by ORVAL LUND
What is jazz? When the great Louis Armstrong was asked, he replied, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.” Or as the great Yogi Berra, a speaker of pure jazz if there ever was one, said, “Anyone who understands jazz knows that you can’t understand it. It’s too complicated. That’s what’s so simple about it.”
Well, that’s funny, but not necessarily true.
I recently had a conversation with Professor Rich MacDonald, the head of the jazz studies program at Winona State University (WSU) and an accomplished jazz drummer. He likened the performance of jazz to how people speak to one another. We’ve got all these words and all this verbal experience in our past, which enables us to improvise as we communicate. As Rich said, “Jazz performers are basically speaking through their instruments.”
Rich went on to explain that the roots of jazz lie in a combination of three things: the blues, which sprang from African-American slave songs; rag-time, a highly syncopated music from the early 20th century; and brass bands, which gave us the instruments and the basic song forms. Besides these historical roots, the playing of jazz is defined by spontaneous creativity through improvisation. The point is, jazz has a rich history and draws on many strands. It is a major American contribution to international culture.
Some people think jazz is difficult. Some people say they don’t like jazz. I’ve been a jazz fan since I was a teenager when I joined the Columbia Record Club. I don’t like all jazz, just as I don’t like all food, but jazz is so various, has so many styles and types, that I bet you’d like some jazz — probably a lot. Larry Price, a terrific pianist who teaches jazz piano at WSU, calls jazz “gourmet music.” Larry often says he prefers a good Italian meal to opening a can of Chef Boyardee. Rich believes some jazz challenges listeners. When I listen to jazz, I like to listen for patterns and notice the variations in these patterns, the way performers improvise over a basic melody line. It’s rewarding when you can follow that.
Winona is rich in music and nowhere more so than in jazz. Winona State and St. Mary’s have strong programs, Winona and Cotter schools have jazz bands, the Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts has jazz bands, and there are many individual performers — most are current or retired educators — who play with groups that perform frequently in our area.
Rich has been involved in the JazzMN Commission Project that had its CD released on October 23 (available at CDBaby.com and elsewhere).
A big weekend of jazz at WSU will be on November 9-11 for its 14th annual High School Honor Band Jazz Festival. The guest artist this year is saxophonist Tom Luer. Tom, a busy player in L.A., has worked with Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, John Beasley’s Monk-estra, and recently played on Dave Slonaker’s grammy-nominated CD, “Intrada.” He was born and raised in the Chippewa Falls area and did his undergraduate work at UW-Eau Claire.
Mark your calendars for the following upcoming jazz events!
• Thursday, November 1: Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts Jazz Bands, Black Box Theatre, 6 p.m.
• Thursday, November 1: First Thursday Jam at Ed’s, WSU Faculty Jazz Ensemble and students, 8 p.m.
• Friday, November 9: WSU Jazz Ensemble with guest artist, saxophonist Tom Luer, 7:30 p.m.
• Saturday, November 10: Honor band student concert with Tom Luer for the 14th annual WSU Honor Band Festival, 4:30 p.m.
• Saturday, November 10: WSU Faculty Jazz Ensemble with Tom Luer and select honor band students, 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, November 18: Minnesota Conservatory for the Arts Jazz Bands and the WSU Jazz Ensemble, Wellington’s, 5:30 p.m.
• Sunday, November 18: Third Sunday Jam at Island City Brewery, 6:30 p.m.
• Monday, November 19: WSU Jazz Combos, WSU Krysko Commons, 7:30 p.m.
• Sunday, November 25: John Paulson Big Band with Ariana Lyndon on vocals, album release party of “Five Years On,” Wellington’s, 3:30 p.m.