Once Again for the First Time
Dr. Ron McCurdy is one of those wonderfully genuine and charismatic souls whose warm smile, enthusiasm for life, and passion for jazz lift spirits wherever he goes. Up to this point, the jazz world has primarily known Ron as one of the nation’s top jazz educators. In addition to being a professor of music at the University of Southern California, Ron currently serves as President of the International Association of Jazz Educators.
Here, however, Ron steps into the limelight as a jazz artist, an impassioned trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer whose artistry, good cheer and comprehensive jazz knowledge make Once Again for the First Time an immensely appealing and substantive date.
For those of us who have listened to or worked with Ron during the past twenty-five years, the accomplishments of Once Again for the First Time come as no great surprise. First, Ron’s playing is informed by his sharing personality. Sometimes, as in “Blackbird,” there’s a tenderness suggesting the caressing embrace of Art Farmer. In lines like “Once Again for the First Time” one hears an edgy assertiveness ala Freddy Hubbard. Regardless of tempo or mood, there’s a palpable joie de vivre bubbling up everywhere, a celebratory approach to making music whose upbeat spirit recalls the beaming radiance of Clark Terry.
Then, there’s Ron’s gorgeous sound. On trumpet, there’s a tonal center that’s bold and brassy, and beautiful. And when he picks up flugelhorn, everything is suffused with an amber glow. One also “hears” the inner workings of an impressive jazz mind, agile and quick. Coupled with an assured technique and an impressive range, Ron’s in-the-moment playing exemplifies what Whitney Balliett was talking about when he described jazz as “the sound of surprise.”
If we are measured in part by the company we keep, Ron deserves high marks for putting together a responsive group of friends who also happen to be among Los Angeles’s top players. Sharing the front line is Jeff Clayton, of Clayton Brothers fame, whose alto saxophone is a perfect foil for Ron’s trumpet and flugelhorn. Piano chores are split between Patrice Rushen and Shelly Berg, whose soloing and comping always fit, and always excite. The drummer is Ron’s cousin, the great Roy McCurdy, whose dossier, a veritable “who’s who of jazz,” includes Sonny Rollins, Cannonball Adderley and Nancy Wilson. Anchoring on bass is Kenny Davis, a Rock-of-Gibraltar who can be heard with Kevin Eubanks each night on “The Jay Leno Tonight Show.”
Although I’ve known Ron since 1977, I had lost track of his writing. Therefore, the power of four original compositions came as a surprise. His insinuating lines reveal a gift for melody and a penchant for bop-based changes that are accessible and sophisticated. From the poignant tribute to his three-year-old daughter, “Madeleine’s Lullaby,” to the sizzling interrogatives of “And Your Point Would Be?,” his songs hit home, emotionally and musically.
Before turning to the session, it’s useful to consider Ron’s background, his roots, his family, his education, his travels, his goals.
Dr. Ron McCurdy
In talking with Ron, one is impressed by his candor, understated authority, and deep commitment to jazz. “I grew up in a small town in Belle Glade, Florida, where my father served as principal at the local high school,” he recalled. “At home I heard everything from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, The Sons of the Pioneers and The Ink Spots to Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. My father was an amateur trumpet player. But he played well enough to excite me about playing the instrument. I also had a band director by the name of Willie Pyfrom who was a tremendous musician and motivator. I used to go to his home and play duets all the time. In fact, he’d have to tell me, ‘Ron, it’s time for you to go home.’ I would have spent all day at his house if he’d let me. Mr. Pyfrom also had a great record collection. It was at his house that I first discovered Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Lee Morgan, and a host of others.”
Like so many aspiring instrumentalists growing up in the 1960s, Ron’s formal playing was largely defined along classical lines. “My high school didn’t have an organized jazz ensemble, so I spent much of my time practicing trumpet concertos, and working out of various technique books. Later, that would serve me well, because when I finally had a chance to play jazz, I could play trumpet. Also, I had a good concept of style because I had heard a lot of jazz. My brother, Peter, and I could sing Ella’s solo on “Lady Be Good” when we were eight. But it wasn’t until college that I played in an actual big band and started to learn tunes. That was in Tallahassee, at Florida A&M University, the same school Cannonball and Nat Adderley attended. Although the school is probably best known for its marching band, there were a number of good music students who were great players. I learned a lot from them.”
Upon graduation from Florida A&M in 1976, Ron headed to the University of Kansas in Lawrence for graduate studies. “I knew just enough about jazz to be dangerous,” Ron recalls. “Then I met Jamey Aebersold who was serving as a guest artist for the Riley, Kansas, Jazz Festival. Jamey said, ‘You’re doing all right. But you need to attend one of my summer jazz camps.’ He was being kind. So, in the summer of 1977, I took his advice. That’s when I met David Baker, who would have the most profound impact on my playing and teaching. During the week, I followed David, Jamey, Dan Hearle, Rufus Reid, Ed Thigpen and the other faculty around the camp and soaked up everything. It was an experience that literally changed my life.”
Indeed, Ron’s stint at the Aebersold camp proved an epiphany. “Prior to that, I had planned on becoming a high school band director who did some professional playing on the side. But, as things turned out, that summer of 1977 proved to be a truly defining moment. When I left Jamey’s camp, I knew that I wanted to be a jazz educator-artist.”
After earning his doctorate at the University of Kansas, Ron stayed on at KU as Director of Jazz Studies where his award-winning groups attained national and international prominence. His growing reputation as one of the country’s top jazz educators led to his appointment as Professor of Music and Chair of African-American Studies at the University of Minnesota. In the mid-1990s, Ron was selected to head the Thelonious Monk Institute, located on the campus of the University of Southern California. “My two-year stint with the Thelonious Monk Institute allowed me to interact closely with several jazz masters. Again, I had a chance to learn by watching great players such as Clark Terry, Barry Harris, Jimmy Heath and Kenny Barron teach and perform. Last year I was able to bring in Terence Blanchard to serve as the Institute’s Artistic Director. What an incredible teacher! I also admire Wynton Marsalis, his compositions and playing, in a similar way.”
Ron describes his 2000-2002 tenure as President of the International of Jazz Educators (IAJE) as “one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I’ve met so many wonderful people all over the world. I’ve traveled to South Africa, just about all parts of Europe, throughout most of the United States, and have plans to visit Japan soon. It’s been heartening to see so many great teachers doing so much for kids. These experiences have been constant reminders that we’re on the right track in terms of jazz education.
“Everything that I’ve seen while serving IAJE affirms what I first experienced when I had a chance to watch people like David Baker teach. They’ve all made and are making positive differences in the lives of young, developing musicians. I, too, have dedicated my life to helping young people develop both in music and in life. This is the gift that Willie Pyfrom and David Baker and many others have passed on to me.”
To this day, Ron maintains an active career as an artist-educator directing all-state jazz ensembles across the United States and Canada. In 1997, he served as Visiting Professor at the Maria-Sklodowska-Curie University in Lublin, Poland. He also serves as a consultant for the Walt Disney Company and the Grammy Foundation of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences, working in the two organizations’ educational outreach programs.
When I asked Ron about the inspiration for the date, he immediately tracked back to the 1977 Jamey Aebersold camp. “The faculty were excellent educators and musicians. In short, they could play. I knew that if I wanted to get to that level, I had to develop my playing skills. So I’ve kept working. Through the years, I’ve played on projects by other artists, but never one of my own. At concerts and master classes, people would ask, ‘Do you have a CD?’ The answer was ‘no.’ I could point to CD’s of my school groups, but nothing of my own. So, with a lot of support from friends, I felt it was time to put this date together.
“Since moving to Los Angeles, I’ve had access to so many great musicians. Patrice Rushen has been my closest musical collaborator in L.A.. We’ve had several chances to perform together, so I knew that she had to be a part of the project. Shelly Berg, who is Chair of the Jazz Department at USC, has also been very encouraging. Jeff Clayton and my cousin Roy McCurdy have been professional musicians in the L.A. for quite some time. Kenny Davis recently moved from New York to L.A. to join Kevin Eubanks’ band for Jay Leno’s ‘Tonight Show.’ I’ve had chances to play with all of these musicians on gigs or at jam sessions. So when we got into the studio, there was a good feeling. They were easy to work with, and consummate professionals. I was amazed at how everybody played such great solos. When there were second takes, they were usually for me! I’m elated to be in such a fertile environment -- Los Angeles and USC are great.”
While the music more than speaks for itself, Ron’s comments offer revealing insights into to his thinking for the date. The title track, “Once Again for the First Time,” speaks to Ron’s return to the classroom as a Professor of Music at USC. “After two years as an administrator and doing very little teaching, getting back to teaching feels fresh. Even though I’ve taught at the college level for nearly fifteen years, it feels like the first time, hence the title!” Opening with a percussive call-to-action by Roy McCurdy, “Once Again for the First Time” is a great, medium-up, four-to-the-bar cooker reminiscent of Horace Silver and Art Blakey. While spotlighting Ron’s nimble bop-nuanced writing and trumpeting, the track also features Jeff Clayton’s swinging alto, Shelly Berg’s sparkling pianistics, and Kenny Davis’s plangent bass.
Tapping another aspect of Ron’s writing persona, “Twin Pines” is a gorgeous waltz that ends with a haunting suspension, an effective device that ups the dramatic ante. Here, Ron sails on flugelhorn, a perfect vehicle for his urgent yet lyrical heart-on-sleeve romanticism. “The tune was inspired by one of the most beautiful places on the planet,” Ron mentioned, “a small community in Northern Minnesota called Twin Pines. It’s an extended AABA jazz waltz with challenging changes.” Yes, they are. But Ron and Patrice Rushen navigate with style and grace.
“I’ve always loved the Beatles, and ‘Blackbird’ is one of my favorite tunes.” Ron notes. “I asked Shelly Berg to do a special arrangement of the tune.” In Shelly’s hands, the indelible John Lennon-Paul McCartney line evokes memories of both the Beatles and the great Cannonball Adderley. Indeed, there are several moments where Ron’s flugelhorn and Jeff’s alto seem to be channeling the Adderley brothers. Along the way, there are moving solos by Shelly and Jeff. Here as elsewhere, Kenny and Roy lock-in with understated but impassioned finesse.
Ron’s poignant ballad, “Madeleine’s Lullaby,” is a show-stopper. “It’s a tribute to my baby princess, Madeleine Greer Buckner-McCurdy,” Ron says proudly. “I gave Patrice very little instruction of what to play up front. I wanted her to picture how peaceful and tranquil a small child asleep is.” Patrice’s lovely rubato intro does precisely that. So, too, does Ron’s eloquent aria on flugelhorn.
“‘Barry’s Tune’ is something that Barry taught the students at the Monk Institute. He said it was something Thelonious used to practice on ‘Sweet Georgia Brown.’ We use it to give Roy McCurdy a little space.” Indeed, the Harris line is a boppish roller-coaster ride with plenty of elbow room for Roy’s inspired brush and stick work. With Jeff switching to flute and Ron picking up a harmon mute, the dynamic horn-drum exchanges mesh perfectly with Shelly’s Powellish prowl and Roy’s sizzling brushes.
Ron is a generous leader. Everyone has ample opportunities to contribute. For “I Told You So,” Ron called on Danny Grissett, one of his students at the Monk Institute, to reharmonize the great George Cables classic. Here, Grissett sets the flugelhorn and alto in harmony over an infectious samba undercurrent. After dashing forays by Jeff and Shelly and a restatement of the head, there’s an extended coda with both McCurdy’s out front.
For those of us who have watched Ron rehearse groups singing out parts to demonstrate a particular phrasing, we’ve known that he possesses a compelling voice. So, I’m delighted that a showcase for Ron’s singing is included here. “When setting up ‘Wee Small Hours,’ Jeff Clayton said, ‘Man, put that horn down and sing.’ That gave me a lot of confidence. Through the years, my friends have encouraged me to sing in public, but I’ve resisted. Well, I guess it’s out there now!” Yes it is. And that’s terrific because there’s something special about a horn player both singing and playing. Like Chet Baker or Clark Terry, Ron proves a convincing story-teller as he traces the venerable David Mann-Bob Hilliard line with an after-hours aura.
“‘And Your Point Would Be?’ was inspired by a friend who was a bottom line kind of person,” Ron says. “She would allow me to ramble on for a while and then say, ‘And Your Point Would Be?’ This tune is a tribute to her beautiful spirit.” A steely strut in the Art Blakey tradition, Ron’s edgy line gets a workout. Along with the leader’s brassy trumpet are Jeff’s plaintive wailings and Patrice’s insistent right-hand runs and left-hand jabs. With Kenny and Roy stoking the fires, it’s a take-no-prisoners proposition from start to finish.
The curtain comes down with the Gershwins’ “Our Love Is Here to Stay.” Ron points out that Dave Grusin inspired the arrangement. Set at a lithe medium tempo, and with Ron using a harmon mute, the track unreels with an uptown jauntiness sparked by Kenny’s majesterial bass, Jeff’s Cannon-ish plaints, and Shelly’s splashy cascades. In Ron’s buoyant permutations, while there’s an echo of Miles’s “cool,” the prevailing weather is sunny and warm ala Clark Terry. It’s a great wrap-up that while making the old new again, also underscores Ron’s improvisational elan.
When I asked Ron about his view of the project and the future, he replied, “the CD gives me an opportunity to document my playing and composing at this moment. It will, I hope, allow me to further establish my credentials as an artist-educator. And I hope that it leads to another session. In fact, I’ve already begun writing material for a new project based on Langston Hughes. Finally, I want Once Again for the First Time to serve as a huge ‘Thank You’ to all the many important people who have touched my life.”
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dr. Ron McCurdy -- jazz trumpeter-flugelhornist and composer extraordinaire!
-- Dr. Chuck Berg, University of Kansas
(Jazz Times; Down Beat; Jazz Educators Journal; Contributor, The
Oxford Companion to Jazz and The Gramophone Guide to CD Jazz;
Voting Member, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences)
This CD project is the culmination of a dream I have had for many years. I would like to thank musicians who gave of themselves so freely. Patrice, Jeff, Roy, Kenny and Shelly were just a pleasure to work with. A huge thank you my producer, David Sears. I have been very fortunate to have many mentors in my life. Thank you to Willie Pyfrom, my high school band director. Thanks also to David Baker, Jamey Aebersold, Willie Thomas, Jerry Coker, and Rufus Reid my former colleagues from the University of Kansas, University of Minnesota and my new colleagues at the University of Southern California. I also wish to thank my family for their support and believing in me. I am grateful to all who have touched my life along life’s journey!