Archive for July, 2011

Death of NEA Jazz Master Frank Foster

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

“Although jazz has been officially declared a national treasure in recent years, far too few of its representative artists ever receive sufficient acknowledgement in the mass media. In view of this unfortunate reality, it’s quite fitting and honorable that a prestigious entity such as the National Endowment for the Arts recognizes the artistic, aesthetic and spiritual value of this home-grown music through the American Jazz Masters Fellowship. Therefore, it is with extreme happiness and gratitude that I accept the fellowship award for the year 2002.”

Although best known for his work in the Count Basie Orchestra (and as the composer of the Count Basie hit, “Shiny Stockings”), Frank Foster’s saxophone playing owes more to the bebop of Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt than the swing of Basie.

Foster began playing clarinet at 11 years old before taking up the alto saxophone and eventually the tenor. By the time he was a senior in high school, he was leading and writing the arrangements for a 12-piece band. Foster studied at Wilberforce University in Ohio before heading to Detroit in 1949 with trumpeter Snooky Young for six weeks, becoming captivated by its burgeoning music scene. Drafted into the Army, Foster left Detroit and headed off to basic training near San Francisco, where he would jam in the evenings at Jimbo’s Bop City.

After being discharged in 1953, two life-changing events happened to Foster: he sat in with Charlie Parker at Birdland and he was asked to join Count Basie’s band, where he stayed until 1964. Foster’s fiery solos contrasted nicely with Frank Wess’ ballad work, providing Basie with an interesting saxophone combination. Foster, already an accomplished composer by this time, learned from Basie how to simplify arrangements to make the music swing. He soon was providing compositions and arrangements for the band (“Blues Backstage,” “Down for the Count,” the entire Easin’ It album, just to name a few), with his most popular number being “Shiny Stockings.” He also was an extremely successful freelance writer, creating a large body of work for jazz, including works contributed to albums by singers Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra, and a commissioned work for the 1980 Winter Olympics, Lake Placid Suite, written for jazz orchestra. In 1983, Dizzy Gillespie commissioned Foster to orchestrate Gillespie’s song “Con Alma” for a performance and recording by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

In the 1970s, Foster played with contemporary musicians such as Elvin Jones, George Coleman, and Joe Farrell and began expanding his compositions. He led his own band, the Loud Minority, until 1986 when he assumed leadership of the Count Basie Orchestra from Thad Jones. While playing the favorites, Foster also began introducing original material into the playlist. Foster resigned as the musical director of the orchestra in 1995 and began recording albums again. In addition to performing, Foster has also served as a musical consultant in the New York City public schools and taught at Queens College and the State University of New York at Buffalo. To date, Foster has received two Grammy Awards.

Frank on tenor with the Count Basie Orchestra

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WNCU Broadcasts a Beat the Heat Special on August 13

Monday, July 25th, 2011

WNCU will broadcast a Beat the Heat Special on Saturday, August 13, at 3 p.m.

Although his life was cut tragically short, Little Willie John had gained a reputation as being a singer’s singer. Born in Arkansas in 1937, William Edward John found his voice in the church halls, nightclubs and the blind pig after hour joints of Detroit, Michigan. His remarkable voice sang gospel, blues, country, R&B and formed the basis of what has become known as soul music. Little Willie John was admired by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, James Brown while influencing a whole generation with his music. His songs are now better known for their covers by the likes of Peggy Lee, Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles and countless others. Living for a short 30 years, his dynamic vocal range and stage show has left its mark on music history. His mysterious death in prison after a dubious conviction in 1968, shocked the world. Nearly 30 years later, the talent and artistry of Little Willie John was recognized by his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. In this special mix, producer Dred-Scott Keyes interviews Keith and Kevin Jon-sons of Little Willie John-and Susan Whitall, author of the just-released biography “Fever: Little Willie John, A fast Life, A Mysterious Death and The Birth of Soul.”

NCCU Team Earns Fellowship to Take Part in Global Teaching Project

Tuesday, July 19th, 2011

Three members of the faculty and staff of North Carolina Central University have been selected as fellows to the State University of New York (SUNY) Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) Institute. They will work with teams from universities in Europe and Africa to create and team-teach a course in jazz for students on their respective campuses.

Leading the NCCU team will be Lenora Z. Helm, a music professor who is also an accomplished jazz performer. She is joined by Emmanuel Oritsejafor, director of the Office of International Studies, and Dan Reis, multimedia designer in the Center for Teaching and Learning. The COIL Institute is a three-year project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The teams from each institution consist of a humanities faculty member, an instructional designer and international programs staff member. The NCCU team’s proposal was one of 22 chosen from more than 40 applications submitted, and the only one chosen from a historically black college or university.

The NCCU COIL fellows will partner with the University of South Africa in Pretoria and the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, Denmark (in partnership with Sibelius University in Finland). The fellows will work with peers at their partner institutions to create a course blending in-class and online delivery in a Globally Networked Learning Environment.

Globally networked learning is not a technology, but rather a new approach to teaching and learning that provides faculty and students the ability to communicate and collaborate directly and immediately with peers internationally using online tools. A Globally Networked Learning Environment is one that connects and engages students and faculty who are physically located in different parts of the world in a shared learning and teaching experience that increases global awareness and understanding.

Helm, Reis and Oritsejafor will take part in a three-day discipline-specific workshop at SUNY Global Center in New York City this fall and an eight-week online course on globally networked learning starting in the fall. They and their international partners will teach their course during the 2012 calendar year.

Helm said the course will embody jazz music appreciation, jazz history, and the influences of politics, language and commerce on the lives of jazz artists. The class that results will be tailored to the needs of each campus. The University of South Africa, Helm said, is primarily an online school that is just starting a jazz division, and the NCCU team will act as a liaison and mentor to help build the program. The focus at Danish university is more on musical performance.

“We’re the experts in jazz, and we’ll essentially be the senior partner,” Helm said, “but we get a great benefit out of it. Many of our students have limited financial resources and don’t have the opportunity to study abroad. This will give them a study-abroad experience, whether by physical travel or through the portal of this class. They’ll be able to experience the culture of those other countries.”

According to Helm, creating a classroom environment to explore cultures through jazz presents a unique opportunity to learn what students know, and want to know about each other. Though originating in America, jazz is enjoyed worldwide, and in some respects enjoys higher regard abroad than domestically. The Jazz Studies program at NCCU has earned international acclaim, and has a renowned faculty that includes artist-in-residence and NEA Jazz Master Branford Marsalis.

Rep. Michaux Chosen for National Black College Hall of Fame

Monday, July 18th, 2011

North Carolina Central University alumnus Henry M. “Mickey” Michaux Jr. has been selected for induction into the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame.

Michaux is a Durham lawyer and businessman and a longtime influential member of the North Carolina legislature. He earned both his undergraduate and law degrees from NCCU. He was elected to the State House of Representatives from a Durham district three times in the 1970s. In 1977, he was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to be U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina. He returned to the legislature in 1984 and has been reelected ever since. He has been a staunch advocate of higher education, and has fought for adequate funding for NCCU and other minority universities.

He served three terms as the national president of the NCCU Alumni Association as well as terms as a member of the Board of Trustees and of the Board of Directors of the NCCU Foundation. In 2007, NCCU named its School of Education in his honor. Last year, during the university’s Centennial celebration, Michaux was one of six inaugural recipients of the Shepard Medallion, recognizing a lifetime of service to the university and society. The medallion bears the name of NCCU founder Dr. James E. Shepard.

The announcement from the National Black College Alumni Hall of Fame Foundation said Michaux is being recognized for his extraordinary contributions in community service and governmental relations. The induction will take place in a ceremony Sept. 23 in Atlanta.

NPR Jazz Notes

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Live At The Village Vanguard
The Heath Brothers: Live At The Village Vanguard

In a family band made up of jazz legends, saxophonist Jimmy and drummer Tootie Heath carry on the sophisticated and swinging quartet that once featured their late brother, bassist Percy Heath. Hear a live concert recording.

Tiny Desk Concerts
Julian Lage Trio: Tiny Desk Concert

The 23-year-old guitarist was once called a prodigy. But he’s maturing into a distinctive player and bandleader, too. With two bandmates, Lage performs two unreleased songs and a cut from 2011’s Gladwell.

Favorite Sessions
Chris Dingman: Giving Off Good Vibes

The vibraphonist reveals what inspires him as a musician and plays original songs from his debut album, Waking Dreams.

Favorite Sessions
Benny Green Remembers Monk And Shearing

In this studio session with KPLU, jazz pianist Benny Green plays Thelonious Monk tunes and takes a moment to remember the late, great George Shearing.

A Blog Supreme
Wendell Pierce: Everyone’s Favorite Fake Trombone Player

The actor who plays the salty musician Antoine Batiste on Treme grew up a teenage friend of Wynton Marsalis — and a failed trumpet player. He dishes on jazz, leading a band and the musical legacy of his native New Orleans.

Art Tatum

Friday, July 1st, 2011

Art Tatum was among the most extraordinary of all jazz musicians, a pianist with wondrous technique who could not only play ridiculously rapid lines with both hands, but was harmonically 30 years ahead of his time. Able to play stride, swing, and boogie-woogie with speed and complexity that could only previously be imagined, Tatum’s quick reflexes and boundless imagination kept his improvisations filled with fresh and sometimes futuristic ideas that put him way ahead of his contemporaries.  All pianists have to deal with Tatum’s innovations in order to be taken seriously.

Born nearly blind, Tatum gained some formal piano training at the Toledo School of Music but was largely self-taught. Although influenced a bit by Fats Waller and the semi-classical pianists of the 1920s, there is really no explanation for where Tatum gained his inspiration and ideas from. He first played professionally in Toledo in the mid-’20s and had a radio show during 1929-1930. In 1932, Tatum traveled with singer Adelaide Hall to New York and made his recording debut accompanying her as one of two pianists. But for those who had never heard him in person, it was his solos of 1933, including “Tiger Rag,” that announced the arrival of a truly major talent.

In the 1930s, Tatum spent periods working in Cleveland, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and England. Although he led a popular trio with guitarist Tiny Grimes (later Everett Barksdale) and bassist Slam Stewart in the mid-’40s, Tatum spent most of his life as a solo pianist who could always scare the competition. Some observers criticized him for having too much technique and for using too many notes, but those minor reservations pale when compared to Tatum’s reworkings of such tunes as “Yesterdays,” “Begin the Beguine,” and even “Humoresque.” Although he was not a composer, Tatum’s rearrangements of standards made even warhorses sound like new compositions.

Tatum, who recorded for Decca throughout the 1930s and Capitol in the late ’40s, starred at the Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert of 1944 and appeared briefly in his only film in 1947, The Fabulous Dorseys. He recorded extensively for Norman Granz near the end of his life in the 1950s, both solo and with all-star groups. All of the music has been reissued by Pablo on a six-CD box set. His premature death from uremia has not resulted in any loss of fame, for Art Tatum’s recordings still have the ability to scare modern pianists.

Originally published at