Jazz is often referred to as America’s only truly indigenous musical form. Its youth, along with a clear bias bordering at times on disdain, had for a long time prevented jazz from becoming part of the official curriculum at most music schools. This has changed considerably in the past twenty years and, now, even places like Juilliard have active and thriving jazz programs. Move over, dead, white, European composers! – it’s time to share the halls of musical academia and learn to swing! Nowhere is this mix more evident than at the Music Department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Over the years, Jim Ketch, currently Chair of the Department, has developed the jazz studies program into a highly-respected and highly-emulated one. Part of this program is an annual jazz festival during which student ensembles and guest professionals – some of the best-known in the business – display their talents.

Despite being led by Jim Ketch, the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra (NCJRO) is, strictly speaking, not a UNC group. Founded ten years ago by Ketch, tenor sax player Gregg Gelb, and legal counsel and jazz lover Ralph McCaughan, this group has grown to become the premier big band in the state. It is a group that is faithful to the long history of big band music and that plays everything from the dawn of jazz to contemporary charts. Their Christmas concert, often containing selections from the famous Duke Ellington arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” has become a favorite of the holiday season.

The concert presented on Thursday, February 27, in Hill Hall was a celebration of their tenth anniversary. Unfortunately, continuing our string of horrendous weather events, there was a torrential rain that night. Despite that, many hardcore jazz lovers came out, and the hall was at least half full (or half empty, for you pessimists…). The concert was emceed by B.H. Hudson, music director of radio station WNCU (90.7 FM). The NCJRO is comprised of the standard big band configuration: the saxophone section is split up by alto, tenor, and baritone saxes, with several of the players doubling on clarinet and flute; the trumpet section and trombone sections each have four players; and the rhythm section consists of piano, guitar, bass and drums. The evening’s program was greatly enhanced by two excellent features, the first of which encompassed simple but very informative program notes, in which each selection was listed by title, composer, arranger and/or transcriber, and the soloists were named in the order of their solos. The other excellent “feature” was Jim Ketch, who played a dual role as historian/educator and overall leader. He illuminated each selection with background and a description before he counted off and often played outstanding trumpet solos, too.

The evening was broken up into two halves, each containing seven selections. An added bonus was the inclusion of vocalist Kathy Gelb in four of the numbers. The two selections that opened the concert were from the early days of jazz and featured compositions by Fletcher Henderson and Jelly Roll Morton. These gave the audience a good feel for that style, with touches like guitarist Drew Lile playing the banjo. The numerous solos displayed improvisatory skills and style as good as you can find anywhere. Ms. Gelb joined the band for two lovely ballads, “Angel Eyes” and “It Never Entered My Mind.” She is a wonderful stylist with a rich alto voice and great feeling for the lyrics and mood. The second half featured a guest appearance by the legendary trombonist and arranger “Slide” Hampton, playing his composition “Slide’s Derangement.”

There was also a very interesting arrangement of Gershwin’s well-known “I Got Rhythm,” done in a slow blues style. Ms. Gelb delivered this and the depression-era hit “Jeepers Creepers” with great style and swing. After all this superb straight-ahead jazz, played with such enthusiasm and skill, I was a bit disappointed that the evening ended with an uninspiring and banal work by guitarist Pat Metheny. This was an example of a style that favors endless, meandering, rapid scales without any lyrical or harmonic interest. Hopefully this is not something the NCJRO will spend much time with in the future.

It would be hard to top this performance by the NCJRO, but the next evening the featured act of this 2003 Carolina Jazz Festival, Charlie Haden’s Quartet West, appeared in the same venue (Hill Hall). Haden is a bass player and arranger/composer who has been an influential figure since the early 1960s. Known primarily as an avant-garde and experimental player, he formed the rather traditional “Quartet West,” based in Los Angeles, in 1987. Many of their recordings attempt to evoke the feeling of late 40s to early 50s film noir scores. With Alan Broadbent on piano, Ernie Watts on alto sax, Larance Marable on drums and Haden on bass, this is as fine an assemblage of musicians as you can find today. They form a master quartet, one worthy of as much admiration and respect as any of the great string quartets. I came to the concert remembering their 1997 performance at Stewart Theatre on the NC State campus as one of the top five jazz concerts I had ever heard. Unfortunately, the acoustics of Hill Hall and the peculiar setup diminished the enjoyment of this event.

You could tell as you entered the building that this was going to be a special evening and that the presenters, The Carolina Union Performing Arts Series, were doing their best to spiff up the ambience of a venue that has seen better days. The stage reflecting shells were covered in a brownish/burgundy quasi-velvet material, which, despite good intentions, did little to improve the visual or aural experience. The drums were at the front of the stage, surrounded by a six-foot-high plexiglas screen, presumably to shield the other musicians from the sound, but for the sold-out audience this only translated to the drums bouncing off that plastic and becoming the dominant sound in the group. The sound mix was also unbalanced most of the evening to the extent that the piano could be heard well only when Broadbent was soloing; it was also necessary to strain to hear Haden’s bass. Most of the time it sounded like a drum/sax duo with a muffled undercurrent. Despite these problems, it was a thrill to hear playing at such a high level. Great players can often reveal their gifts in just a matter of a few bars and from then on it becomes a constant revelation of their skills. All four musicians displayed this trait, but I was most in awe of Broadbent, whose technique is clearly superb and who goes beyond the usual jazz language in his creative improvisations. There is everything from Bach to Debussy to Rachmaninov to bebop, all in the context of a 1940s song and all created in the moment. He is a remarkable talent.

The concert took place in one uninterrupted session that, I think, wore a lot of people down – along with the very uncomfortable seats. More time balancing the acoustics, stage setup and sound mixing would have gone a long way toward making what was a great concert into a truly memorable one.