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February 19 - 26, 1999

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In a jam

Worcester's contemporary jazz artists tone alone

by John O'Neill

Jazz Group It's a chilly Monday evening, though mild considering that it's the heart of winter. Downtown has that all-too-familiar after-sunset look that suggests a city post-nuclear blast: ground zero. No pedestrians, an occasional passing car, and only the sounds of the breeze blowing and a distant siren. Inside of Gilrein's, the Main Street All-Stars, a batch of local jazz stalwarts, work their way through another standard from the hallowed "Real Book." A hand-transcribed collection of chord changes and melodies for nearly 400 standard jazz improvs (thus illegal to sell due to copyright laws), it is the jazz equivalent of the Gideon Bible: well-read, oft-quoted, and available at no cost. On this night, the band -- bassist Phil Madison, drummer Rocco Savino, pianist Lou Terriciano, and trombonist Charles Ketter -- are joined by Rich Ardizzone, who, besides being the associate director of the Joy of Music Program, happens to play a mean trombone himself and has just signed on with the Worcester-based Sonic Explorers. They slide through four numbers with an easy, loose, and spirited exchange before breaking for a drink. They're met with a smattering of applause from the handful of fellow jazz musicians who have come to sit in, and the lone table of -- count them -- three folks who wandered in to enjoy the sounds. Just another typical night for contemporary jazz in Worcester.

"As far as jazz goes, there haven't been any fat times," says Madison, who has been playing stand-up bass for nearly 30 years. His résumé also includes stints as the principal bassist in the Atlanta Symphony and performances with Worcester State Chorus and Chorale, and Worcester County Light Opera. "The scene has been a few who continue to play. For Worcester 25 or 30 people is a good night. It's strange. I stopped trying to figure it out."

Though just more than a century old, jazz has gone through a remarkable synthesis from its beginnings as simple, structured songs played at funerals and other religious services, to become the country's greatest and perhaps only truly-American musical art form. Through styles and fads from Dixieland, swing, be-bop, post-bop, fusion, abstraction, jazz-funk, and acid jazz, the genre has mutated, stretched boundaries, fallen back into revivals, and continued to move forward while never forgetting to reach back into its lineage. Contemporary jazz pushes toward new territories, and Worcester just happens to be home to a small group of visionaries who toil in obscurity.

"Worcester's kind of a conservative town with lots of conservative elements, and contemporary jazz is controversial music," offers Terriciano, who plays frequently with the All-Stars and performs solo at Tiano's and O'Flaherty's. He also makes regular trips into New York to jam. "It's threatening. That's why most people go out to clubs to hear the same song for the ten-thousandth time played like it is on the radio. It's outside of the scope of the general listening of most people.

"There ain't no jazz on MTV, so most people aren't equipped to judge what's going on," Terriciano adds.

"It's ignorance, not [lack of] intelligence," says guitarist Jay Tyer, leader of one of the city's better outfits, the Jay Tyer Quartet, who also hosts the weekly Saturday jam session (now held at the Java Hut) for the past ten years. "If you feed someone corn flakes all their lives and then give them pheasant under glass, they probably won't care for it."

Tyer is one of the key figures and an intricate part of Worcester's current contemporary scene. It's a scene that includes Terriciano, Madison, Ketter, Savino, Rich Falco, Jerry Sabatini, Joe D'Angelo, Rich Ardizzone, Ed Conley, Jim Allard, John Vaillencourt, and Matt Brown. Together, they have come to represent an entire strata of thirtysomething-to-fiftysomething musicians who are reshaping the sound of popular jazz in the city. Whereas Emil Haddad, Dick Odgren, Barney Price, Reggie Walley, Bunny Price, Johnny Catazlonni, and Howie Jefferson brought jazz to the forefront a generation earlier, the new guardians carry the torch in a much dimmer era. Their charge is to not only keep jazz alive but also keep it vital.

And no greater examples of this exist than the Sonic Explorers' latest release, Beatnik Oblivion, and Jay Tyer Quartet's most recent demo. Both are remarkable pieces of improvisation written by Sabatini and Tyer respectively. It is the cutting-edge of solid, world-class jazz that owes far more to Davis and Coltrane than to the lighter swing and standards favored by the previous generation. And it is but two small reminders of what is happening on a regular basis somewhere in the city. Meanwhile, the more popular working outfits in the area -- Toni Ballard, Dick Odgren and Emil Haddad, and the Dagnello Quartet -- all play a moderate style of pre-bop, popular standards and ballads. Which leads to the natural questions: why did Worcester's interest in jazz skid to a halt sometime after the big-band era? And how can the current trend of indifference be changed?

"WICN, I'm a little leery of. I don't think they're involved in the jazz scene at all," offers Tyer, a soft-spoken, warm-hearted, and extremely pragmatic individual, expressing a sentiment shared by the majority of the local jazz community. "Not once in 11 years have they come down to the jam or called me. They play pop [music] for my parents -- and Doris Day, God bless her, is not jazz."

Tyer also adds that "music education is to blame a lot too."

"Everything's tied to money, so there really isn't a steady venue that accommodates families and kids," poses Ardizzone. "Club owners will start jazz, then stop it if it doesn't draw well. And that's understandable. It's a business. The other problem is jazz is hip background music and expected to remain background music for conversations."

Add to that the perceived Hollywood notion of a jazz musician -- either an art snob with his nose in the clouds or an irresponsible bohemian with a needle dangling from his arm -- and you complete the recipe for a serious generational gap. But don't forget the ongoing argument over what exactly qualifies as jazz. One man's jazz is another Saturday afternoon at the music store. (In the immortal words Phantom Surfer bass player Mike Lucas after his ears were accosted by a free-jazz quartet in Providence: "Free jazz. I guess you get what you pay for.")

And, perhaps as a direct result of the mountain they face, the local musicians share a unique sense of community. As Rich Falco says," It's a small scene, but it's a family atmosphere, even though we're vying for the same venues. There's always that support system in place, and that's an important component."

The most vital aspect of this core group is the weekly jam sessions at the Java Hut. The point from which most every newer band in town emanated from, it is the hub of Worcester's jazz scene. While most jam environments are aggressive, often cutting musicians that don't stack up, the Worcester jam is the equivalent of a game of lawn darts. It's an opportunity for seasoned veterans to get together, hang out, and exchange ideas. Tyer, as host, welcomes anyone with even a passing interest in learning to play jazz.

"I've met a lot of folks through that jam," says Ed Conley, now drummer for the Jay Tyer Quartet. "It's been a very valuable tool. It's pure enjoyment. It's fun playing and fun sharing."

"Jay is phenomenal as a host, he invites students up to play or encourages them to come back. Many of the folks involved with the jam are heavily committed to education," adds Falco, who is the director of jazz studies at WPI, offers private lessons, and has traveled throughout Europe and Egypt in the name of jazz. "When you go out [with these guys] it's a great hang cause these people have the love."

Which may be the ultimate mark this lost generation of musicians leaves behind. The jazz jam, besides acting as a sounding board for established musicians, is a vital link to introducing the genre to the next group of greats. By all reports, it's agreed that there is a blossoming interest among a growing number of young musicians and that a grassroots movement is imminent. Brought up in the shadow of Worcester's first true improvisationalists, the new age will carry the names of Tyer and Sabatini and Falco on their lips with the same esteem that today's jazz nomads speak of Haddad and Odgren.

Though a larger audience will develop as a result, real commercial appeal will always be lacking as long as the local media, specifically the radio, continue to ignore the movement. But, for these musicians, the thrill of playing contemporary jazz will always win out. It is the only form where the musician is flying by the seat of his pants, risking all in front of an audience with little room for an "off" night. More important, every person involved on the local scene views it as a labor of love.

"I have to do this, I'd be miserable without it," Tyer says of his 20 years on the scene. Though he plays four times a week, his only decent paying gig is Saturday nights at the Jefferson House. "I don't mind that people don't show up. I'd play in my living room as long as I can play with my mates.

"Worcester sucks less than it thinks it does," Tyer adds. "It's a lot more typical when it comes to jazz. I think it's everywhere. I've been to shows in New York and LA where I've gone to see people I respected, and there are three people in the audience. I've resolved that that's how it is -- and that's fine. I'm not bitter. Maybe someday when I'm 70, people will come to see me play!"

Local Buzz

We're sad to report the death of former Worcester native and jazz great, Jaki Byard. A versatile musician and composer, Byard toured as a piano player with Earl Bostic, Herb Pomeroy (tenor sax that time), and returned to the piano with Maynard Ferguson. Having also recorded as a solo artist, Byard is probably best-remembered for his work with Charles Mingus, though he also led a big band, the Apollo Stompers, intermittently, and continued performing till the end. The 76-year-old Byard's body was discovered last Thursday in his Queens apartment with a single gunshot wound to the head. While no weapon has been recovered, there was no forced entry, and there are no suspects as of this writing.

On a happier note, the long-anticipated Lucky Dog Music Hall is greasing the skids for a grand opening on February 25th. The former Sir Morgan's Cove kicks off live music the following week with the ultra-funky Enemy Squad on March 5th. Grinspoon play the following evening. God Stands Still should have their eight-song debut, Six Days, ready for your purchasing pleasure at the final Espresso Bar show on February 27th.

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