For 10 years, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee has played host to the annual Wood Herman Jazz Festival. The Peck School of the Arts’ own Curt Hanrahan, who also heads the university’s Jazz Studies program, directs the combos, ensembles and orchestras in that Jazz program. He is also the co-founder of the Lakeshore Conservatory of Music in Racine, Wisconsin.
In February of this year, Hanrahan released Welcome to Swingsville, an album by the Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra on Greg Pasenko’s Blujazz label. That album was a part of the celebration in the 10th Annual Woody Herman Jazz Festival held on March 10-11, 2017, with most of the songs from the album performed live by the MJO.
Friday, March 10, was a day dedicated to clinics, workshops, and master classes featuring the musical directors as well as featured soloist, trumpeter Roger Ingram.
Ingram has recorded with such great big bands as the Quincy Jones Big Band, the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, and especially the Woody Herman Orchestra, making him a significant feature of this event.
The festival and the CD Welcome to Swingsville was a bit of a family affair with Curt Hanrahan composing two of the pieces, his son Tim Hanrahan on bass, and Curt’s brother, Warren Hanrahan, on drums. All three have Jazz in their very DNA. It is unmistakable.
“The last time we played together—all three of us—was at my wedding 12 years ago, so this is special,” said Warren.
The Saturday performances were held at the Helene Zelazo Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee with Roger Ingram sitting in on four of the performing groups.
The evening opened with the UW-Milwaukee (UWM) Youth Jazz Combo—affectionately called YouJay—kicking off with John Coltrane’s Blue Train. The combo was made up of high school students who regularly participate in UWM’s Jazz programs.
It was only one piece but it set a great tone for what was to follow.
Coming quickly on their heels was the UW-M Jazz Lab Combo who took two traditional pieces--When the Saints Go Marching In and St. James Infirmary Blues—and showcased some brilliant young musicians like Clay Steiner and Julia Lewandowski, both on tenor sax, and Kobe Sampson-Davis on trumpet, all under the direction of Curt Hanrahan.
Guest soloist Roger Ingram made his first appearance of the night with the UW-M Youth Jazz Ensemble, a larger group, also comprised of high school students. The stand-out piece in their three-song mini-set was Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere from West Side Story.
“This was where I learned about Minor Seventh intervals,” said Ingram. “I always loved this arrangement by Bill Chase on Woody Herman’s album.” It was a fine reminder of the great contribution that Bill Chase made to the Woody Herman experience and an excellent example of what had influenced Roger Ingram, as well.
The Jazz Lab Combo would return for two more pieces, both arranged by Curt Hanrahan. Without any intent by Hanrahan himself, the evening took shape as a tribute and showcase for the outgoing director of the university’s Jazz Studies. He directed three of the groups and arranged or composed some of the most memorable pieces of the night.
In addition, when Curt Hanrahan took his turns at soloing, you began to wonder who the true featured soloist really was. Those solos came after the intermission, when the professionals took over from the students.
The Milwaukee Jazz Orchestra, celebrating the release of the Welcome to Swingsville CD, performed all but two of the tracks from the album while adding a couple more to the set-list.
It opened with Juan Tizol’s Caravan. Few pieces are more recognizable but the MJO took ownership of the great piece on this Saturday night. Drummer Warren Hanrahan thundered and rolled just the way we like it. Built like an inside lineman, when Warren hits the crash cymbal, it crashes. He carried the relentless rhythms brilliantly.
Guitarist Steve Lewandowski’s Jocko (The Monkey) followed after with a fine flash of guitar virtuosity and flavor. Lewandowski never disappoints and his own composition was a grand addition to the album and the concert.
Curt Hanrahan’s Imp came next. The title is a description of the piece itself. “This is a little devil, tough to play,” said Curt. In his sax solo, Curt played like he was possessed by a more major devil.
Seattle, another Curt composition, proved just what a Wisconsinite Curt really is. I thought it was a description of driving through the “Emerald City” but Curt came clean on the inspiration for the piece.
“It was when the Packers lost to Seattle and that ‘Fail, Mary’ pass,” Curt confessed. Steve Lewandowski’s guitar solo was soulful and powerful. The piece came together beautifully in a grand concert recreation of what was so extraordinary on the album.
Tim Garling’s Then One Day I Had the Blues set the stage for the Rodgers and Hart standard, My Funny Valentine. It was the Don Rader arrangement, as recorded by Bill Chase with Woody Herman’s Orchestra. Roger Ingram, a veteran of Woody Herman’s Orchestra, proved again why he was the featured guest with his exquisite tonality and tender delivery.
Frank Loesser’s Brotherhood of Man was another standout on the album and delivered flawlessly in the live performance.
But a fine surprise came with the MJO rendition of Carole King’s Jazzman. As much as everyone loves Carole King, the distinct feeling was that this group was referring to Curt Hanrahan himself. As far as the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is concerned, he is the Jazzman. And they delivered it in just that way.
The final piece of the night saw all the musicians from all of the groups joining together onstage for Billy Strayhorn’s magnum opus, Take the “A” Train. It was 44 inspired and inspiring artists in Big Band piece to surpass all Big Band pieces.
It was a celebration of music education. It was a triumph of a musical family. It was the declaration that Jazz in Wisconsin should be heard and should definitely be taken seriously.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl