A few days ago, Rifftides alerted you to a concert posthumously honoring the Voice of America’s Willis Conover, whom we described as one of the most effective public diplomats in US history. Washington correspondent John Birchard, a veteran VOA broadcaster, attended the concert and sent this report.
I think Willis would have liked THE FIRST ANNUAL WILLIS CONOVER MEMORIAL CONCERT. He might have been a little uncomfortable with the title (he was pretty modest – for a radio guy), but the concert contained elements he would have appreciated: kids trying out their skills in the Blues Alley Youth Orchestra, the discovery of a “new” band, and the classics getting their due from the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra.
The concert was the brainchild of Harry Schnipper, the entrepreneur who has kept Washington’s Blues Alley nightclub alive through thick and thin. The Blues Alley Jazz Society and the Smithsonian Institution were the official “presenters” that arranged for the use of the Voice Of America auditorium for the event Saturday, April 28th. The purpose of the concert was “to memorialize the legacy of Willis Conover and his efforts to extend jazz music…through the radio waves of the Voice of America.”
The Blues Alley Youth Orchestra opened the evening. The Orchestra, now in its 20th year, is made up of 14- to 17-year-olds from the Washington area. The band is subject to all the challenges that young musicians must overcome: uncertain intonation and time, solos that wander into a cul de sac of confusion, and teen-age shyness about standing out from the crowd. And then, there will be moments when a youngster gets off a good chorus and sits down with an embarrassed grin at the applause. Congratulations to Blues Alley for sticking with this educational effort.
Next came one of those segments that jazz fans live for: the jaw-dropping surprise. I was not familiar with the U-S Military Academy’s Jazz Knights. Expecting a band of college students, the first surprise was these guys were grown-ups, career military musicians like the widely-known Airmen of Note, the Navy’s Commodores and the Army Blues, all stationed in the Washington, D.C. area. I’ve long appreciated those three bands as the top of the tree in their respective services. Well, make room for the Jazz Knights from West Point. All of the band members are sergeants, ranging from staff to master sergeant. The Knights hit with a bright original, “Without a Doubt”. Ensembles were crisp and tight. Alto saxophonist Derrick James made clear right away his claim on the audience’s attention with a fiery solo. James made way for trumpeter Vito Speranza, whose tone put me in mind of Pete Candoli and whose attack was confident, even swaggering. The audience responded with enthusiastic applause.
Mike Abene’s arrangement of the Brazilian-flavored “Estate” was a showcase for the soprano sax work of Mike Reifenberg. Sergeant Reifenberg has a full, liquid sound used with dramatic effect on the lovely melody. He also has chops to spare and brought them to bear during his improvisation.
Snappy brushwork from drummer Bob Jones propelled Abene’s arrangement of Karolina Strassmeyer’s “The Sweeper,” Eric Ordway’s trombone solo shifted the piece into overdrive. Ordway gets around on the unwieldy horn in the virtuosic manner of the late Frank Rosolino, which ain’t chopped liver. Another strong solo from Derrick James rounded out the performance.
The Jazz Knights don’t have a weak link. According to the information on their CD “Commissions 2006”, they do some traveling around the northeast, bringing free concerts to the public. If they show up in your neighborhood, you won’t be disappointed if you seek them out.
Master of ceremonies Dick Golden‘s warm presentation included portions of interviews Willis Conover did over the years on VOA with Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. As Ellington made his recorded exit with some typically charming remarks about Willis, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra under David Baker began its portion of the show with “Take the A Train,” appropriate for the occasion but in a perfunctory performance. Baker’s own “Cotton Club Revisited” followed, then a Bob Mintzer arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance”. The band didn’t strike sparks until it played Sonny Rollins’ “Doxy.” Trumpeter Kenny Rittenhouse soloed with funk and humor, producing smiles on band members’ faces and enthusiasm from the audience. The trumpeter seemed to inspire tenorman Tedd Baker and pianist Tony Nalker to some enjoyable solos.
But then it was back to re-creating jazz history with Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings”. Nice, but lacking in pizzazz. Technically, the band runs down the historical charts with authentic style. The members can clearly play their instruments, but when the night is over what have you got? As you might be able to discern from these remarks, I’m not a fan of jazz repertory bands. I’d much rather hear a bad-but-enthusiastic original than the most competent copy. And the very name of this band – the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra – seems like pretty heavy baggage to lug around.
I don’t know where Willis would come down in this debate, but throughout his long and distinguished career he seems to have emphasized the originals, the real thing,. Full disclosure: I am not an unbiased observer. I am a 14-year employee at the Voice of America, the senior news broadcaster in the English language division, a fan of the man and his marvelous impact on the world beyond our shores. He remains the single most important broadcaster in the 65 years VOA has been on the air.
Saturday night’s concert is a small down payment on what America owes Willis. I’m glad to report that Harry Schnipper promised there will be a 2nd annual Willis Conover Memorial Concert next April. As we used to say in radio, stay tuned.
To read a Rifftides posting about Conover, go here. You may search the archive (link in the right-hand column) with the keyword “Conover” and find several additional items.