Vanguard Jazz playing here in homage to our Oatts music heritage

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

JEFFERSON, Iowa, April 8, 2015 – When jazz saxophone legend Dick Oatts was here in 2006 to receive his hometown’s highest honor, the “Bell Tower of Fame Award,” he stood on the stage, looked at familiar old buildings around the courthouse square, and then smiled. “Maybe we ought to turn one of those buildings into a place where a bunch of us could sit around at night and play music,” he told the crowd.

Thursday night, April 9, we’re going to come about as close to that as we’ll probably ever get. That’s when Oatts and 15 other jazz superstars in the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra will be performing in concert here.

Most of these musicians have their own bands, and/or have teaching positions in the best music schools – Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, the New England Conservatory and others. But they still get together on Monday nights in New York City to play as the glorified house band at what is acknowledged to be the coolest jazz club in the world, the 80-year-old Village Vanguard on Seventh Avenue in Greenwich Village.

Why on Earth are they playing in the Middle School gymnasium in Jefferson, Iowa?

The real reason is that this is Jack Oatts’ town.

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The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, outside their “home base” in Greenwich Village, New York City.

And who was Jack Oatts?

Short answer: He was the Jefferson High School band instructor from 1966 to 1985, when he retired.  He died in 2008.  He started something very special in Iowa’s high schools, the jazz band programs, and they still thrive today across the state. Those programs have enhanced the music appreciation of thousands of Iowa students who are now adults. They also have produced dozens of good professional performers and teachers – yes, some of them with the last name of Oatts.

Now, let’s have John Mosca begin the fuller explanation of Jack Oatts.

Mosca is the 64-year-old director and lead trombone player of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. He is a native of Long Island, New York, whose grandfather and father ran one of New York City’s most famous restaurants for 50 years, Giovanni’s in Manhattan, across the street from the Friars Club. Mosca grew up with jazz all around him. He was picked early-on to play trombone “because my arms were long enough,” and he has become one of the best jazz trombone players ever. In 1977 in New York, he met the saxophone player Dick Oatts, of Jefferson, Iowa, who had just arrived in the city. Not long after that, Mosca met Dick’s sister Nancy Oatts, who was new in New York, too. John Mosca and Nancy Oatts started dating, and soon Mosca was in Jefferson, talking to Jack Oatts about marrying his daughter. That’s a long set-up for Mosca’s defining description of his father-in-law.

“Jack Oatts had to be the only man in Iowa who was ever happy to have his daughter marrying a jazz musician from New York City,” Mosca said, in a phone interview last week

THE CONCERT. Thursday night’s concert at 7 p.m. is officially called “An Evening with Jefferson’s Oatts family & New York City’s Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.” Local folks, take note – this is going to be one of those events that Greene Countians will be talking about for decades to come.

“Even if there wasn’t the hometown connection of the Oattses, for the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra to be playing in Jefferson or any other Iowa town, that’s huge!” said Abe Goldstein, one of the most knowledgeable jazz fans in Des Moines (and the spiritual leader and accordion player for the Java Jews Klezmer Band).

“Then add in the Oattses, who are an amazing story in music,” Goldstein continued. “It’s cool – New Orleans has the Marsalis family, Jefferson has the Oatts family. You know, I’m trying to think of three generations in any other families in the history of jazz, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any.”

All of the second generation of Oattses are involved in Thursday night’s show. Oldest brother Jim Oatts, 64, of the Des Moines area, a recently-retired music teacher and for 30 years the director of the Des Moines Big Band, will be playing trumpet with the Vanguard; he has played with them many times over the years. Dick Oatts, 62, will be on alto sax, and brother-in-law Mosca will be on trombone and directing. Sue Oatts, 59, who is still performing regularly in jazz clubs in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, will be singing several swing numbers with the Vanguard. And Nancy Oatts, 57, of New York, a graphic artist who designed all the promotional materials for the concert, will be in the audience.

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The tickets, designed by Nancy Oatts, feature Jefferson’s iconic Bell Tower and New York City’s iconic Empire State Building!

Opening the concert will be Greene County High School’s fine jazz choir, the Jazzatonics, now in their fourth year under director Dave Heupel. They’ll be doing a 3-number set they prepared for state vocal jazz championships this week, “Smack Dab in the Middle,” “For All We Know” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” Heupel says adding jazz choir to the school’s music curriculum “has been a lot of fun for the students and for me, too. They might say it allows them to ‘groove’ a little more. We used to do show choir, but I feel this allows the opportunity to teach so many more musical aspects. It’s a much deeper ‘genre,’ might be one way to describe it.”

Also on the bill is another hometown favorite, Tanner Taylor, a 1999 graduate of the local high school and a phenomenal jazz pianist who is another musical protégé of Jack Oatts. Taylor will play a couple of numbers here with a trio also featuring veteran drummer Jim Eklof and bass player Eric Krieger, both of them players in the Des Moines Big Band.

“Jack took me under his wing when I was about 14 years old,” said Taylor, who is 34 now. “Jim Oatts had ‘discovered’ me in about 1994 at a Southwestern Community College jazz camp in Creston, where Jim was a clinician. He mentioned to his father that there was a kid from Jefferson at the camp who could play ‘stride piano.’ The rest, as they say, is history. I took jazz theory lessons from Jack, and he and Dick Oatts made arrangements for me to take lessons via a correspondence course to New York monthly with pianist Garry Dial. I started playing with the Jack Oatts Quartet from 1995 to 1999, and then joined the Des Moines Big Band for a couple years.”

Taylor moved to the Twin Cities in 2001 and started performing regularly with Sue Oatts in jazz clubs there, and that helped him connect with other musicians. He is now living in the Ames area, selling pianos for an Urbandale company but still partners in a non-profit jazz club in Minneapolis called Jazz Central Studios, where there’s live music six nights a week. He is still performing regularly himself, too, most often in the Twin Cities, Des Moines and Kansas City.

Major jazz concerts like this don’t happen easily in Iowa towns of 4,500. This one is a project that the local charitable sorority Beta Tau Delta has worked on for more than a year. It would not be happening at all were it not for the support of three presenting sponsors – Home State Bank, McFarland Clinic and West Central Cooperative – and 20 other financial contributors. All profits will be used for the benefit of local children in need.

You can still get tickets in Jefferson at The Printer’s Box (515-386-2613) or Home State Bank (515-386-2131). Tickets are $30, $20 or $10 each.

DIG WHERE THEY’RE COMIN’ FROM, MAN! Part of the fun of having the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra performing here is understanding the New York City club that, for almost 50 years, has been home base for this band. I’ve never been to the Village Vanguard, but I have now added it to my own “bucket list.”

It was opened in 1935 by a talent promoter Max Gordon. Now, 80 years later, it is still being run by his widow, 92-year-old Lorraine Gordon, with assistance from her daughter. They say Mrs. Gordon is there nearly every night.

What is she like?

“We’re all still scared of her,” John Mosca said, probably only half-kidding. “She’s hot stuff. She’s a real dyed-in-the-wool lefty, Greenwich Village’s own. She’s been great for jazz and for our band, I’ll tell you that. We’re still working from the same, 3-week-long, handshake agreement that we had with Max Gordon when we started playing there. We’ve never had a contract. But we’re there every Monday night. They’ve really kept faith with the band.” And vice-versa, obviously.

Greenwich Village, at least since the 1950s, has been considered one of the hippest parts of the city. It is located south of Central Park and Grand Central Station, north of Wall Street, not far from Chinatown, Little Italy and the Chelsea neighborhood.

“That’s where all the beatniks were in the 1950s,” said Jim Oatts. “When I first saw it about 1979, my memory is that, well, do you remember that music group The Village People? A lot of people in Greenwich Village then resembled them. But I think it’s always been an eclectic neighborhood. Think of any walk of life, and you’ll find it there. And that area has all kinds of restaurants, bars, bookstores and more. I still laugh about a sign I saw in a building next door to the Village Vanguard, a place that I think was selling jewelry. It said, ‘Ear piercing here – with or without pain.’ Your choice, I guess.”

The club has an eye-catching red canopy stretching out across the sidewalk. When you enter, you’re walking down steps into a basement.

Abe Goldstein, the major jazz fan in Des Moines, said “the first time I went to the Village Vanguard, I was probably in my 40s and had been a jazz lover for a long time. I was thinking it’s probably going to be this magical, almost mystical place. Then you get there, you go down in the basement and you are thinking to yourself, ‘This is it?’ ”

Jim Oatts said “you walk down stairs, look to the left and that’s where the stage is. You look to the right, there’s a bar and more seats. It seats maybe 100, or just more. It’s real intimate. Thank goodness there’s no smoking.”

But when the Village Vanguard fills up and the music, poetry or comedy starts, then “you’re awestruck by the history of the place,” said Goldstein. “You’re thrilled just to be there.”

All the greats have played the club, or still do. Jazz legends John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Bill Evans. From other genres Lead Belly, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte. Comedians Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and more. Poets like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs. Many albums have been recorded there, “Live from the Village Vanguard.”

The club has lots of nicknames – “the Camelot of jazz rooms,” the “Carnegie Hall of Cool.”

The Vanguard Jazz Orchestra traces its lineage to 1966 when it was formed by jazz artists Thad Jones and Mel Lewis as “a jazz big band.”

Mosca joined it about 10 years later. Dick Oatts, who started his professional career in the Twin Cities after graduating from Jefferson High School and starting college studies at Drake University, came aboard in 1977. “We’re the old guys in the band now,” Mosca said.

There’s not much turnover. Mosca said the average length of time most players have been in the group “is probably 15 years or more.” He said “it’s the quality of our music that accounts for that. These guys are all good, they love to play with other good musicians, and the quality of our book of music is second to none.”

They are, said Goldstein, “the top players in New York City. You’ve got to be proud that they’re playing in Jefferson.”

THE OATTSES’ STRONG BOND WITH JEFFERSON. So what was it like in Jefferson, from 1966 to 1985, when Jack Oatts built the jazz program here?

It was a perfect match of a prosperous town, a very strong school system and a terrific teacher who also happened to be a genuine jazz artist himself.

Oatts came in with a lot of maturity and experience. After graduating from Radcliffe High School in north central Iowa, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, playing in military bands in England. Constantly around other good musicians, that’s probably where he nurtured his love of jazz, which was a relatively new art form at the time.

Oatts came down with tuberculosis late in the war and ultimately was assigned to Broadlawns Hospital in Des Moines for a recovery period that stretched four long years. From music connections he’d made in the military, he wound up earning some money while in the hospital by arranging music for the Lawrence Welk orchestra and other ensembles.

His life took another significant and happy turn in the hospital when Marcella Tungland, who had been two years behind him in high school at Radcliffe, came to check up on him. She had been a tuberculosis patient, too, after working in the Solar Aircraft factory in Des Moines during the war. They fell in love and married in the fall of 1949.

“They had never connected in high school,” Nancy Oatts recalled in an interview from New York. “Dad was this outgoing, basketball-playing, saxophone-playing senior, and Mom was this shy little sophomore church girl then. If our parents hadn’t both gotten tuberculosis later on, we wouldn’t be around now!”

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Jack Oatts earned degrees from Coe College and Drake. In 1954, he was hired as the instrumental music teacher at Earlham High School just west of Des Moines. Drawing on his military band experience, he soon started the state’s first jazz band program.

But he couldn’t call it that. “Jazz,” which back then was the rage in a lot of bars and clubs in the South and in other urban areas, was just too hot, maybe too black, for some in Iowa in that era. So Oatts’ new musical troupe became the Earlham High School “Stage Band,” which seemed to make everybody happy.

“I think that as long as Dad had a good marching band, he could do whatever he wanted with the rest of the program,” Jim Oatts now says.

Jim did his first year of high school in Earlham, and was a sophomore when his dad accepted the Jefferson High position in 1966.

Sue Oatts recalls her dad “being very excited to come to teach in Jefferson. It was a little bigger community and school, and he thought it would have more opportunities, and it did. Looking back on it, I think we all feel fortunate that Jefferson had a real culture of music, and of course, Dad helped build that. A lot of towns have a culture of sports, and that’s good, too. It’s a little more unusual to find a small town with a music culture as good as Jefferson’s became. It was one of a few small cities throughout the Midwest that was at the forefront with great music programs.”

Bob Schmidt, who came to Jefferson as high school principal in 1967, already knew Jack Oatts and knew he’d be building a strong band program. “When Jack was at Earlham, I was at Irwin out in western Iowa,” Schmidt said. “We had a pretty good band program there, too, and Jack was like a mentor to our music man.”

Schmidt served as principal until 1978, then moved up to be superintendent until his retirement in 1996. He still lives in Jefferson.

“It was quite a deal, a really good program that Jack built,” he said. “He was great to work with. He had high expectations for the students, the kids respected him and there were no discipline problems.

“The only criticism I had of him was that he had trouble remembering time. He’d get the band working on some piece of music, and he’d be so deep into it that when the clock hit 9:30, or whatever time it was when we were supposed to change classes, he’d say, ‘But we’re not done yet – let’s work just a few more minutes!’ I finally told him, ‘Jack, I’m going to have buy you a better watch.’ ”

Jack Oatts built the Jefferson High School Jazz Festival into the envy of jazz educators nationwide. Bands would come from high schools from all over Iowa, occasionally beyond. They would compete during the day, then the top two placers would perform at night, along with the JHS jazz band.

But he took it to a whole new level when he started contracting guest jazz artists – top professionals – to come work with the students during the day, and then to perform with the Jefferson band at night. He used his long-established music contacts to lure major names – Clark Terry, Bud Shank, Urbie Green, Joe Farrell, Bill Chase, Arnie Lawrence and others.

“Those festivals, with the professionals here playing, were great for the kids and real good for the town, too,” said Schmidt. “Everybody got behind them. We’d get big crowds. I remember one year my dad, who was then almost 80, came over from Nebraska to go to our festival. He liked it so much I had a hard time getting him out of the gym when it was over because he wanted to stay and visit with all the musicians.”

Jim Oatts thought back to those jazz festivals and said, “A lot of big things have happened on that gymnasium stage. When Dad hired Clark Terry to come play trumpet with us, it was one of the most influential things in my life. I knew then that I wanted to make music my life.”

Dick Oatts said he was just as inspired as his brother, and in one way has never gotten over it.

“The biggest dream of mine,” he said last week, “is that I’ve always wanted to move back to Jefferson. When I left, I remember thinking, well, I’ll be in New York City for a while but I’ll be back. Somehow that’s become 40 years.

“I’m so happy now to come back to Jefferson and share what we can do. The people there raised us. They taught us so much. We all owe so much to Jefferson.”

Marcella Oatts, who worked in a Jefferson physician’s office, had a lifetime of being the major cheerleader and organizer for all the Oatts musicians. She died in 2011.

The third generation of Oatts musicians includes Dick’s oldest son Sam Oatts, who is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and is now based in Colorado. He plays trumpet, bass and sings, and is a rising star in rock and classical music. Jim Oatts’ triplet sons Chris, Jeff and Eric were fantastic players in the Johnston High School jazz band and other ensembles as they went through high school in the Des Moines suburb. Chris and Jeff are now in Philadelphia. Chris, an alto sax player, studied under Uncle Dick Oatts at Temple University there, and he has now started the “South Philly Big Band.” Eric, a drummer, started his college work at the University of Northern Iowa and intends to finish at Temple; meanwhile he’s playing jazz clubs and bartending at a leading Philadelphia restaurant”Fork.” Meanwhile, Eric, a tenor sax player, graduated from the strong jazz program at the University of Missouri Kansas City, and now has a teaching assistantship at Kansas University. Sue Oatts’ daughter and Dick’s three younger children are pursuing interests other than music.

SO HOW IS JAZZ DOING TODAY? AND WHAT ABOUT IT STIRS THE SOULS OF SO MANY GOOD MUSICIANS? You may remember that earlier in this story, Dave Heupel, director of the high school jazz choir here, said he thinks that jazz is “a much deeper genre” of music than some others. You hear that a lot from good musicians.

But how, I asked, does it seem to play with most young people today?

As Heupel noted, it’s very popular with his jazz choir students.

Becky Greiner, retiring this spring after 26 years as high school band instructor here in Jefferson, said that among her jazz band students, “most like it, several wish that we would do more of it, but several think we already do too much of it. They don’t particularly like the 7 a.m. rehearsals! Some of them enjoy improvisation, and many of them enjoy playing Latin and swing tunes.”

Parker Willis, a senior, is one of the most enthusiastic and involved music students now at Greene County High School. He sings baritone in concert choir and with the Jazzatonics, and he made the All-State Chorus in his junior year. He plays bass guitar in both the concert and jazz bands. He also plays bass guitar with “Green Death,” which he patiently explained to me is a “thrash metal” band of the broader rock genre. And get this: “I play classical guitar in my free time,” he said. “Playing classical music is good for any musician. You learn a lot.”

How does he feel about jazz?

“For me personally, I feel like jazz is the most liberating, most freeing, most from-the-heart genre of music that is possible,” Willis said. “Most musicians, no matter what kind of music they usually play, recognize that about jazz, and they love jazz for that.”

While he’s very into it, “I suppose that most younger people today don’t understand jazz, and they don’t know how to feel about it. They just don’t have enough exposure to it. They’d tell you, ‘Oh, it’s O.K., but mostly for older people.’ That’s not me, though. I cherish jazz. I listen to it daily. If you asked me to name my favorite artists, I’d have a hard time naming just one or two.”

So I asked.

“Miles Davis and Chick Corea, for sure,” he said “But then I also like Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller, Steve Bailey and Stanley Clarke.”

Has it occurred to him that many of the members of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra who will be playing here Thursday have performed with and known those great jazz stars he had just mentioned?

“Oh yeah, and that’s amazing to me,” Willis said. “It’s absolutely fantastic. I couldn’t be more excited about them being here.”

He said he often thinks about how unique and special the Oatts jazz heritage is for Jefferson.

“I often wish the average person understood it more,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s great,’ but they don’t really appreciate how significant it is. But I do!”

Let’s wind up with Dick Oatts, who continues to perform and teach jazz all around the world.

The future of it?

“I think it’s very positive,” he said. “Sure, some say that the jazz scene now is not the way it was, that it’s different. But, you know, it was different in the 1970s than it was in the ’60s. It was different in the ’60s from what it was in the ’50s. It always changes, and that’s good. Each generation of jazz musicians has to rise to the challenge and carry it forward.

“I’m having a great time, I can tell you that. What grabs me and a lot of other people is that with the development of your craftsmanship, you also find new freedom and new awareness. Many of us believe it’s only this music can give you that because it’s very experimental. If you do it right, you never stop learning.”

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

2 thoughts on “Vanguard Jazz playing here in homage to our Oatts music heritage

  1. Thank you so much Chuck, for choosing Parker (Willis) to visit with. I am so proud of him, as I am all of the wonderfully talented students that are here in Greene County. We are so excited for Thursday evening!

    Lisa Willis, Jefferson IA

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