tenor and baritone came a few years later, but the majority of my professional work has been on alto sax. While attending college at Western Carolina University the great reedman Chris Vadala(of Chuck Mangione fame) was a visiting artist. He came with flutes, clarinets and saxes and would play 3-5 instruments per tune.

His book “Improve Your Doubling” had just come out, and between Chris and my saxophone professor I quickly understood the need to add clarinet and flute to my bag of tricks. As a performance major, my professor insisted I spend each semester studying a different woodwind instrument(clarinet, bass clarinet, the lower saxes, bassoon, etc.) Due to the dreaded “teardrop top lip” flute took me many years to play and cost me a job at Opryland, and if it hadn’t been for a short clip of the great Jean-Pierre Rampal on youtube I might never have figured out how to overcome my ill-suited lips and make music on what many saxophonists refer to as “the gloom tube”.

Since then many of my most memorable performances have been on flute, such as playing the famous solo from “An American Trilogy” in an Elvis tribute show that featured the Jordanaires. I also got to play “California Dreamin”and several other famous flute solos on the recent Nashville tribute to the Wrecking Crew.

(4) Who would you consider influences?

I had four primary influences growing up. My high school band director Tony Robinson, who encouraged and supported my performing and gave me three years of intense music theory.When I was 16 I joined a touring Motown review band and the lead saxophonist Dennis Murphy mentored me. He could play all the screaming Junior Walker stuff and helped me learn it.

I studied modern classical saxophone with Dr. John T. West at Western Carolina University. Dr. West, who had also been my private teacher in high school, pushed me hard and greatly advanced my technique via Ferling and Karg-Elert studies, and exposed me to modern pieces from Ibert, Bozza, Heiden, Villa-Lobos, Glazunov and many more.

Perhaps the biggest moment of my early musical life was in 1987 when I got to play with Boots Randolph. He was performing at a club in my NC hometown and allowed me to come onstage for three tunes. I was pretty nervous, especially when we started trading choruses on Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk”. The roar of the crowd when we finished was deafening, and though I knew it was all for Boots, in that 20 minutes I got to experience the world from his side of the microphone and I was hooked. I’d found my path in life.

After the show Boots was very encouraging and told me I could have a future in music with lots of hard work. It just seemed so surreal that the man whose albums I’d admired and studied for years was giving me career advice. When Boots passed in 2007 I was devastated. After attending his funeral I drove to North Carolina and visited the place where we played together. The club was gone, but all those memories were still there. I’ll never forget Boots Randolph.

(5) How often and how much do you practice today?

I play saxophone every day, either practicing or teaching private lessons. Lately I’ve been working out of method books by Rudy Wiedoeft and Jimmy Dorsey-quite a challenge for any saxophonist. I make and practice Benny Goodman trancriptions to keep my clarinet chops up. Flute can be the most troublesome, so I try to play it daily. I can warm up on flute for an hour or more, then after going to sax or clarinet it often feels like I have to start all over again with the flute. Then there are those rare days when all three play equally well, and that’s why we keep coming back.

(6) Do you also write and/or arrange songs?

Transcription and arranging has always been my thing. When I was 17 and touring with cover bands I was always the guy writing out everybody’s part. First it was just the horns, then it was all the chords and vocal harmonies. In 12th grade I wrote a simple SAB arrangement of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” for the concert choir, and multiple arrangements of Boots Randolph songs for a sax quintet. My high school band director told me I had perfect pitch, but to me it was just something I was used to doing. I’ve made a pretty good supplemental income doing transcriptions and arrangements. Sometimes it’s a marching band halftime show. Other times it’s a choral chart, jazz band chart, horn section chart or a Nashville number chart.

A couple of weeks ago I transcribed a Spanish guitar trio for a short tv spot. Many of the songs we wanted to do in Music City Swing were unavailable or incomplete, so I went to the original recordings to extract the missing parts. Transcription is how I met the great Louise Tobin, Benny Goodman’s vocalist from 1939. I sent her a couple of vocal transcriptions and soon we were talking on the phone. I’ve been to Texas twice to visit Louise and her son Harry James Jr. She is my living link to the WWII music I cherish. Amazing lady.

(7) Who are your current favorite players?

Valerie Gillespie is an amazing jazz saxophonist, clarinetist and flautist. Wonderful vocalist too. She headlined Jazzfest in Murfreesboro back in May. Charles McNeal may be one of the best saxophonists on the planet. He plays jazz, R&B, and funk on soprano, alto and tenor sax as well as flute for a variety of artists and as a soloist. Gerald Albright continues to amaze me with his unique crossover between jazz and R&B. Pattie Cossentino is a terrific woodwind artist and vocalist as well. We’re lucky to have her in Nashville. Jeff Coffin-masterful player and great guy. He helped me with some embouchure difficulties when I first came to town in the 90s. I was honored to play with him at Bonnaroo in 2008.

(8) Who would be your all-time favorites?

In addition to Boots Randolph I’d have to say Trane, David Sanborn, Marc Russo, Lenny Pickett, Earl Bostic, Junior Walker, King Curtis, Candy Dulfer, Kenny G, Michael Brecker, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Rollins, Benny Goodman, Peanuts Hucko, Joel Frahm and Najee, to name just a few.

(9) What are your favorite jazz albums?

A few albums I just can’t live without are “The Town Hall Concert”(Louis Armstrong), “The Bridge”(Sonny Rollins), “Dreams Of The Emerald Beyond”(Mahavishnu Orchestra), “Kind Of Blue”(Miles Davis), “Bangkok ‘56”(Benny Goodman), “Mayhem In Manhattan”(Illinois Jacquet & Flip Phillips), “1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert”(Benny Goodman), “Soultrane”(John Coltrane), “Shades”(Yellowjackets), “My Favorite Things”(Coltrane), “Crescent”(Coltrane), “Out To Lunch”(Eric Dolphy) and Michael Brecker’s eponymous first album.

(10) Do you also enjoy playing and/or listening to blues, and if so, is there a particular style you enjoy or prefer?

I dig blues guitarists like Stevie Ray Vaughn, but I tend to listen back to B.B. King, and even further back to Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson. Jump Blues is a favorite style of mine, starting back with Louis Jordan. Louis had it all-great saxophone playing, vocals and an infectious sense of humor. He bridged the gap between swing and blues and helped bring about another favorite style of mine-1950s R&B tenor sax, also known as the “Honkers & Screamers” era. R&B players like King Curtis, Sil Austin, Jay McNeely, Herb Hardesty, Red Prysock, Eddie Chamblee, Joe Houston, Lee Allen and the unstoppable Earl Bostic on alto were, in my opinion, largely responsible for the inception of rock & roll. I dig both their aggressive, gutbucket playing and the way they handled ballads. Nothin’ but the blues…

(11) How much attention do you pay to contemporary pop music?

Growing up I listened to 80s Hair Metal and the pop of the day, along with my big band leanings. Today I try to stay as current as possible, but the music seems to change almost daily. There are still many great pop singers and bands today, despite what many in my generation believe. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them. Pop singers have always influenced my saxophone playing.

(12) When did Music City Swing begin?

I started MCS in 2003 with the idea of preserving the original WWII music played in its original form, including the vocalists. A lot of the sheet music has disappeared since the 40s so I have to transcribe it myself, which can be a real challenge with those old recordings. We are very dedicated to the sounds of Miller, Basie, Goodman, Ellington and the Dorseys. You won’t see us at wedding gigs unless someone specifically requests a big band party. It’s a specialty act-not someone’s “dinner music”. Keeping the band working can be difficult, but we’ve played many jazz festivals, troop returns, USO -type shows, WWII reenactment parties, and fundraisers. We appeared many times on FOX-17’s “Tennessee Mornings” to commemorate Memorial Day, Veterans’ Day, Christmas Day, etc. Nothing like big band swing at 6:30am!! Mike Huckabee once played bass with us, and we played a show at Freed Hardeman University with Tim Conway.

(13) How often do you perform and what kinds of gigs?

Like many local players my gigs vary. I usually play between 3-10 shows per month. In addition to Music City Swing and my R&B band Karl & The Undertones, I occasionally play with other big bands in the area, wedding bands, pit orchestras, etc. Sometimes I’ll perform with the Nashville Symphony and Chorus when they do Mahler 8 or similar choral pieces. The Murfreesboro Symphony calls me for July 4th, Christmas, or any upcoming concert where saxophone is needed, such as “An American in Paris.” MSO also has a sax quartet that does a number of trust fund gigs each year, and those are enjoyable. For the last couple of years I’ve been playing duo gigs with the great Vail Johnson(bassist for Kenny G). Vail can do literally anything on the bass and I’ve learned much from him. One of my latest projects is inspired by the TJBS “Great Albums” series. With a handpicked group of great players, I’ve been rehearsing the landmark David Sanborn album “Straight To The Heart” plus a few of his other tunes. We’ll be performing it later this fall, hopefully at Rudy’s. I’ve always wanted to do a Sanborn tribute show.

(14) What are your feelings in regards to Nashville as a place for jazz musicians?

The jazz scene in Nashville comes and goes. No jazz club seems to last more than a couple of years, which is unfortunate considering the legions of good jazz players and groups here. Jazzmatazz in Murfreesboro was a wonderful concept but has folded. The Nashville Jazz Workshop is terrific, with their many class offerings and year-round concert series. Rudy’s is great too – I hope it can hold on for a while.

(15) What are some things that you would like to see either change or happen here that would improve the situation?

There are lots of good things happening, and I’m eager to see what the future brings. Several of our universities offer jazz majors, and in the Davidson/Rutherford/Sumner County area alone there are close to 100 middle and high school jazz bands. The summer jazz camps at NJW grow each year, with kids from all over Tennessee and beyond.

As music chairman of the Main St. Jazzfest in Murfreesboro I’m always trying to secure more funding to hire local and national jazz artists. The recession of 2008 hit us hard and the recovery has been painfully slow. We’ll get there. What I’d like to see is more community outreach opportunities for jazz musicians. Many players seem to feel as if the people should “come to them”, the way fans tend to flock to the pop stars. That approach simply doesn’t work. Jazz musicians are ambassadors with a responsibility to bring the music to the people, and the smartest ones spend as much time promoting as they do practicing. I’ve taken Music City Swing to various smaller towns just outside of the Nashville area, and the people there are always appreciative of the music.

(16) How valuable or necessary do you think academic or formal training is for a jazz musician?

Stan Kenton and Woody Herman, among others, brought jazz music into schools and proved it could be taught. Academic jazz programs are essential because they stress the history of the music as well the learning and performance of it. I think formal training on your instrument is very important, especially for jazz or any improvisational type of music. For the most part, jazz musicians have to know more about music theory and harmony than classical musicians to facilitate improvisation.

My experience is a mixture of both. The classical discipline strengthened my technique, and the theory and ear training associated with jazz and commercial music helped me with soloing and expression. As an educator, I’ve seen students of all ages respond to jazz techniques. Even the youngest students can learn to play a simple walking bass line, pick out a melody by ear or recognize major, minor or dominant chords. Jazz and formal classical training are beneficial for any music student.

(17) What are some future professional goals that you have?

For the last several years I’ve been working on material for books. I plan to publish a method book for sight reading and some solo/duet books for saxophone and various instruments. The sight reading book is based on many things I’ve figured out in my own playing and 20 years of teaching privately. Music City Swing will also begin recording a new album this fall. It will be a tribute to Louise Tobin and consist of songs from her Goodman era recreated exactly as she performed them.

(18) Have you participated in many recording sessions locally, and if not, is this an area you plan to investigate in the future?

I’ve had a nice variety of session work over the years. Country artist Jerrod Niemann used my horn section for his album “Free The Music”, and I even got to play a 1930s-style clarinet solo on one tune-not an everyday occurrence in country music. Dave Brainard, the engineer/producer from the Niemann sessions, kept my number and has continued to use me for other projects over the last few years. Dave’s really great-he knows how to get the best from his musicians.

I’ve also played countless sax solos behind all types of singers. This summer I did remote recording for Ben Jones (“Cooter” from the original Dukes of Hazzard show). He wanted that Americana rock & roll saxophone style on his new album and some background flute. One of my favorite recent sessions was a clarinet solo that was inserted into an episode of DC’s“Legends Of Tomorrow”. So many recording sessions are done remotely these days, so I just play my part and it’s sent off to California or wherever for mixing. A couple of weeks ago I played a Gershwin-esque clarinet solo for an upcoming Adobe commercial.

(19) You did an extensive article on Boots Randolph, someone who doesn’t have the highest profile among jazz fans. Why do you feel he isn’t given the respect you think he merits?

I’ve listened to Boots for over 35 years, and I can say for certain that he could play anything-jazz, blues, country, rock or swing. Most of the 1950s-60s Nashville session guys were great jazz players, and Boots was no exception. He was like King Curtis, Don Byas and Ben Webster rolled into one. “Yakety Sax” was so successful I think it tended to blind aficionados to Boots’ jazz ability. His lucrative musical association with Elvis may also have turned away some jazz fans. The majority of Boots’ recordings are pop songs of the day, so I think many people just aren’t aware of his jazz abilities unless they were lucky enough to have heard him live.

I don’t think it’s disrespect – people just don’t know. Luckily, I have a solution: There’s a little-known album called “After The Riots at Newport” from 1960. The Nashville All Stars (Hank Garland, Bob Moore, Chet Atkins, Gary Burton, Floyd Cramer, Brenton Banks, Jim Carney and Boots) were scheduled to play at the Newport festival that year, but it was shut down due to rioting so the group recorded their set on the back porch of the house they were staying in nearby. Boots plays impeccable jazz alto and tenor on the album.

The albums “Hip Boots”, “Sentimental Journey”, the wonderful “Yakety Madness” with Richie Cole, and his final recording “A Whole New Ballgame” are also great jazz recordings. Boots should be respected on so many levels. He had one of the most recognizable saxophone sounds of all time, and his control of the extreme ranges of the horn was legendary. His emotional depth on ballads is reminiscent of the great 1950s R&B players. Boots also understood the showmanship side of the business. He was a first-rate entertainer who balanced his great musicianship with a big personality and infectious sense of humor. Every year I introduce my classes to Boots’ music, and occasionally some of my older students have transcribed and performed his songs. It’s the very least I can do after all he did for me. Boots changed my life.

(20) What do you consider some important books on jazz, either from the standpoint of history/analysis/criticism, or in improving one’s abilities as a player?

From a historical standpoint the best “book” I’ve ever had is my friend Louise Tobin, the last surviving member of Goodman’s 1939 band. Over the last 5 years she’s given me firsthand accounts of Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Johnny Mercer, Will Bradley, Charlie Christian, Jack Jenney, Bobby Hackett, Fletcher Henderson, Lionel Hampton, Peanuts Hucko and countless others in addition to her own amazing life.

For actual books I’d start with “Jazz: A History of America’s Music” by Geoffrey Ward and Ken Burns. It’s the companion book to the mini-series. Gunther Schuller’s books “Early Jazz” and “The Swing Era” are not to be missed. “The Big Bands” by George T. Simon is the most comprehensive book I’ve seen on the Big Band Era. Simon profiles hundreds of bandleaders, arrangers, vocalists and sidemen. “Benny Goodman-The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert” by Jon Hancock is another. I received a copy from Jon last year, and it’s an incredible profile of the night Goodman brought swing to the classical audience. Jeffrey Magee wrote an extensive biography of legendary arranger Fletcher Henderson called “The Uncrowned King of Swing” which is a must-have for anyone interested in his voluminous work. “Lost Chords” by Richard Sudhalter is another interesting read because the author stresses that jazz, even from its earliest days, was a multicultural, multiracial development.

Biographies are probably the best way to learn jazz history. I’d recommend “Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life” by Laurence Bergreen, “Miles Davis: The Autobiography” by Davis and Quincy Troupe, “Celebrating Bird” by Gary Giddins, “Ascension: John Coltrane and His Quest” by Eric Nisenson, “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World Of Improvisation” by Eric Nisenson, and so many more. You just can’t go wrong seeing the jazz world through the eyes of those who lived it. Recently I’ve started reading the new book “Glenn Miller: Declassified” by Dennis Spragg of the Glenn Miller Archive. Spragg has apparently solved the mystery of Miller’s disappearance on December 15, 1944.

A few years ago a fellow teacher gave me a copy of Paul Berliner’s book “Thinking In Jazz: The Infinite Art Of Improvisation”, which is an excellent treatise on the history and development of improvisation, and probably the best book I’ve seen on the subject. Regarding jazz method books, lately I’ve been working out of Greg Fishman’s “Hip Licks For Saxophone” which is a great book/cd play along set.

My recommendation is always to find books that improve your tone, scales, arpeggios and playing range first, then use them along with any of the great jazz play along methods on the market. There are many transcription books available, such as the Charlie Parker Omnibook, but the best way to learn is by doing your own transcriptions. Transcription is how I learned everything-instrument keys & ranges, chord voicings for piano and guitar, arranging techniques, walking basslines, and the multitude of solos I’ve absorbed. I just did it myself.

C. Stephanie Adlington, vocalist and educator

Vocalist Stephanie Adlington is acquiring quite a reputation in Nashville jazz circles as one of the singers to watch in the coming months. She also has quite a background, including formerly studying at the Royal Academy of Music, as well as at the Eastman School of Music. She now works at Belmont, and took some time off to answer a few questions.

(1) What initially got you interested in music?

I have always been interested in music. When I was a kid my parents had a lot of vinyl and I would listen all day. They had everything from Kris Kristofferson, Elvis, The Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, Classical Orchestrations, Movie Musicals, etc. I got to listen to a variety of genres and liked it all. Eventually my Mom bought me a portable turntable and I got a lot of 45s. That was pretty much my childhood.

(2) Was singing always what you wanted to do?

Yes, I have honestly never been interested in anything else. I did go through a phase where I wanted to be a dancer, thanks Flashdance, but I really didn’t excel as much. School didn’t interest me either, except for literature and history, so singing was always my solace.

(3) What attracted you to jazz vocals?

I was a classical voice performance major as an undergrad and a musical theatre performance major as a post- grad. I was fortunate to learn about and listen to a lot of vocalists throughout the course of my training. I could never escape the haunting phrasing of Billie Holiday. There was something so real and raw about the way she communicated through music. I wanted to immerse myself in that world which was far away from the classical and theatre style. Once I finally graduated I was free to explore what I wanted and it led me to jazz. I’m also a history nerd so the cultural and historical time period of jazz speaks to my soul. I’ve always said I was born in the wrong era.

(4) Do you enjoy singing other types of songs?

I love to listen to all genres but the older I get the more I’m carving out my own place I think. I find myself vocally gravitating to the American Songbook and more Folk/Blues/Roots/Americana genres. I’m interested in lyrics that tell a story. This has led me to writing my own songs that I call “Jazzicana” which in my mind is the blending of genres to create a feel.

(5) Do you also write songs and/or play an instrument?

I do write songs. I’m fascinated by southern gothic literature. I want to be the Tennessee Williams or Flannery O’Connor of songwriting. My songs usually have a darkness about them, a battle for good versus evil, and a southern flair. I play piano enough to write and teach, but then I hand it off to someone that actually knows what they are doing.

(6) One recurring theme that you see when reading about vocalists in jazz, particularly women, is the battle for respect from fellow musicians as an equal. Has that been a problem for you over the years?

Yes I believe it has. Singers have a bad reputation for not being “musicians” to which I take offense because I’ve spent my life learning, studying, and training to be a musician. I studied at The Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and then The Royal Academy of Music in London, England, where I graduated. I take my craft very seriously and try to be the best and most prepared that I can be. Jazz is mainly dominated by men so I often find myself “hanging with the boys” and there aren’t a lot of women around on a regular basis. In saying that though I have been very fortunate to have some amazing male jazz mentors in this town that have taught me so much about being an artist and band leader. It’s a fine line and I feel I walk it often. Respect is very important to me, and I will gladly work and fight for it.

(7) How difficult is it to develop a personal style when doing the tunes traditionally associated with jazz, particularly those of what’s considered the Great American Songbook?

I think it all comes down to personality and how one relates to the lyrics and phrasing. We have all had different experiences in life and that leads to interpretation. Once one comes to realize who they are as a human being then I feel they develop their own style, artistry, and vocal presence.

(8) Who are some of your favorite vocalists?

Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Patsy Cline, Nancy Wilson, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Harry Connick Jr, Elvis, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Mel Torme

(9) Who would you consider influences?

Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Nina Simone, Elvis, Ray Charles are probably the biggest. They have all taught me different aspects of art.

(10) What are some of your favorite songs/albums?

  • Frank Sinatra/Count Basie “It Might As Well Be Swing”
  • Any Album with Sidney Bechet’s “Blue Horizon” on it
  • Dinah Washington “What A Difference A Day Makes”
  • The Soundtrack to Woody Allen’s “Hannah And Her Sisters”
  • Puccini’s La Boheme with Pavarotti, Freni, Von Karajan
  • Charlie Brown Christmas Album
  • Edith Piaf at Carnegie Hall
  • Ella & Louis
  • Django Reinhardt “Djangology”
  • Michael Jackson “Thriller”
  • Prince Soundtrack to “Purple Rain”
  • Odetta And The Blues
  • You Belong To Me – Patsy Cline
  • What A Wonderful World – Louis Armstrong
  • All The Way – Billie Holiday
  • Sleepwalk – Santo & Johnny
  • Blue Horizon – Sidney Bechet
  • Heartbreak Hotel – Elvis
  • Anything by Hank Williams Sr.

(11) When considering material to record or perform do you first consider the lyrics or the melody?

Both. I’m mainly a lyricist, first but you can’t beat a good melody.

(12) Do you follow current vocalists or listen to contemporary pop music?

I teach commercial voice at Belmont so my students bring in a lot of contemporary music and some of it I like. I don’t go out and look for it though. Being an 80’s child I’ll always love pop music. I’m also a huge Jason Isbell fan.

(13) What advice would you give to aspiring jazz vocalists?

Study your craft and learn it well. Don’t rely on your looks or personality to see you through. Stop taking selfies and start learning music and the history of the time period to fully understand where the lyrics are coming from. Live for your art and comprehend your instrument thoroughly. Never take it for granted. Also, learn who you are and never compromise yourself because not everyone will like you and this is ok. Gravitate to those that do instead and leave the rest.

(14) What would you say is the toughest song that you’ve tried to adapt or interpret?

I got to perform on Rahsaan Barber’s Fat Tuesday show at City Winery this year. He asked me to sing “St. James Infirmary” which I gladly said yes. Once I really started to dig into the song the lyrics were very much of the time period and I had to look a few phrases up because I didn’t understand their meaning. That lead to trying to understand that time period in history and what life would have been like in that situation. Also, the melody repeats so the song is more about interpretative communication instead of vocal melody. It’s very haunting and having that experience on stage with the amazing musicians and horn section was an overwhelming and unforgettable experience for me. I’m so grateful to have been included on that show.

(15) How would you characterize Nashville in terms of opportunities for jazz vocalists?

It’s really starting to open up! With the addition of Rudy’s Jazz Room and all the jazz jams throughout the city Jazz is really starting to find it’s place here. We have always had the players now we need the opportunities. Nashville’s population is growing and the patrons are becoming more musically diverse so I think Nashville jazz will continue to grow and flourish.

(16) What things would you like to see changed or improved in terms of the Nashville jazz situation?

More opportunities and jazz venues and more respect from Nashville in general. We are “Music City” and all genres should be incorporated within that label. I know we are the home of Country Music but we are also so much more in terms of genre and that should be celebrated.

(17) Do you also sing blues or gospel?

I love Blues and Gospel! Elmore James is probably one of my favorite Blues artists.

(18) Have you done theater, and if so, has that helped as far as jazz singing?

I’ve done a lot of theatre. Theatre has taught me how to break down text only instead of portraying a character in a theatrical way it’s now related in a personal way. Also, theatre has taught me the importance of stage presence and how to build confidence in front of an audience.

(19) What are some future goals/plans?

I want to write/record more and tour outside of Nashville. I want to explore as much as I can as an artist and continue to grow.

(20) Do you intend to remain in the Nashville area permanently?

I love Nashville and this town has been very good to me.  I do intend to stay as long as it will have me!