Occasionally, a Rifftides reader sends a message compelling enough that it demands posting not as a comment but as a full-fledged item. In the blog’s five years, there have been few. Jeff Sultanof’s recent recollection of Gene Lees was one. A few days later, we have Peter Kountz’s tribute to Rob McConnell.
Dr. Kountz is head of Philadelphia’s Charter High School For Architecture + Design, an independent tuition-free public school that is the first of its kind in the United States. His background includes leadership of K-12 schools in Pittsburgh and Brooklyn and positions on the faculties of the University of Rochester and the University of Chicago, where he earned his PhD. A musician, writer and consultant, he also coaches professional musicians.
On Rob McConnell
By Peter Kountz
I can’t say that I knew him well or that we were real friends. If I knew Rob McConnell at all, I knew him as a brilliant artist and musician, whose gifts were often rivaled by his complicated personal qualities and his battles with the demons of self-deprecation. I followed RMcC’s work for the last 25 years and I had the honor of producing in Pittsburgh in January of 1999, one of the last complete concerts the full Boss Brass did before RMcC downsized to the Tentet. Back to that concert in a moment.
The brilliance of Rob McConnell’s artistry, musicianship, and craft was not so much his charisma as a band leader or his underappreciated proficient and inventive valve trombone playing, but rather what he was able to hear and imagine as a composer and arranger and how these “sound ideas” were put together for the Boss Brass and the Tentet, and accompanying artists like the Hi Lo’s, Mel TormÃ©, or the Singers Unlimited.
There were other bands beside the Boss Brass, bands with marvelous sounds grounded in accessible melodies and harmonies, dressed in exciting arrangements and richly intricate rhythms, all with a delightful ease of listening. I am safe in saying, however, that there was never any band quite like the full Boss Brass with its additional brass (French Horn and sometimes tuba), woodwinds (clarinet, bass clarinet and flute) percussion (vibraphone, congas) and keyboards (organ); with its complex and daring arrangements, most with wry humor thrown in; with its extraordinary display of collective and individual virtuosity, with the power and precision of the ensemble itself; and with the unfailing delight and swing that came through even in the recordings. So is there one recording that gives all this–and more–to the listener, you ask? Yes there is, I say, and it is the penultimate Boss Brass recording, Even Canadians Get the Blues (Concord Jazz). It is all there.
Apart from his family and his oldest friends, I am not certain anyone knows the full answer as to who Rob McConnell was, assuming there is one. Here, I want to offer some impressions of who and how he was, based on my encounters and experiences with RMcC. I was always struck with how kind and thoughtful he could be, not necessarily how kind he always was. His standards were very high, so high, in fact, that most music students (undergraduate and graduate) could not easily get to where he wanted them to be; he was not a natural teacher and did not really like the act of teaching, so his music became his teaching instrument. Life for him may have seemed to others simple and full of fun, but it was always far from that in reality. He really did love his family, though enduring personal relationships came with great difficulty for him and one never knew how or why he/she made it to the RMcC persona-non-grata list.
Like Duke Ellington, he composed and arranged for people he knew who were artist-musicians and players and who could meet every musical challenge he put forward. He could be as grumpy as he was thoughtful. He was his own worst enemy and his impatience with mediocrity was as intense as his full-blown intolerance of certain people and certain facts and realities in the business; he may have been a twin of Gene Lees. Rob McConnell loved being Canadian and he got the blues a lot but he had a great time composing, arranging, and playing the blues. He took himself a lot more seriously than most people realized because he worked so hard to keep everyone thinking the opposite, sometimes to the point of embarrassing himself. Mostly he liked who he was though it wasn’t easy, especially when it came to being successful.
So now about that Pittsburgh concert and the lessons learned. A well-known physician and jazz musician whom I knew in Pittsburgh when I worked there died suddenly and my wife and I were asked to join a small group of friends and family to plan a public tribute to his work and his music. When it was decided to have a benefit concert in our friend’s honor to create an endowment with The Pittsburgh Foundation to fund a scholarship for a deserving young jazz musician, I was given the task of choosing the artists and producing the concert. The “Friends Group” joined hands in sponsorship with the Pittsburgh Jazz Society and jazz impresario Tony Mowod of WDUQ-FM and we were on our way. I knew instantly that the concert should be by Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. I went to work selling the idea. That wasn’t as easy as it might appear. I bought CD’s and gave copies to “The Friends” and, through the music it seems, I was given the green light. All this was before I had contacted Mr. Boss Brass himself. In those days of RMcC’s pre-luddite tendencies, everything was done by letter fax, that is to say, the correspondent would write a letter and or a request, and then fax it to the McConnell home office which, to this day, I believe the saintly Margaret McConnell oversaw.
Without going back and reading the correspondence (all of which I have saved) I remember that my experience working with “His Tromboneness,” which I happily and perhaps naively called him, was easy, efficient, warm, business-like and very professional. We agreed on the date (January 26, 1999), the fee, the venue, the logistics, the cause, and even part of the program set list, though I had been warned that no one ever suggested to the Great One that he consider a suggested program. Okay, I thought, I trust this guy. And I really did. And, as it turned out, he trusted me. I asked him to open the program with his arrangement of Loonis McGlohan’s composition, “Songbird,”* and close the program with his arrangement of Gene Puerling’s, “Nightfall.”** Both of these arrangements are for winds only (no rhythm or keyboards) and both are fiercely difficult ensemble pieces in almost free rhythm, with no room for individual errors; every note for every part has to be right and fall in the right place at the right time.
His Tromboneness said, fine, we can do this. The bus arrived, I met it, and took things from there. While making sure that everything was in order -the show began at 8:00pm–I stayed behind the scenes. Much to my surprise, RMcC asked me to work with him on the sound check, which I did, and he listened carefully to my comments and suggestions and, to my amazement, responded to each one. We served an early dinner to the artist-musicians (and that they were) and gave them all room to relax. I put the check in His Tromboneness’s hands, and moved forward to show time.
The band walked on stage and we began on the dot at 8:00pm with “Songbird;” beautifully played, beautifully realized, and followed by a rich and full program. As I remember, there were at least 12 pieces on the set list (with introductions and comments from Mr. BB) and a generous intermission. RMcC used his final comments to thank the sold-out audience “for coming, for listening and for remembering Howard,” the physician/musician we honored that night. Then came “Nightfall.” Was there ever anything so beautiful, so perfectly played and so right? I don’t think so. And as the band got on the bus after packing up and putting down a Canadian brewski or two, His Tromboneness said to me, “Peter, this was the best produced, best managed, and most fun Boss Brass concert ever and we will always remember it.” As will I.
The Cheyenne Native Americans have a beautiful Prayer for the Dead: Go on into the Light and do not look back. We will take care of everything here. And, as “Nightfall” has come, so we will.
Rest in the Light, Your Royalness, and know how grateful we are for your life and music.
* “Songbird” — heard on All in Good Time (Sea Breeze CD-SB-105)
** “Nightfall” –heard on Our 25th Year (Concord Jazz-CCD-4559)
2-3 May 2010
In an auxiliary message, Peter Kountz added:
One important element for me in writing the piece is that there is likely to be very little extended recognition of RMcC on the American side, and in Canada he PO’d so many people, not many good folks are going to care.
I want people to realize some things about this amazing, gruff artist-musician in our midst who just kept making extraordinary music.