The Education of a Lifetime

Jazz at the PAC

Wynton Marsalis
Wynton Marsalis (Photo By Robert Pandya)

It was well past midnight, long after UT's Bass Concert Hall had turned off all the lights and gone to bed. Except, down the dark, empty back halls -- somewhere -- there was a light on, or one about to go on; Wynton Marsalis, trumpet player, bandleader of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and arguably one of the most influential young jazz musicians of his generation, was doing a little after-hours teaching. Sharing a piano bench in the bulding's green room with a student, Marsalis was passing along the educational moment of a lifetime. "I know people have mixed feelings about Wynton Marsalis," asserts Cynthia Patterson Quinn, program manager for the University of Texas' Performing Arts Center, "but there's no one who's as dedicated to young people as him. I've seen it -- twice now -- on both of his visits here: that man sat at the piano with a 17-year-old and a 14-year-old kid until past midnight, hanging out, coaching. After a show! Wynton's remarkable. He's the last person to leave the building."

The inspiration and motivation that can come from learning directly from someone of Marsalis' stature and reputation is no doubt priceless to a budding musician. Fortunately, those locals aren't the only ones.

When jazz piano great Cedar Walton, whose show next Thursday at Bates Recital Hall is part of the PAC's "1999-2000 Texas Season," takes the stage at the Victory Grill, the historic Eastside blues joint, he too will be doing a little teaching -- before hours. Walton is scheduled to hold a daytime clinic on Wednesday at the Eastside nightclub for some of the students of LBJ High School. He'll play some, talk some, coach some -- a loose workshop format in which he will impart the wisdom and expertise gained through a lifetime as a jazz musician.

It may not be the most obvious benefit, but the educational activities that go hand-in-hand with events the PAC brings to UT and to Austin in general are surely the most important. When you consider the caliber of artists the PAC has brought to Austin over the past seven years in the name of its jazz program -- musicians such as Charlie Haden, David Murray, Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell, Randy Weston, Don Byron, and Geri Allen, to name a few -- the skills and the knowledge being passed on are staggering. Which is, obviously, what universities aspire to.

Within UT, though, the PAC serves a unique function. The name of university's performance art spaces (Bass, Bates Recital Hall, and Hogg Auditorium, etc.), the PAC provides support to the college of fine arts' academic productions. For every opera, play, musical theater, or dance production created by faculty and students, the PAC provides the support services.

"We're the professional arm of the college of fine arts," explains Quinn, "like the Blanton Museum is the professional arm of the college, which is fairly unique on this campus that you have an academic department with a fully professional operation."

In planning the PAC's season, Quinn says education is a goal, but not the goal. In addition to jazz, there's also a wealth of dance, theater, classical music, international music, Broadway, and even some pop music offerings. Naturally, there's a healthy price tag attached to each event, so there are obviously commercial considerations built into the booking process.

As often as not, the artists that come to UT are capable of fulfilling both educational and commercial requirements. In some cases, this can happen in a single show, as it did last year when world-renowned jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker was brought in for a performance with the UT Jazz Orchestra. For Jeff Helmer, who is the director of the Jazz Studies program and the Jazz Orchestra -- the program's top big band -- this was nothing short of a coup.

Don Byron playing to a roomful of school kids in Hogg Auditorium this past February
Don Byron playing to a roomful of school kids in Hogg Auditorium this past February (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"Last year, they were incredibly generous, having Michael Brecker in to play with our band," Helmer says. "He's one of my favorite improvisers. I love his playing. That was an opportunity we wouldn't have had if it hadn't been for the PAC, because we just don't have the budget or the means to bring in an artist like that. I guess he wasn't technically part of the jazz series -- he wasn't sold as a package with the jazz series -- but that was an incredible gift to our students. The PAC has engineered several collaborations of that sort."

These collaborations are of substantial benefit to the students who get to participate, be it those at the university's adopted fine arts high school, McCallum, or the university's students themselves. In preparation for Brecker's show, students selected music for the evening's performance and wrote arrangements of it for the big band, which featured Brecker.

The same thing happened when bassist Christian McBride performed with the UT Jazz Orchestra in March of last year. He performed with the big band for a few student-arranged tunes before closing the night with his own quartet (which will be at Antone's tonight, Thursday). It's something that McBride often makes a point to do.

"It was cool," says McBride. "I like doing those kinds of things. That's all I've been doing lately. I've always done a lot of teaching. Every school I've done a concert at, I usually combine it with a clinic or a workshop for their music programs. I've been doing that pretty regularly for the past year and a half."

There's plenty to be learned, stresses Helmer.

"Besides just getting to play with these guys, the students get to see that the players are real people too, even though they're great improvisers," he explains. "It's good for the students to see them rehearsing, getting to witness some of the process as they go through it. They come in contact with a little bit more of the artist's life than just buying the CD or going to the concert."

It was this spirit of collaboration that prompted the PAC to start bringing together members of the local community with educators and students at the university in order to build a more informed and sophisticated jazz program. Starting in 1993, UT instructors and local music critics began meeting with graduate students and devoted jazz fans to put together a list of artists who would be appropriate to bring to the university. According to academic procedure, a committee was then formed to pare down that list (or add to it) for the PAC's upcoming season. The results of these meetings, which occur every fall, have been some of the most acclaimed jazz shows seen in Austin this decade. According to one participant, the shows that came after the formation of this committee brought the PAC's dedication to jazz music up to the high standard at which it is operating today.

"We have an embarrassment of riches here," explains Quinn. "We have an endowment for programming, we have very nice facilities, we have good relations with managers and agents throughout the country. We're really very lucky."

If this conjures up images of a kid in a candy shop, it's not quite that easy. There are many considerations that go into the process of choosing who will be invited to play UT -- e.g., who's on tour, who's released what records in the recent past, balancing legendary players like Eddie Palmieri with young lions like Christian McBride, and even distribution of instruments. In the end, even the PAC's budget has its limits.

Christian McBride
Christian McBride (Photo By Robert Pandya)

For the season straddling the millennium, 1999-2000, the PAC took as its goal the assembly of the most prominent artists from the Lone Star State for a yearlong celebration of the contributions of Texans to the arts. What they came up with is a calendar that includes classical pianist Van Cliburn and conductor/cellist Lynn Harrell, the Alley Theater, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Ballet, international representatives Pina Bausch, Julien Clerc, and Radio Tarifa, regular participants Alvin Ailey and Tommy Tune, even Willie Nelson, whose show will close out the season next May.

The jazz shows this season are next week's Cedar Walton concert (see feature), sax great Dewey Redman, who played Bates Recital Hall recently, and guitarist Larry Coryell, scheduled for February 10. All three musicians have had accomplished careers, a potent reminder of the breadth of contributions by native Texans to the field of jazz. Still, one name in particular seems to be missing from this list.

"Our greatest priority and desire was to get Ornette Coleman," says Quinn. "We were in communication with Ornette for at least 14 months. The possibility that Ornette was going to be on the season ended in March of 1999.

"We could not agree on terms, not only financially, but on what the program would be. We were very interested in having him here with a quartet, and he wanted to do something bigger, maybe an electric show, something with dancers and all that, which we were willing to consider. But he was not willing to consider doing a straight-up jazz show. I don't think that's what he does anymore. Plus, they wanted more money than we were able to offer. It was a great disappointment."

Since the selection for this year's Texas season was somewhat more limited than for a regular season, the usual committee meetings weren't necessary for planning it. When it came time for planning the 2000-2001 series, the folks at the PAC -- Quinn, associate director Neil Barclay, and Pebbles Wadsworth, the director of the center -- decided to go it alone. Thus far there are no contracted shows set up, but if rumors and hearsay prove accurate, the three of them deserve a collective pat on the back.

According to Helmer, though, the committee serves a valuable function.

"I hope they bring it back. I feel like it gave a wide variety of input from various sources, and sometimes it brought sources that are pretty disparate in their attitudes closer together. It was a nice cooperation; it gave the critics in town a voice and let them have some influence in the programming rather than only being reactive. I like that. The meetings weren't always easy -- a lot of people had their own agendas -- but I thought it was a good process. It helped me get to know people better, and I like that."

Another result of the committee's influence was the brief inclusion of local jazz groups as openers for the big shows. Originally, the idea was to bring in small local combos and let them warm up the crowd, exposing local talent to a larger audience as well as to the evening's featured artist. The happened for two shows during the '97-'98 season, but according to Quinn, logistics and financial concerns made it impossible to continue. Bates Recital Hall, for instance, where most of the PAC's jazz shows take place, does not have adequate space for concessions.

"We can't ask people to come in and do two intermissions and not be able to give them so much as a glass of punch," says Quinn. "There are no concessions. We're not set up for it. [Bates] is very tricky, very limited, as far as keeping people comfortable and happy. There's no place to put a concession stand without screwing up the traffic pattern, which is dictated by fire laws and all that."

That problem, however, could be solved as soon as next season; the PAC is considering the larger Hogg Auditorium as headquarters for its jazz concerts. Bates' size (700 seats) has long been a problem in booking shows. It's a great place to see an intimate performance, but it's difficult to bring in high-caliber artists while keeping ticket prices reasonable, so often a move to a larger space is necessary. Bass, which seats approximately 3,000, is too big. Hogg, seating 1,200, would increase ticket sales without losing too much of the intimacy necessary to fully experience a show by someone like Marcus Roberts, Kenny Barron, or Joshua Redman, all of whom have played the series. Also, Hogg is set up for concessions, which could bring about the return of local music opening the shows.

In much the same way as touring jazz performers make an impact on our local artists and students by playing at high schools, with UT students, or even, as was the case with clarinetist Don Byron, for AISD third, fourth, and fifth graders, allowing a local jazz combo to share a stage with an artist of international renown can only have positive reverberations within the local jazz community. An education, one might call it. end story

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