Tuesday, November 8, 2011

John Madrid

Best trumpet high note of all time? Might have been played by John Madrid, arguably one of the greatest trumpeters of all time, based on his versatility and work history (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Madrid). I worked with John when we lived in Hawaii, in big bands, combos and shows. The high note? We worked Icecapades, the last show I did before leaving the Islands. It was a workhorse situation, playing along with pre-recorded tapes, but challenging musically and physically, many shows in only a few days. The last show, when most of us were feeling the strain and relieved to be at the end of the run, John absolutely nailed the highest note I have ever heard on trumpet. Trumpeters striving to develop a high register pretty much cut it off if they are able to develop a "double C," the concert (or sounding) B-flat two octaves and a seventh above middle C. And those able to play that note strongly and consistently are few and far between.

John had consistently demonstrated prowess and consistancy well above that range, but he outdid himself on this occasion. The last note of the last show, a fairly long held-out note for emphasis at the show's end, John played (get ready...) a TRIPLE D! That's fully a ninth above the vaunted double C. Not only did he play it, and loudly, he held it out several seconds after the tape ended and the conductor cut us off. Normally, playing in that register has the possibility of cutting off the blood flow to the brain from the internal pressure require to achieve that, and players have been known to pass out from playing not even as high as a double C. So I turned around, fully expecting to see John falling off his chair from lack of oxygen. Instead, I was treated to the usual jovial John, his trumpet resting on his knee, and smiling like the cat who just ate the canary.

Around ten years later, John and I were touring together with Frank Sinatra. I asked John if he remembered that event, and he replied that of course he did. I asked him why he held the note as long as he did, and he replied, "It was the first one I ever played, and I didn't want to let it go."

It wasn't a fluke with John. When he worked with Wayne Newton, Wayne would feature John on a jazz solo, and John would play chorus after chorus, staying in the "super" register above double C. But that wasn't the extent of his talent; he could play equally well in the low- and mid-registers, with a big, warm, beautiful tone, or execute a funky, bluesy plunger solo. But most of all, John was a warm, big-hearted person who could be a good friend. He's missed by those of us who knew him. He always seemed to be giving, but as the end neared, when he was ill, we could feel the energy flowing back the other way. It was sad to see him declining, but he left a legacy that will always be talked about and highly regarded. RIP, Johnny Madrid, 1948-1990, trumpeter and human being extroidinaire.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

International Trombone Festival 2011

Now that makes the trombone sound really important, doesn't it? A lot of people probably don't even know what a trombone is, or have a vague idea, like holding one hand up to their mouth and moving the other one in and out, in and out, miming moving the slide back and forth. I played a touring show for about five years, a recreation of an 1890s era town band called "Mr. Jack Daniel's Original Silver Cornet Band." One of my favorite lines from the show was, "...after all, what's a circus without a couple of clowns and a couple of trombones." The versatile trombone sound can portray the clown, the villain, the hero, or just about anything else in music, depending on how it is played or how it is written for.

One thing the trombone is, is important to those of us who play it. Thus hundreds of trombonists from all around the world turned up in Nashville, Tennessee last week for the ITF. The festival ran for four days of solo and ensemble concerts, competitions, lectures and demonstrations, and even a panel discussion of the history of the festival, which was started in Nashville more than thirty years ago by one Henry Romersa, then the trombone instructor at Vanderbilt University. Instrument and accessory manufacturers and vendors set up booths to show, and hopefully sell their wares in two exceedingly noisy venues, with players young and old, good and bad, creating an ear-splitting din. This year the fest returned to Nashville for the first time in thirty years and was held at the Blair School of Music at Vanderbilt. In attendance were such luminaries as Joseph Alessi, Principal Trombonist of the New York Philharmonic, and Dr. John Marcellus, Professor of Trombone at Eastman School of Music. Representatives of the jazz world included the legendary Bill Watrous and Wycliffe Gordon.

My intention was to attend as a "fly on the wall" to observe and root for two former students who were participating, one as a student finalist in a solo competiton, and one as an instructor with students participating as solo and ensemble competitors. But somehow the word got out that I would be in attendance, and I ended up performing three times, including  "headlining" the closing night jazz session along with my former student, Conrad Herwig, Director of  Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, and adjunct jazz trombone instructor at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music (see www.ConradHerwig.com).

But back to the "fly on the wall" aspect: Conrad's jazz trombone ensemble won the Kai Winding competition, and his students, one from Rutgers and one from Juilliard, won their respective jazz solo competitions. And my more recent student, Christopher Hernacki, a recent Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Michigan, won the Yaxley Bass Trombone Solo Competition. I think seeing such success in one's students gives the greatest feeling of satisfaction one can experience. I say that all I did was show up, and they did all the work, but I must have said something that resonated with them over the years that they studied with me. I do know that I feel like a proud father with the extraordinary accompishments of my "adopted" sons, Conrad and Chris. Congrats, guys, and keep making me look good!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Music Goes Round And Round...

Whoa-oh-oh-oh... and it comes out...

...at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

When I was in college, little Tennessee Tech (about 2,500 students in those days, and only 23 music majors when I started), some of my friends and I would huddle in the music library, don our earphones, and listen to recordings of the great University of Michigan Concert Band. Those were the days when William Revelli was the director. We would marvel at how clean and musical that organization sounded, and I'm sure more than a few of us dreamed of playing in such an ensemble.

I went on to play in a number of bands, including the U. S. Air Force bands, Mr. Jack Daniel's Original Silver Cornet Band, The Disneyland Band, my own California Gold Rush Band, and more recently, the historic Royal Hawaiian Band, founded in 1836. All were great in their own way, but there has always been something about that U. of M. Band...

Tonight the circle closed, when my long-time student, Chris, performed at said Disney Hall with the famed University of Michigan Symphony Band, their homecoming concert after a successful three week tour in China. Chris is the principal bass trombonist, and just graduated summa cum laude from U.M. The performance was everything I hoped for and more, everything I remembered about the band of yore, but with loads of new experiences, a diverse presentation of old and new music and sounds. And even though it wasn't me on that stage, I couldn't have been more proud and happy that my student and friend has grown from a young lad to a world-class musician. Yo Chris! And long live the University of Michigan Band.

Here the band, under the current conductor, Michael Haithcock, performs an excerpt from Bach's "Toccata and Fugue In D Minor." Chris is the bass trombonist.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Big Bands Are Back!

Actually, they never left. Big bands abound in the greater Los Angeles area, and elsewhere around the country, including my friend Jim's wonderful Nashville Jazz Orchestra. Now working big bands, that's another issue. And for the ones that work, the pay is another issue--sign of the times, I guess. But musicians love to play, and at least in SoCal there is no shortage of opportunities.

Big bands rehearse regularly and prolifically at the musicians union facility in Hollywood, several different ones each day. And many additional bands rehearse at various places all over Southern California (or "The Southland," as the news hounds call it, not to be confused with "The South"). Many of them are excellent, but most perform in public sporadically, if at all. But some are excellent, and have leaders who are hard working and persistent, and get the band booked at one of the very few venues to showcase such an ensemble.

One such is Steve Huffsteter, with whose band I performed tonight at Typhoon, an Asian-style restaurant located at Santa Monica Airport. Glenn Miller it ain't, and it isn't even your typical big band in the traditional sense. With songs like "3 1/2" (not content to write in 7/8, Steve composed a funk tune with three-and-a-half beats in each measure), "Hispania" (conjures up pictures of El Cid) and "Melancholia" (says Steve, "...the only big band tune named for a disease" and perhaps appropriately featuring one of the trombonists), the entire library is very eclectic, and, perhaps strangely, contains a lot of waltzes, but definitely not in the style one might be accustomed to hearing from a big band. One such is the very bombastic "A Waltz And Battery," heard here on YouTube, courtesy of AIX Records.

Great band, great sounds, great time. And the food is good too! Steve tries to give everyone a chance to blow, and he picks some wonderful players to do so. Typhoon podcasts all the performances (www.typhoon.biz), so it's worth checking out. And check out the other tracks on YouTube of the Steve Huffsteter Big Band from the AIX video. Or better yet, buy the DVD, which was recorded in 5.1 surround sound. You'll be amazed!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's In A Name?

This is about--well, me. Les Benedict. My name has inspired numerous nicknames over the years, like Eggs Benedict, Les Benedict XVI (illegitimate brother of the Pope), Les Is More (sometimes abbreviated as Izmore), and others. Guitarist Doug MacDonald even composed an original song for his band, in which I play, that he titled "Leggs Benedict."

One of the most inspiring takes on my name, to me, anyway, stems from a student I had briefly about ten years ago. He quit playing trombone after high school (sound familiar?), but remained a huge fan of the instrument and its players. Barry has an old juke box which plays 45 RPM records (remember those? Man, you're OLD!) filled entirely with trombone recordings. I was amazed when I saw it, since I had no idea that there were that many trombone singles in existence. He decided to take up trombone again at about age 40, much to his wife's chagrin. He asked a friend in Texas whom he should study with in Los Angeles, and my name came up. Barry was serious about getting good on the instrument, and I became his "Teach." (His wife did eventually come around about his blowing 'bone again, but I don't think she has ever come to grips with his collection of vintage instruments and mouthpieces.)

I had talked to Barry about wanting to record a solo CD, so he decided I needed appropriate art work. He and his wife, Tracy, commissioned a CD cover from one of my favorite cartoonists, Dan Piraro, who draws the Bizarro comic strip, syndicated in many newspapers and published in books. Dan is a master of the bizarre, but very astute at coming up with a strange twist on an otherwise normal daily occurrence or situation. Barry asked me for a photo, and I gave him one of me playing which was shot by the great lead trumpeter, Buddy Childers, on a gig we were on together. Barry emailed the shot to Dan, who turned it into something I'm very proud of, on a number of levels.

Dan said the first thing that popped into his mind when he saw the photo and my name was something along the line of "Les is More," so his fertile imagination saw "Les Benedict, More Music" in an Eastern philosophical setting. He turned the photo of me into me personifying an infinity symbol, having no idea that I have studied Eastern arts, both martial and philosophical, and have utilized breathing techniques in my playing and teaching for many years, adapted from Qj Gong, Aikido, Gung Fu, Yoga, etc. The result of Dan's intuition represents to a great degree how I think of myself performing, and how I approach my practice sessions.

I recently contacted Dan with an update of my email address, even though I had had no contact with him for years, and he wrote back asking if I was the guy he did the CD art for. He told me he liked that one so much that he included it in his book, Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro, and he even told me the page number it appears on (22).

I'm honored to have been included in such a work by one of my favorite "artists," even though he is not known as well for that type of work. And someday soon I'll actually finally record that CD and utilize his wonderful art the way it was intended. Thanks, Dan, and thank you, Barry and Tracy.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bad News For Prof. Harold Hill

In the '80s, the Orange County Rhythm Machine was a fixture in Southern California, a big band with a regular Monday night appearance at a Seal Beach restaurant named Dunbar's. It was an excellent band with somewhat revolving personnel, when the regulars had other gigs.

One Monday night which will live in infamy among the players who worked with the band, a very large gentleman was playing alto sax. When the leader announced an intermission, this saxophonist stood and slipped, or tripped, and fell backward, right on top of one of the trombones. He didn't appear to be injured, but the instrument was crushed. Everyone witnessed the unfortunate event, and the entire room went dead silent -- but only for about ten seconds, when a voice from the trumpet section quietly intoned, "Seventy-five trombones led the big parade..."

Friday, April 22, 2011

Another Super Hero?

Our five-year-old granddaughter Nanea phoned her Tutu (grandmother Haidee) today to wish her "happy birthday." Haidee asked her how she enjoyed the luau last night, with the response, "How did you know I went to a luau??" Haidee said a little birdie told her, and asked Nanea what her favorite thing was about the luau. "The Fire Boy," came the quick answer. "What did you like about him?" "It was scary!" Scary always seems to gain our attention.

The luau shows always feature Samoan fire knife dancing, where men twirl much in the style of majorettes, but with bladed weapons in the place of batons. There's always at least one brave soul who wraps the ends with kerosene-soaked material, ignites it and spins away, at arm's length and all around, behind the back, between the legs, etc., ergo The Fire Boy. From the Los Angeles Times travel section: "The nifo oti, Samoan for "tooth of death," resembles a machete with a hook at the end of its blade. The hook's sharpness and weight increase the difficulty and risk for the fire dancer catching the blazing blade." Occasionally they do burn themselves, which alone would keep me at arm's length from attempting anything like that. But in a way that makes them a kind of super hero, risking life and limb for the entertainment of luau-goers, which I suppose keeps the non-locals from thinking about the taste (or lack thereof, to their uncultured tastebuds) of the poi.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rod Serling's Looking Down

I received an email from my college buddy, Tom, asking if I had heard about the passing of Wayne Pegram. Tom didn't know any details, so I contacted a friend on the faculty of Tennessee Tech, from which Wayne had retired. Wayne had attended Tech as an undergrad and was a music department legend when I started there; stories were told of his escapades as a saxophonist with the Troubadours big band. He went on to make his mark as a high school band director, then as assistant director of the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band, then as Director of Bands at Tech. He was playing tenor again with some jazz groups; I got to jam with him once or twice when I was visiting there.

A month or so after I heard from Tom, I was at a rehearsal with one of the bands I play with, the music of Dick Cary, who played piano with Louis Armstrong for many years. Dick also played trumpet and alto horn, and left a legacy of several thousand arrangements for various sized groups. On this particular night, my friend Jim, whom I hadn't seen for quite a while, was subbing on tenor sax. Jim said he had met a friend of mine from Tennessee in Singapore Airport. He couldn't recall my friend's name, but he had said he was on his way to Indonesia for his son's wedding. They met the way musicians do, with this stranger seeing Jim's tenor case and striking up a conversation, which led to his asking where Jim was from (Los Angeles) and did he by chance know Les Benedict. I finally figured out that Jim had met Wayne.

The irony of this, the Twilight Zone Moment, is that Jim was telling me in present tense of meeting Wayne, when I already knew that Wayne was gone. Wayne made it to Indonesia, but had a heart attack in the car on the way to the wedding and died. Jim had no idea of Wayne's demise and was shocked at how the story unfolded. This is yet another "isn't it a small world" story, but with a strange twist at the end. [cue the theme music--doo-doo-doo-doo...]

Wayne will be missed, but certainly not forgotten.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Battery's Down...

...and the Bronx is up. So's the production (up, that is), tomorrow (well, later today, now). Five rehearsals and ten performances of "On The Town" for the USC Theater Department. It's a helluva show with some very talented young people, and a fully professional orchestra. The show premiered in 1944, and the much-changed movie adaptation in 1949. Fortunately the original show features the wonderful music of Leonard Bernstein, which is very challenging and fun to play. (According to Wikipedia, only three songs from the show made it to the movie.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Sadness abounds

We lost a friend today, a dear friend who has been like a brother. Michael Morita passed beyond this mortal plane, apparently a victim of cancer, although that has not been revealed for certain as yet. I met Mike at the same time I met my Haidee, at the first rehearsal of the Al Lopaka show at Duke Kahanamoku's in the International Market Place in Waikiki, summer of 1971. Mike was the trumpet player, and Haidee was one of two dancers. We became good friends, and that relationship endured until we moved from the Islands, and then over more than 30 years of separation by many miles. Mike became the manager of the brass section of the Royal Hawaiian Band, and as such, was able to offer me work whenever we visited the Isles. He played for our daughter's wedding, and was always quick to be part of whatever event occurred in our family, such as the arrival of a new baby.

We'll miss you, my friend. Aloha, and bon voyage.

A Jazz Tale

My earlier post mentioning Jimmy Knepper reminded me of a gig I did in the early '80s, a Dixieland band in Pershing Square Park in Los Angeles, before it was renovated and was less "sophisticated" than it is now. We were playing for the MJB Coffee company, who was giving away free coffee to anyone who wandered by. As I remember, we started at 5 AM, and they kept adding overtime; I guess their coffee was popular that day, and it turned into a 7-hour gig.

At one point, while we were playing "Sweet Georgia Brown," an obviously homeless guy dressed in rags and not smelling too good, wandered up and was listening to the band. I played a couple of solo choruses on tuba, and after we finished, the homeless man approached me and said, "You plays the tuba just like Jimmy Knepper plays the trombone." He pronounced it, "Kneppa." I must have looked shocked, because he asked, "Don't you know who Jimmy Knepper is?" I responded, "Sure, he's a great trombone player. Thanks for the compliment." He said, "I rememba Kneppa and Mingus having a big fight on the bandstand one night." (Charles Mingus had famously punched out Jimmy on a gig once.) Then he turned and wandered off through the park and into oblivion, leaving me wondering who he was and if he had been a noted musician sometime in his past, and how he knew about the Knepper/Mingus incident. Not to mention how he knew enough about jazz to connect my style with that of Jimmy Knepper...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What is jazz, besides a lifelong quest?

I had an interesting and provocative phone call yesterday from a friend, for whom I had just recorded some jazz arrangements. He wanted to tell me that he thought I was the best "pre-Watrous" jazz soloist, in the [earlier] tradition of Jimmy Knepper and Lawrence Brown. That, of course, set me thinking about what I do, or attempt to do, when I improvise a solo.

The steps in learning to improvise, as I see and remember them, are:

1. Learning to hear and identify chords and chord changes (I got a head start when a new friend my freshman year of college asked me if I would play tuba in his Dixieland band; I had to learn root progressions and bass lines).

2. Learning to hear lines/melodies in my head which might fit those chord progressions.

3. Developing the technique on my instrument(s) to be able to channel those mental melodies into actual sound.

4. Maturing (or aging) to the point that real and interesting melodies appear, which means, to some extent, getting beyond the technique aspect. Lots of technique gives you options, but one of the options should not be technique for its own sake. I think that is a mistake made by a lot of younger players, and some of them never get beyond it.*

*This could lead to an entire discussion of the evolution of trombone technique, from J.J. Johnson showing that the trombone was capable of the type of technique which enabled him to keep up with the likes of Dizzy, Bird, etc. J.J. took that melodious style that the trombone is so capable of and transitioned it into the bop style that developed in the late '30s and '40s. I think the part that some players missed is that J. always played very melodically, no matter what the tempo. This may have spawned an entire generation of "technique for the sake of technique) players. Exceptions, of course, include Frank Rosolino, who was unbelievably technically adept, definitely had his own voice and style, but still played very musically; and Carl Fontana, a technical wizard who still played linearly and musically, another unique voice. (Frank and Carl, as different from one another musically as they could be, were still a "mutual admiration society.") There were earlier players who had astounding technique but were more "old-school," like Abe Lincoln and Tommy Turk. The melodic swing-era players that were heroes of the trombone were the likes of Lawrence Brown, Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young. Brown became a hero of mine at a young age, when my dad brought home a double album (remember those?) of Duke Ellington recordings from the late '30s-early '40s. Lawrence was unbelievable to me for his versatility of style, and remains so to this day. Later on I glommed onto the playing of Urbie Green, another player with amazing versatility, great chops, musicality and style. Others have contributed to my musical persona, I'm sure, but my heart belongs to those older players who knew how to sing a song through their instruments.