In the space of five short years, the California Jazz Foundation’s annual fundraiser, Give the Band a Hand, has become one of the most anticipated jazz events in Southern California. It’s an evening that combines an awards show, a sumptuous dinner, an exciting live auction, a silent auction of valuable jazz-related artifacts and equipment, a large array of jazz personalities and, of course, first-class music.
The evening’s import is twofold: honoring worthy recipients who comprise the best of the Los Angeles jazz community while raising money for one of California’s foremost aid organizations—geared specifically to the state’s working jazz musicians.
The CJF provides financial help, financial counseling, a cadre of medical professionals that operate on a sliding scale basis, and material support. To date, the charitable 501 (C) 3 non-profit has administered to well over 200 deserving California musicians in need throughout its eleven-year history.
Past CJF honorees have been Catalina’s proprietor Catalina Popescu, the Jazz Bakery’s Ruth Price, songwriter Mike Stoller and his wife pianist/harpist Corky Hale, and bassist/orchestrator John Clayton. Appropriately, they have all been given the CJF’s Nica award for having dedicated their lives and careers to making and presenting good music.
The singular honor is named for the sui generis Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. As a scion of the legendary Rothschild family, Nica was a friend, benefactor and facilitator to New York jazz musicians after she moved to Manhattan in 1951. She transported many pf them to their gigs in her Rolls Royce or Bentley, hosted storied jam sessions, gave money and provided a couch to countless players. Rather than see Thelonious Monk arrested for drug possession in 1958, she took the fall—at great personal risk; she could easily have been deported. Her role as “jazz baroness” didn’t sit well with her family, either, but threats of disinheritance didn’t deter her passion for being in the nexus of artistic creativity. Monk spent his last years at her Weehawken Mad Pad, as drummer Art Blakey dubbed it. If ever there was a jazz saint, it was Nica.
Guitarist and educator Kenny Burrell will receive the 2017 Nica at the CJF’s Gala on Saturday, April 8 at the Los Angeles Hotel Downtown. Last year’s Gala saw the inauguration of another CJF honor: the Heritage Award. This year it will be given posthumously to composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson.
If they had chosen to live and work in New York, Chicago or Detroit, Burrell and Wilson would have had rewarding and celebrated careers. Their professional lives in L.A. have not only enhanced their own creative profiles, but given untold opportunities to other musicians as well.
The lengthy and varied Burrell discography is a testament to the versatility and value of this great guitarist. Emphasizing lyricism, tone, and a tasteful choice of notes and chords over volume or shock effects, the Detroit native’s collaborations over the years are legendary. Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Milt Jackson, Donald Byrd, and Brother Jack McDuff have all brought out different facets of Kenny’s dimensional creativity.
Few guitarists, if any, could have played so well in so many different stylistic settings as arranger and orchestrator Gil Evans crafted for Burrell in the Guitar Forms (Verve 1965) album. On tunes composed by the likes of drummer Elvin Jones, the Gershwins, Alec Wilder or the traditional “Greensleeves,” Kenny addressed each piece individually. Yet whether he played a pensive ballad, a funky blues, a nylon-string Spanish treatment, or wickedly picked to his own fast rhythm tune “Breadwinner,” Burrell remained true to himself. 60 years later it remains an unimpeachable classic of jazz guitar recordings.
Relocating from New York in 1973, Burrell used L.A. as his base—recording and making nightclub and concert appearances. But enhancing his own formidable resume wasn’t enough for him. He tirelessly championed the music of Duke Ellington in live and recorded formats, which brought attention and reevaluation to one of the deepest bodies of jazz composition. In a very real sense, Kenny was in the vanguard of the nascent jazz repertory movement that blossomed in the 1980s.
He observed a need for jazz education and, through many bureaucratic obstacles, willed the UCLA jazz department into being. As founder and director, Burrell recruited renowned and capable jazz practitioners like trumpeter Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, trombonist George Bohanon, saxophonist Charles Owens, singer Ruth Price, and drummer Clayton Cameron. The result is a world-class jazz department among whose graduates were two 2017 Grammy nominees: saxophonist Kamasi Washington and trumpeter/bandleader John Daversa.
The late trumpeter Gerald Wilson (1918-2014) was one of the most distinctive and prolific big band composer/arrangers. The Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra played in L.A. in 1942 but Wilson decided he liked the look of the town and stayed. He played and wrote for Benny Carter, Phil Moore and other busy orchestrators but at the close of 1944 Gerald received an urgent call from producer Leonard Reed. Singer Herb Jeffries was to open at Shepp’s Playhouse in Little Tokyo and the show needed a band. Wilson quickly assembled an orchestra and wrote arrangements. When Jeffries was called away at the last minute, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra debuted, headlining the show.
Though he had already contributed charts to the Lunceford band, Wilson subsequently wrote to his own specifications. When the Stan Kenton Orchestra recorded a new number that lifted a Wilson phrase note-for-note, it signaled an arrival of sorts. Subsequent work for the Ellington, Basie and Gillespie big bands added new facets to Gerald’s work, as well as his professional profile. Though a 1949 tour backing Billie Holiday ended with Gerald and his crew being stranded, in later years he could only recall it fondly due to her great singing.
Willson created a strain of jazz composition tied to the music of the Mexican corrida. A frequent observer of the Tijuana bullfights, Gerald utilized the stentorian Mexican trumpet tradition. His musical portraits of renowned matadors and features for iron-lipped brassmen like Snooky Young, Hobart Dotson, Alex Rodriguez and Dr. Bobby Rodriguez comprise an utterly unique wing of modern jazz composition. In addition, Miles Davis dropped in on the Wilson Orchestra whenever he could because he loved Gerald’s orchestration of his own classic “So What.”
Through many years of ebb and flow in L.A. jazz, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra remained a constant. Virtually every SoCal jazz musician worth his salt passed through the band’s ranks for over 60 years, including: trumpeters Clark Terry, Al Porcino and Carmell Jones, trombonists Vic Dickenson, Lester Robinson, Melba Liston and Britt Woodman, saxophonists Willie Smith, Buddy Collette, Harold Land, Teddy Edwards, Charles Lloyd, Bud Shank and Joe Maini, guitarist Joe Pass, pianist Brian O’Rourke, bassists Red Mitchell and Leroy Vinnegar and drummer Mel Lewis. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington was probably the last “new star” in the Wilson Orchestra.
As an artistic innovator and one who provided countless jobs and international exposure, Gerald was, in his own way, a patron saint for innumerable musicians. He also had a long career as a teacher in the U.C. system, finishing off his pedagogical career in Burrell’s program. The CJF’s Heritage Award could scarcely go to one more deserving than Gerald Wilson.
The California Jazz Foundation’s motto is simple yet direct: Here to help. The yearly Gala is the public’s opportunity to help the CJF and, in turn, our most challenged jazz musicians.
Give the Band a Hand: Saturday, April 8, 6:00 P.M. at the L.A. Hotel Downtown, 333 S. Figueroa Street, Los Angeles. Info: www.californiajazzfoundation.org