J06: The jazz ambassadors

Every other year for the past 20 years students in the jazz ensembles at WPI have been traveling abroad sounding the world on America’s music. The troupes are led by jazz studies director Rich Falco, founder of the program who, in addition to teaching classes at the college, conducts the large stage band and small ensembles. The first sojourn across the pond was in 1988 and I was fortunate enough to be invited to go as a special guest, performing on both blues harp and chromatic harmonica. We toured France, Luxemborg and Belgium. The highlight for me was our performance at university in Caen. It was recorded by France’s version of National Public Radio and written up in the local newspaper. I had heard about how Europeans love jazz, but witnessing their admiration in the way of signing autographs for a half hour after the show was a “pinch-me-I-can’t-believe-I’m-awake-experience.” If that wasn’t to beat all, we were then invited back to the mayor’s palace. He wanted to personally thank us for what our fathers had done in the liberation of France during WWII. One can only be humbled by this kind of experience. I carry it with me as one of my fondest memories to this day.

Since that time, Falco and the bands have globe trotted throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Russia and elsewhere. This year, March 3-10, they traveled to Prague in the Czech Republic and Budapest, Hungary to perform in a cultural center, jazz club, concert venue and best of all in a boat floating down the Danube. “Midnight on the Danube. It doesn’t get much better than that,” Falco says.

The gig wasn’t on the itinerary. It was the inspired notion of the gentleman who booked them to play in a downtown jazz club in Budapest called Gödör Klub.

Falco picks up the story from here: “This was a hardcore jazz club. After our performance, the impresario, Lazlo Irinyi – of the whole country in fact — was just overwhelmed with the quality of the music. He wasn’t expecting that at all from a college ensemble – sight unseen. ‘His whole reputation was at stake,’ as he often said throughout the tour. He was so knocked out.

“Anyway, he had another foreign tour, a group of Japanese students from Kyoto. There were over 100 of these kids in an orchestra. These are all college age students. That particular group rented a boat to go down the Danube River at midnight following their last concert. When the impresario heard us perform in the jazz club, he had a brainstorm – maybe these Japanese students would enjoy hearing American jazz. That’s the second largest market for jazz outside the United States.

“Being orchestra players anyway, maybe they would like to see American musicians. So we surprised them. Right at midnight, the students got off their bus. We were already set up with our jazz ensemble and to the last kid who came on to the boat there was a smile from ear to ear as we played jazz when they walked onto the boat.”

Falco says that the group featured with the small jazz ensemble, who performed “primarily the more mainstream jazz from Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Bobby Watson, Ron McClure, James Williams. We played some Real Book tunes as well.”

As many local fans know, Prof. Falco is also an acclaimed jazz guitarist. When he travels with his students he is their conductor and rarely plays. This time he did.

“Some of my students were so taken with the beauty of the city at night, that I asked if some of them wanted to take a little break and walk around the ship. They did. So I took over, played a little guitar and bass. The boat was glass. You just look out the window and see the whole city lit up at night. We had a fabulous time.”

When asked if he feels like American ambassador of jazz when he travels overseas, Falco says, “Absolutely. In fact, not so much this time but in almost all previous tours we are invited to either participate with local ensembles in a concert or go literally to a music school or conservatory, as was the case in other Eastern European countries, we had the opportunity to lecture and demonstrate jazz music.

“There’s a great deal of interest in how this actually developed and then how we actually execute it. So the questions are really pointed and the students tend to be really with it in these music schools. They have an interest in interacting with our students as well. So normally that includes a Q&A after my lecture, a performance, followed by a Q&A and then just a hang. They usually have a reception. Students just want to get together and mix.

When asked if there is anything that he says to his students in terms of trying to get them ready to be fellow jazz ambassadors, Falco says, “The first thing I tell them is: We are going there to make the best music we can. That’s the most important thing. Having fun, touring, all of that, of course it’s important, but secondary to our real mission, which is going there as American music ambassadors. That’s really important to me, especially because our portion of the program involves jazz, which is uniquely American music.

“With that in mind we want to present the music in the best possible light. We want to come off as professional as possible. I do have this attitude towards my students. They are always treated like young professionals. That’s just the attitude. Each person has the responsibility of producing the best music imaginable.

Asked if he is ready for the next trip, Falco says, “Yes. It will be in two years. There are a number of options. I’d very much like to bring the Duke Ellington Sacred Concerts and/or the Paul Winter Missa Gaia to Puerto Rico. I think it would be really fun to get a number of college choirs together with the big band. Then the smaller ensemble to do the Earth Mass of Paul Winter.

“I would love to return to Italy. All the students thought that was a fabulous tour. One of the most unique tours was in Egypt. That was incredible. Probably for this reason: There was absolutely no orientation towards Western music, even in the city of Cairo, which is the capital city. You would think it to be more cosmopolitan but it is certainly not the case at all.

“The tour person who was with us, our guide, a fairly educated guy, spoke many languages. I remember after one performance, he said, ‘I really understand where jazz is coming from– it’s just the most amazing music. I understand it because you play a theme then you do variation on the theme and each person has a chance to express themselves. That’s kind of what we are doing in our music in Egypt. That other music — that European music, that’s some weird shit.’ That killed me.”

For more on WPI jazz see: www.techjazzgroup.com

Pick clip of the week: Judy Alpert

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