Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A friend we'd like to see at the Azteca

American Voices and Gene Aitken: A dream concert

 Gene is an amazing teacher and musician and truly a great humane ambassador. He seems to be all over the planet of late and the chance of finding him nearby is slim to none. I was honored to participate in a Jazz program under Gene Aitken in Oregon. It would be a personal dream to see him at the Azteca Theater coaching a new batch of musicians.

He currently spends most of his time teaching jazz and music education in Asia and the Middle East, and has recently retired as Director of the Conservatory of Music at the National University of Singapore. His activities as a conductor, performer, composer, adventurer, clinician, adjudicator, and producer of educational events have led him to all corners of the globe.
His recent travels to Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq from June through August 2009 brought him to some of the most dangerous places in the world in which to teach music.

Since retiring from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002, he has worked extensively as a conductor and teacher in the Middle East and Asia. In addition to coordinating donations of music and musical instruments from the United States and Asia to musicians in the Middle East, he has conducted some of the top military bands and wind ensembles in Asia and the Middle East including the Peoples' Liberation Army Band of China (Beijing), the Pershmerga Army Band in Kurdistan (Erbil), the Lebanese Army Band (Beirut), the Sulaimaniyah Wind Ensemble (Iraq) and the Nepal Police Academy Band.

American Voices is engaged in cultural diplomacy through jazz, hip hop, country, Broadway, classical and other musical programs with over 80 countries around the world. They bring together out musicians with local traditional musicians and perform gala concerts, recordings from which are presented here. Please browse our videos of live performances in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kazakhstan and beyond!  http://www.americanvoices.org

Dr. Gene Aitken, 
DownBeat Jazz Educator Hall of Fame is just one of Gene's accolades.

Kurdish Jazz in Suleimaniya

Participants in the Unity Youth Performing Arts Academy in Iraq perform a jazz arrangement of a popular Kurdish song under the direction of Dr. Gene Aitken.  They worked together for about 10 days.

Gene Aitken has the most sophisticated musical perception imaginable. He seems to hear every note in every unusual Jazz harmony. Just a quick flash of his eyes in your direction and you know he heard something unusual. If he has to stop the group he can tell you exactly where something unusual happened and what note should have been there. He never assumed the musician was wrong. He might ask what note is listed in the chart, where and please, to play it! Sometimes he would correct the score in favor of they musician's choice, whether intended or accidental.

In Jazz a note is never wrong, at least philosophically. But some certainly sound better than others in a group setting. Every once in a while gene would step the group through a song beat by beat and listen to the harmonic fabric.

One great joy of being in one of Gene's lab bands was the tremendous amount of sight reading. The start of every session put a couple of new charts in front of us play. We had just one chance to get it right. It got the blood pumping and a feeling of victory if we nailed it. Then the chart went away and work began on the current playlist.

There were some unspoken rules known among jazz musicians. One was about making mistakes. To miss a note once was a learning experience. To miss it twice was a cause for questioning looks. To miss it a third time was to risk being replaced.

In the fleeting moment of jazz performance, you are only as good as your last riff and you are never done getting it just right.

I could tell an embarrassing story about how Gene entrusted me with the lead alto spot in a lab band and how I brought the sax soli in two measures early during the command performance of the saxophone-right-of-passage, "Cottonmouth" but it would be too humbling. As a true master at leading musicians Gene gathered the bass and drums with a quick look of eyes and some deft body and arm work to bring everyone into the correct time frame. Gene saved it. Someone made a joke its good "as long as we start and finish on the same note!" Gene didn't have to say anything, it was understood in just a fleeting look and stance. I could do better.

It is so difficult to lead creative people to improve without crushing their delicate creative souls. Thank you Gene for knowing that. Strike one. I went back to the woodshed.

--- Musical note: Duke Ellington composed “Cotton Tail” in 1940 after returning from the band’s European tour. His famous 1940’s band with Jimmy Blanton on bass and Ben Webster on tenor sax recorded it on May 4, 1940. Webster arranged its celebrated saxophone section chorus and played the solo which became a famous standard. Later versions were nicknamed Cottonmouth, describing how the sax section felt when playing this piece. It was said that if you could play this piece, you could play any sax Jazz tune as it contained all the classic rhythms and riffs of modern Jazz. Hear a hot sax section playing this at high tempo and it leaves you breathless.

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