Held from January 5th-8th, the IAJE Conference filled the rooms of the Convention Center, Performing Arts Center, and even the nearby Hyatt and Westin hotels with the sound of music almost non-stop, beginning each day at 8 a.m. and continuing well into the next morning. It was at times a bit overwhelming to navigate, with up to five different performances and any number of seminars going on at the same time to try and choose from. Some of the choices were really difficult: Bud Shank or the Latin Jazz Jam? Red Holloway and Theo Saunders or the Tribute to Jobim? I ended up taking a buffet approach for the most part, catching half of one set, then heading off to catch the end of another, or portions of three if they were lined up close enough together.
One of the really neat things about the performances was that they often featured student bands from various institutions, often with a distinguished guest or guests. These were often quite good. the combo composed of students from two South African colleges played some very exciting standards from their country, under the leadership of professor Darius Brubeck and with the help of guest trumpeter Ron McCurdy. Former Weather Report drummer Peter Erskine played with the Airmen of Note, a big band from the United States Air Force; they were as disciplined as you would imagine, but not stuffy. One of the weekend's best performances came from the group with perhaps the most unwieldy name: The AAJC/HBCU Student All-star Big Band, with the acronyms standing for African American Jazz Caucus (of the IAJE) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, respectively. Saxophonist Cameron Michael Morgan of North Carolina Central University was a real standout, especially impressive considering that he was sharing a stage with the great Oliver Lake.
Like any other scholarly conference, IAJE featured a number of educational workshops and seminars on various (and sometimes arcane) topics. Unlike most conferences, these sometimes really swung; for example, Larry Vuckovich's clinic on various piano styles not only featured a discussion of the techniques of players like Bud Powell and Red Garland, it also included a first hand demonstration of them, and with great drummer (and Powell band vet) Ed Thigpen on hand to boot. A member of the trio The Bad Plus got a couple good jibes in about the conference during their performance late Friday night, commenting that it required a Master's degree just to read the conference schedule. Then, noting that there was a seminar on Ornette Coleman's composition "Peace" scheduled for the next morning at 9:30, he cracked "Isn't that a little to early in the morning to be listening to Ornette Coleman?" and dedicated the band's next piece--by Coleman, naturally--to the poor soul faced with the task of giving that seminar.
During prime time, the IAJE held its big concerts at the Terrace Theater. The first night was highlighted by the presentation of the IAJE President's award to Herbie Hancock in recognition of his work with USC's Thelonious Monk Institute. Herbie graciously accepted the award, then showed why he deserved it by leading a band made up of four USC students through a short set that included "Cantaloupe Island." Also on the bill was the always exciting Poncho Sanchez Latin Jazz Band. The highlight of the second evening's concert was the phenomenal Roy Haynes, with his aptly named group Fountain of Youth: not only are the musicians in his band young, but Haynes seems to have found what Ponce De Leon could not; the soon-to-be 80 year old drummer played with more energy and vigor than most men half his age. Afterward, Diane Schuur played a loose (and often saucy) set at the Convention Center Ballroom. Friday night featured the presentation of the 2005 NEA Jazz Masters Awards (written about in more detail elsewhere on this site) and performances by Geri Allen with James Moody and Chico Hamilton and by the Gerald Wilson Orchestra with Dee Dee Bridgewater, while groups taking the stage the final night included the Yellowjackets.
The rest of the conference pretty much shut down during the evening concerts, but the Westin Hotel across the street booked a pretty good slate of artists each night. This served a nice complimentary function and was a savvy move on the part of the hotel; with the concerts being dry, the bar at the Westin was an attraction anyway, particularly during set changes. By hiring artists like Holloway, Saunder, Luther Hughes, Mike Melvoin and others, it gave everyone a reason to stay a little longer, maybe get a bite. Without naming names, I'll tell you this: the shows at the bar were popular with the musicians. They were good for the general public, too. Along with a couple of performances at the Hyatt Lobby Stage--including a very strong one from Kevin Jones' Tenth World that featured a jam on "Afro Blue" with guest Babatunde Lea--they were the only events that were open without a full conference registration. The Westin used to feature live jazz on a weekly basis; hopefully the success of this event will make them consider bringing that back.
The final word on the weekend went to 2005 Jazz Master Kenny Burrell. The inimitable guitarist closed the 32nd Annual IAJE Conference with a late concert at the intimate Center Theater alongside a group of his fellow Jazz faculty members from UCLA, including pianist Melvoin and the sax heavyweight Herman Riley. Burrell's artistry and skills remain unsurpassed, as he demonstrated on numbers including Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" and Monk's "Rhythm-a-Ning." He took the crowd home--and the Mic--with a version of "Take the A Train" to close the set. And, indeed, I'm sure some people in the crowd had that kind of trip to look forward to. Me, I only live a couple of miles away. Not that I'm gloating--the tables turn next year, when the Conference will be held in New York. I was glad just to enjoy the moment.