Monday 13th – Wednesday 15th May, 2019
My journey to the 2019 ISJAC Symposium in Greeley, Colorado started in familiar surroundings as my wife dropped me off in the Berkshire village of Theale on the morning of Monday the 13th of May. Usually when getting the train from Theale, I would be wearing my smart teaching clothes, on the way to either the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire or the Guildhall, but today I had my comfortable ‘flying suit’ on (elasticated trousers and hoodie) and was travelling to Heathrow Airport to get my first ever flight to the USA.
Having got the train to Reading and a coach to Heathrow, I finally arrived in my seat on flight BA219, and after nine hours of in-flight entertainment I stepped out into the sunshine at Denver International Airport. The weather was beautiful, but I only had a short time to enjoy it as I was soon on the move again, the Greeley Shuttle taking me to the front door of my destination, the DoubleTree hotel in downtown Greeley.
I didn’t want to waste a single moment of my time in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, so I was determined to find a way to avoid any jet lag. My chosen tactic was to stay up as late as possible on the first night. I managed to keep my eyes open (thanks to a few beers in the hotel bar) until what would have been 5.30am in the UK before admitting defeat and heading for bed. When woke up at 6am (local time) on Tuesday I was delighted to feel like my approach had paid off!
As part of the planning of my trip I had contacted and arranged to meet Drew Zaremba (Assistant Professor of Music at UNC) for lunch at 12.30 so I had a few hours that first morning to explore my new surroundings. After a hearty ‘Skillet Deluxe’ (potatoes, bacon, asparagus, cheese, etc.) for breakfast at the hotel I headed out into the sunshine for a walk. Within yards of the hotel I was reassured to see some of the classic American sights I had hoped for, including a yellow school bus! Then I heard a train moving slowly along the line that runs through the centre of the town, blowing its distinctive A7#9 horn as it traversed the many level-crossings. I got close enough to film the train on my phone, something I am normally resistant to doing but my tourist instincts took over!
After the train and its many wagons had departed, I stumbled across a cafe called Cranford’s Tea Tavern, about which the hotel barman had told me the night before. Perfect! I sat for almost an hour sipping a slightly bizarre ‘Pina Colada’ flavoured tea and watching the people of Greeley go about their business, before heading back to the hotel to do a couple of hours work on my ‘Peterloo’ commission (more details to coming soon).
At midday I went down to the lobby to wait for Drew, who had generously offered to come and meet me at the hotel. Thanks to the magic of Facebook we recognised each other straight away and immediately started thinking about our plans for the rest of the afternoon. We started by walking just around the corner from the hotel, to an Indian restaurant for a buffet lunch. We talked about our musical backgrounds and current professional and teaching work, as well as our expectations for the week ahead. We hit it off just as I had hoped, and it was then that I knew I was really going to enjoy my visit. After lunch we got in the car and Drew showed me Campus Commons, UNC’s newly built multi-purpose performance venue that would be hosting the ISJAC Symposium, starting on Thursday.
After a quick detour to Drew’s house to pick up his lap-top, we headed over to the University’s main music complex. We visited the impressive Skinner Music Library, which featured a display introducing all the artists who had performed at the recent UNC Jazz Festival. The music library includes an archive of more than 7000 jazz recordings.
Next door to the Skinner library is the main music teaching facility Frasier Hall, which is shared with the School of Theatre Arts and Dance and includes the Langworthy Theatre. Unfortunately, some areas were not accessible because of the fitting of a new sprinkler system. However, Drew was able to show me some of the teaching/rehearsal spaces (in which we found several PG students preparing for their performances as part of the Symposium) and the astonishing Jazz Library. This small room consisted of several rolling racks of shelving, holding hundreds of big band charts from every composer and arranger you could imagine. There were also piles of new arrangements, waiting to be added to the library. This archive clearly demonstrated the tradition on which the ‘band’ structure of the jazz programme at UNC (and many other American universities) is based. Walking about that building, it felt like jazz was at the heart of the musical activity of the school.
Drew and I then went and sat in his office and discussed the type of listening that we ask our students to do in relationship to jazz composition and arranging. We found that we shared the same views on many of the most important artists, while both being able to name writers that the other had not heard of! We sat there for a good couple of hours, listening to music and discussing our approaches to writing and teaching but eventually it was time for me to return to the hotel and for Drew to head home. We were going to be seeing each other again at the Symposium so there would be plenty of other opportunities for us to continue our conversation.
The next day, I had another early breakfast in the hotel before deciding to head out in search of somewhere to buy a pair of shorts, with the temperatures look set to hit 30 degrees and stay warm for the rest of the week. Having not hired a car, I soon found out that distances in America are always further than they look on the map. I headed out with the intention of walking to a shopping district which, on the small screen of my phone, looked pretty close by, but as time went on I began to realise why I had been seeing so few pedestrians on the streets of Greeley – it’s clearly a place where the car is king. I eventually decided to abandon my quest, but not before I had found a ‘Thrift Store’ which turned out to have exactly what I needed; some shorts, a t-shirt and a cap, and all for just $8! I thought this was going to be the ideal wardrobe for a days off later in the week.
When I got back to the hotel at around midday, I received a message from the only other British musicians who I knew was going to be at the Symposium, Simon Lasky. He had just arrived in Greeley and was keen to meet. He was in a coffee shop called Aunt Helen’s. With him were Luke Bornheimer and Chris Berner (a Canadian trumpet player with whom I was to have many breakfasts!), and we sat a chatted for an hour or so.
Drew had mentioned to me that the Colorado Jazz Orchestra would be rehearsing music by Vince Mendoza on Wednesday evening and I had asked if I would be able to come and observe the rehearsal. He got in touch to say that I could come and sit-in so I had decided to eat dinner at the hotel and head over to the rehearsal at about 5.30pm. Chris Berner decided to join me and we heard the band rehearse the music of Vince Mendoza for the concert on Friday evening. The rehearsal was led by David Caffey (ISJAC board member and Professor of Jazz Studies at UNC) and was a great insight into the music being prepared and the rehearsal techniques of the professionals involved, which included Dana Landry (Director of Jazz Studies, UNC), Paul McKee (Professor of Jazz Trombone, University of Colorado Boulder) and Greg Gisbert (trumpet player with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra).
Following the rehearsal, I joined Drew and his saxophone section colleague Marc Schwartz for a drink at a bar called Tower 56. Drew’s former teacher, Rich DeRosa joined us. He used to play with Gerry Mulligan and was conductor the WDR Big Band for several years. It was a great evening of conversation and laughs, and the perfect way to prepare for the Symposium which would get underway the following morning.
To be continued….