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  Thursday April 24th, 2014    

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It’s the old wood chopper himself (01/31/2007)
From: Earl Schreiber

The late jazz great, Woody Herman, presented a concert in Somsen Auditorium sometime around 1950.

(A performance bill for this concert and then the dance following at the Winona Armory, is available from the Winona County Historical Society Archives.)

Fellow student Dick Mann and I earned a few extra dollars toward the quarterly 18 dollar Winona State Teacher's College tuition, plus the 3 dollar activity fee, by technically assisting and/or stage managing people or groups performing, speaking or broadcasting via KWNO from Somsen or the campus.

The late Fred Heyer, professor of college music courses, director of band, swing band and a professional artist himself, had already inspired many of us students into music careers as vocal and instrumental instructors.

Fred had already ignited a dedication and love within my soul for the highly creative art of studying and performing (then) contemporary jazz music.

Playing and jobbing trombone with many local and Twin Cities bands and combos would easily sail me through several years of graduate school with a minimum of financial concern.

(No. I'm not blowing my own horn; I'm extolling the virtues and talent Fred possessed and projected to his students. Ask WSU music instructor Dick Hammergren to confirm this!)

So Dick Mann and I helped Woody's "band boy," maybe 40 years old, set up and power their equipment.

Woody was, and remains, an immortal world class jazz musician. But it was also his lead trombonist, Urbie Green, whom I looked forward to analyzing and observing

In a stage side room before the show, Urbie and lead trumpet Doug Mettam were obviously practicing and creating new ideas and phrases with a couple other instrumentalists. For me this was an experience I shall never forget.

This group of 5 top musicians was completely focused on establishing spontaneous and also contrived new ideas, sounds and chord progressions on their own; no keyboard.

As a young college kid that night I thrilled to visiting extensively with Urbie and, when asking, hear him extol the virtues of his precious King, Liberty model, 2b , the best jazz trombone ever produced, he claimed. I still treasure my own King 2b, far more than the several others along the way used for different purposes.

Despite this strenuous hour plus of practicing before the concert, Urbie sailed lead trombone high as the heavens all evening without a flaw. He made everything he played look and feel so easy, sensitive and gentle.

The band packed up after the Somsen Concert and continued to the Armory.

Incidentally, I watched the band boy first open Woody's clarinet case just before his arrival, attach a reed and ligature to the mouthpiece, then place it in a stand. When the maestro arrived he loosened it, wet and readjusted the reed, then soared abroad with his background style to the rest of the band seconds later.

Billed as Woody's "Third Herd," the band packed up after the Somsen Concert continuing to the Winona Armory just blocks away.

I mustered the courage to approach the great maestro himself, a stylized clarinetist and alto sax performer, so influenced by African American music, as he watched his band setting stage at the Armory.

We had perhaps 20 minutes to visit and talk about his music. Tucked away on one of his LPs in my collection is his autograph.

The acoustic qualities of that miserably small Armory dance floor and balcony would never cooperate with the artistry of Woody or Urbie's music.

Even during those early days, the curse of smoking was suspected if not known. Woody was almost a chain smoker off the stand. I cursed the day he passed on...and cigarettes! Urbie didn't smoke but he must have inhaled plenty during his years on the road.

There's an epilogue to this experience:

In 1957, as a Trempealeau High School English teacher and senior class advisor, I accompanied them on their trip to Chicago. (What a great bunch of young people! And what fun we had!)

Woody Herman, FEATURING Urbie Green, was performing for listening and dancing at the Chicago Blue Note, relatively close to our hotel. I mustered maybe 10 or 12 students to watch Woody perform live again.

The Blue Note had a separate area roped off especially for kids and no liquor. Once more I had a chance to visit with Urbie for a few minutes between sets. This was pretty much the high point of his career as he'd just produced a series of LP's entitled "21 Trombones," which was a major hit of its time.

Later, as couple-year Escanaba, Michigan, high school band director, I had the opportunity to visit with Urbie during some high school swing band festivals, conferences, and workshops.

Urbie released his umpteenth album which he recorded while on a cruise ship trip performing with his son playing piano. "The Urbie Green Quintet: SEA JAM BLUES, Live aboard the Majesty of the Seas." 1997. Still spirit-soaring trombone with Urbie's super human range and interpretive qualities.

Having tried that gypsy life briefly myself, I eventually relinquished most music business for the freedom of the farm.

The last I read, Urbie was raising horses on a farm in Pennsylvania but going to sea trombone when the spirit still moves him. 

 

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