Part of any musician's education is learning how to live on the road, but the 19 members of the Clark College Jazz Orchestra have been practicing in particularly high style. On Wednesday, they performed at New York's Avery Fisher Hall with Dizzy Gillespie and Sarah Vaughan as part of the Kool Jazz Festival, then got on a bus to Washington for a quick fund-raising concert at the University of the District of Columbia. Next week, they'll head for Europe and the other two major international festivals in Nice and Montreux. They are the first American college orchestra to be invited to all three festivals in the same year.
As the young musicians checked into the Howard Inn late Thursday afternoon, director James Patterson observed his charges proudly. This is no flashy funk-and-fusion unit, he points out. "It's a pure concept. I feel that the younger guys get all the funk, the fusion, the rock, 24 hours a day on the radio. What we play is unadulterated jazz." The Clark students have created a company that plays acoustic jazz, from '20s Chick Webb to '40s Gillespie and Mary Lou Williams to newer charts by Jimmy Owens and Charles Tolliver. All have had teaching connections with the predominantly black Atlanta institution; Williams gave her last concert there shortly before her death.
The Webb connection is not only the oldest, but also the strongest, Patterson points out. "As a student, Wayman Carver organized a 1924 group called the Collegians; after graduation he went to New York and became Chick Webb's chief arranger." The Webb unit was one of the great bands of the day, featuring Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Benny Carter and others. Carver, who pioneered the use of flute in jazz, stayed with Webb until 1942 and then came back to Clark as a teacher and band director (he died in 1967). Among his students--Duke Pearson, George Adams, Marion Brown and Patterson, who has performed professionally as both a jazz and classical player.
"The educational thing is a lot more formalized now," Patterson says, remembering a time when there were no courses in jazz theory and improvisation. "You have to learn it by listening to records, transcribing, imitating. But the environment was there." He had come up when jazz, big band in particular, ruled the airwaves; now, Patterson finds himself having to wean his young players from all-encompassing funk and rock. "Commercialism has numbed young minds to the point that young blacks are not concerned about the intellectual or heritage aspects of jazz, but only with the social, party time aspects of pop music."
So Patterson is taking 19 giant steps, putting them through stylistically familiar paces, but with the goal of reviving or at least sustaining the magnificent heritage of America's black classical music. "It's a lot of fun for the kids, and a lot of work for me." He gives the impression he wouldn't want it any other way.