IN the five years since he joined the faculty at the University of Maryland, George Ross has worked hard to increase the quality and quantity of the jazz studies he coordinates.
Besides teaching several courses and performing or lecturing on the road, Ross has expanded the school's fine Jazz Ensemble and started a new feeder Jazz Lab group. It's little wonder that it's taken him so long to get around to recording his first solo album. Titled "Dedications" and released last month on his own Rossnian label, it's already getting air play in the Washington area, Chicago and his home town Richmond.
Ross describes the album as "an Andrew White-type project." White, a brilliant and eclectic Washington musician, has created a virtual one-man industry with more than 50 self-produced albums and dozens of books of transcriptions.
"He's one of the guys that inspired me," Ross said. "I kind of envy and admire Andrew and Rick Henderson Ross' part-time predecessor at Maryland . They both do their own thing. It's the hard way to do it but it's the American way, the dream."
Last year, Ross received a University of Maryland book-writing grant, enabling him to realize his life-long dream of writing a history of Richmond jazz including the years 1920 to 1980. "I'd been wanting to do it since high school," Ross said. "I started playing there professionally at 15 with some of the top musicians of that time--some of them were playing with Lionel Hampton and the other traveling or territorial bands--and they encouraged me greatly. My first teacher was a guy named Jay Peters, a fantastic saxophonist with Hampton."
Ross, who recieved his doctorate from the Eastman School of Music (he's also an outstanding bassoonist), said Richmond's active jazz scene, particularly in the black community, "always had some sort of club or social club atmosphere that managed to survive all kinds of economic situations. There was a stylish club called the Market Inn that was comparable to anything I've seen up here. It was owned by a black proprietor who, during the '50s, booked people like Jimmy Smith and Bill Doggett. That was quite a feat during that time."
The adventurous yet commercial approach of those players is reflected in Ross' own virile saxophone playing. "I learned that from Bill Littlejohn, a bassist who played with Fletcher Henderson. He used to tell me to play music so that people could dance to it or tap their feet by it. He taught me a lot about the business of music: to make the music accessible, to let people recognize a melody, to use a pretty sound. I always try to have a pretty sound or tone and a good beat, and to hire the kind of musicians who can enhance what I'm trying to say."
Ross' practical approach is reflected on his record. "The first two numbers are tunes that kids today--and even people who don't like 'jazz'--can like because you can dance to them. They have a little bit of preaching melody, it sounds like something you might hear on a jukebox."
There's also some "modal stuff like McCoy Tyner" and some Archie Shepp-style free playing. "But the rhythm section is playing the good time and I'm doing a lot of so-called 'innovative' things, but in a tactful way. We play within the realm of sanity rather than, 'hey man, this is the time to let it all hang out,' or something."
The album's accessibility is definitely necessary, but not necessarily definitive. "To get an audience for a first album, I've got to go that way," Ross said. "If I had a 'name' like some guys, I could really do some other things that I have in the back of my mind. But that first step, it's like a kid learning to walk: you get in the middle."
Ross' experience in clubs gives a certain weight to his lectures on that end of the music life. "I tell 'em, 'when you get out there to play, you're dealing with club owners who sometimes don't know anything about music. All they want is to serve the drinks and you better draw a crowd.' I tell 'em the truth about the business of music--getting to a gig on time, putting on a suit, looking professional and sounding professional. They should look healthy, sound healthy and be burnin'."
For hands-on, or ear-on, concert experience, Ross has brought in some of the musicians he knows or has played with, including tenor saxophonists Clifford Jordan and Archie Shepp and bassist Ron Carter. Ross integrates those players into the Jazz Ensemble by arranging some of their music. "They rehearse with the band, sit right there and play it so the kids can interact. Then they get to really feel the guest stars' presence and play with them."
Next year, he hopes to record the Jazz Ensemble. "We'll be ready then. I know how I want it to sound--a bebop kind of a band that swings, can play Duke Ellington through Rob McConnell, Woody Herman charts, Charlie Parker tunes for big bands. I want to teach the kids how to play all the changes as well as how to play freaky. It's all very important."
The Maryland program, Ross said, suffers only from not having enough money to attract scholarship students.
"On the other hand," he said, "I've got a lot of students who don't want to major in music but love it. I seek them out to participate in the band. I've got one engineering major, Mike Gannon . . . the boy sounds like Charlie Parker. The guy can play anything."