Las Vegas Jazz Scene -Think Jazz -

Working together with the local community for a quarter century, the Las Vegas Jazz Society is stronger than ever

by Lee Abraham

Essence of Jazz

"Not too many people can really appreciate Picasso," says Michael "Rocky" Winslow, Director of Jazz Studies at UNLV. "It's only after he's been gone forever and so many people say that you're supposed to, that you feel stupid not to." The analogy works. Jazz, like fine art, is not something everybody can appreciate. At least without a little effort. Knowledge of the history, people and technical nuances involved greatly enhance the ability to -get it-.

Don Gordon caught the jazz bug while still in his teens. The guy is passionate about jazz. As host and emcee of the Riviera's Monday night -Jazz on the Strip- series featuring saxman supreme Don Menza, Gordon has worked with countless jazz masters. A DJ at KUNV in his spare time, he's also a board member of the Las Vegas Jazz Society. With a keen ear and point blank honesty, Gordon is quick to point out that not everything marketed as -jazz- really is.

"A lot of so-called jazz out there now is really instrumental pop," explains Gordon. "The essence of jazz, regardless of what type, be-bop, fusion, swing, whatever it is, is something that you pour your heart and soul into. Jazz is a very thick tree with a lot of branches… in this town the tree is rooted in the Las Vegas Jazz Society."

LVJS History

Say the name Monk Montgomery to any jazz musician and check the reaction. Usually it's a smile and then a slow shake of the head. "A visionary and the person that made jazz happen in this town," is a common description. Montgomery was special. A charismatic people person. A leader. 

"Monk had a way of making you produce more than you wanted to or ever thought that you could," remembers Judy Tarte, longtime LVJS member and executive assistant to Montgomery. "You would groan when he walked by because you knew you were going to get tapped for something." In 1974 Billboard magazine described Montgomery as a -jazz crusader-. "I'm talking about bringing big jazz names to this town," said Montgomery. "This town is built on spectacular and local musicians wouldn't stand a chance, but there -is- a place for the local jazz musicians too." 

Montgomery founded the Las Vegas Jazz Society in 1975. In August of that year the society's first concert, featuring Joe Williams & the Freddy Hubbard Quintet was held at UNLV. Brother of jazz guitar innovator Wes Montgomery, Monk was a talented bass player. Late night jam sessions at his LVJS house parties are the stuff of legend. "Think Jazz" was his mantra. Under Montgomery's leadership the LVJS blossomed. True to his dream, Montgomery brought the best of the best. Dizzie Gillespie, Count Basie, Herbie Hancock are among the legendary players that helped create Montgomery's "true musical oasis in the Las Vegas desert."

The oasis flourished during that golden age of the local jazz scene. The -Tender Trap- was the hot jazz room. After hour jam sessions in hotel lounges and big names in the Casino showrooms were going strong. Maybe more than any place else, the old Musicians Union Hall best symbolized the impromptu -kick band- jams that were common in that bygone era. Many of the players that were the rage in those days are still making music today.  Including such local luminaries as Bill Trujillo, Carl Fontana, Arno Marsh, Ronny DiFillips, Charlie McLean, Archie Lecoque and Karl Kiffe, to name a few. Jazz Sings the Blues Montgomery's death in 1981 was a major blow to the thriving jazz scene.

"After his passing the society didn't just have the same spark and it gradually disappeared," says Dan Skea, former LVJS Board Chairman, who currently serves as Cultural Programs Supervisor for Clark County. The Allied Arts Council, a private sector non-profit agency, partially filled the void after Monk's death. Sponsoring concerts and live music workshops the AAC "did a good job while it lasted," says Tarte, "but that also came to an end when they decided to stop their sponsorship activities."

The scene hit rock bottom around 1990 when the shakeout from -the strike- began to take its toll. Old school players are still openly bitter about that notorious labor dispute. At one time musicians could earn an honest wage playing for in the hotels through a variety of entertainment formats that were built around live music. Inconceivably, at least to the players themselves, taped music was brought in and jobs were eliminated.   

The first step out of the abyss came in 1991, when several folks including Ken Hanlon, Steve Buffington, Walt Blanton, Patrick Gaffey, Sylvia Hill and Bill Moody, among others that had been involved in the old LVJS and the AAC got together. The group agreed that time had come to resurrect the LVJS for a new incarnation. Papers for non-profit status were filed in 1992. The LVJS was back on the scene.

Jazz Today

Art Goldberg has been LVJS President for the past year and a half. During his tenure, the society has continued to grow and serve the jazz community. "Membership has been on the rise, which is great," says Goldberg. "We've been able to put on a lot of live music at different places, and the music itself has been just fantastic!" The list of live music offerings -is- impressive.

The Nevada Jazz Artists Series includes eight concerts a year at Winchester Center featuring the top local players. The Whitney Jazz Workshop series is another popular program. "Workshops give the players an opportunity to do new and different things," explains Gordon. "Things like 'Jazz and the Word,' a thing we did bringing together the music with poetry is a good example of what goes on at these -performance workshops-."  There's also a Summertime Saturday night series at the Rainbow Library, an annual Jazz Picnic in May and misc. shows around the valley throughout the year.

"We work closely with the municipalities," says Goldberg. "They help us with venues, advance planning and other support. They've been a critical part of this team effort. Another important part of this whole thing are the music programs at the University and Community Colleges." The schools and the LVJS have strong ties. Both Rocky Winslow and Dr. Ferguson who head those respective programs serve on the LVJS board of directors. "Our biggest challenge going forward is reaching out to younger people," continues Goldberg. "Most of the concerts that we present have been traditional, mainstream, and I'd like to see us do more fusion and electric things that appeal to younger people."

Dorothy Wright is the Program Administrator for the Clark County Government Center. Having worked with the LVJS over the past ten years, Wright believes the jazz youth movement is already underway. "I'm impressed with the young people that are interested in jazz again," says Wright. "We had Nicholas Payton (?) and Christian McBride, who are both in their twenties and play traditional jazz but with a kind of a new edge to it. Those artists brought out a lot of younger people we hadn't seen before."

Jazz, The Next Generation

Rocky Winslow has played trumpet with Natalie Cole, Johnny Mathis, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the list goes on. Stefan Carlson is a 33-year-old, world class Piano phenom. Not only are these two young masters among the best jazz players on the planet, they head up the Jazz Studies Department at UNLV. Both were classmates at the University of North Texas music program. Winslow became involved with UNLV's Jazz Ensemble in 1991 and was named Director of UNLV Jazz Studies in 1996.

"I come from a family of band directors," laughs Winslow. "My dad was my high school band director. Both of my brothers and -both- their wives are band directors!" Carlson was an artist in residence at UNLV during portions of 1993 and is the current unofficial assistant director of the program. Together with Winslow, the two have been overseeing a new wave of "very talented young players." "The players from the last band I graduated are all working around town," says Winslow with well-deserved pride. "We've got a new CD about to be released called - Coloring Outside the Lines-, and it's all written by the students."

The title was inspired by his young daughter's approach to coloring; an "uninhibited creativity" he motivates his students to find. The strategy seems to be working. The band is doing a concert tour through Australia this summer and the soon-to-be released CD is destined to become a milestone in UNLV's music program.

The Community College's Cheyenne Campus is also a music program on the upswing. Headed by Dr. Tom Ferguson, yet another world class musician that has not only played with all the big names, he's a former member of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Panel. His assistant is Bob Pierson. An adjunct faculty professor of clarinet, sax, flute, Pierson was lead alto player for Frank Sinatra for seven years and has played with Quincy Jones, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman and many others. The Community College has an active series of live jazz performances and also provides a solid music education to students ranging from beginners and hobbyists to aspiring virtuosos.

"In a lot of cases we feed the University with players that come through our system that are ready for the next level," explains Pierson. The emergence of more and more young talented players coinciding with the ongoing efforts of the LVJS has been synergistic. "It seems like we're always on the verge of breaking through to this wonderful cultural maturity," muses Crea. "Will we ever see a day when Vegas is going to shake off its neon and glitz and develop some cultural validity? I don't know."

Mo Knows

"I just love music and have a passion for jazz," says Mo Owens, owner of -One Mo Time-. "I've always had a dream to start a jazz club. I've seen that Vegas had a need for something like this. People come here from all over and are used to having access to cultural things, like jazz, and that's what we're trying to provide."

Owens is originally from Chicago. He's been in town for ten years. During that time the  handful of full time -jazz clubs- which have popped up over the years haven fallen by the wayside. A couple of established clubs went in other directions. "It's always been the hotels that have been able to succeed at jazz because they have the money to back it and the tourists are already there," says Owens. "But I think that so many people move to this town each year, there a lot of people here now that are used to going to see jazz. They had nowhere to go. This is a -jazz nightclub-. We're not a lounge. We are not a bar or a restaurant that brings in jazz for a few nights a week. I think the club opened up just in time."