“I just feel like there’s something really special about big bands. There’s something unique, and even for people who are not jazz aficionados or don’t even like jazz, I think people hear a big band or hear about a big band, or they hear a Frank Sinatra tune or something like that – and they think it’s cool. …it’s just an instrument to create all kinds of very new music.” –JC Sanford
When Doug Snapp announced he would “retire” as leader of the JazzMN Orchestra last spring, the JazzMN Board had the unenviable task of replacing its founding Music/Artistic Director–the only leader of the ensemble in its 20-year history. Looking to maintain the band’s audience while also seeking to expand its reach, the Board appointed trombonist, composer, educator and conductor JC Sanford as Snapp’s replacement. Under its new director, JazzMN Orchestra launches a new season, and a new era, at Chanhassan Dinner Theater on October 7. The dates and venue for the 2019-2020 season were committed before Sanford’s appointment, but we can expect some hints of his vision for the future of JazzMN during his first season.
Not a Straight-Ahead Guy!
When he first heard about the opening to lead JazzMN, JC felt that he would not be a good fit, that JazzMN was “very mainstream. I just didn’t think they would be interested in somebody who wasn’t clearly a straight-ahead guy.”
But initially, JC was that straight-ahead guy. “I studied a little bit of arranging while I was at the University of Northern Iowa for my undergraduate work with Bob Washut, who’s a great teacher, and he was pushing me to take some chances. Everything I was doing, he was trying to get me out of a box. At that point in time everything was Count Basie, everything was ‘50s Miles Davis – no ‘60s Miles Davis! It was like Oscar Peterson Trio circa 1962…That’s all I wanted to listen to. And Washut was always telling me, there’s these other things. Drummer Matt Wilson came to UNI and I had a lesson with him, just the two of us… we played totally straight-ahead things together, and then he said ‘let’s read some charts,’ and put up a postcard on my music stand that had a painting on it (maybe a Matisse?). I really didn’t understand what to do, but he just said, ‘Now let’s play.’ So we improvised based on looking at that artwork rather than printed music, and immediately I understood there were a lot of different ways to make music beyond my basic academic understanding. It really opened my mind to other possibilities.”
By the time JC graduated and went off to the New England Conservatory for graduate studies, he was “already kind of bending some rules.” The attraction of NEC was acclaimed composer and arranger Bob Brookmeyer. “We weren’t working specifically on big band things, but he’s a big band guy, and I was getting all the fundamentals from him. ” After completing his doctorate at NEC, JC moved to New York, and with another Brookmeyer student (David Schmacher), started a big band. “It was just a reading band for a while and then we started doing gigs.” And soon JC hired another Brookmeyer protege’, drummer John Hollenback, who in turn, hired JC to conduct his band, “which obviously was a really amazing opportunity. I’m still doing that, three Grammy nominations later.”
JC now was well beyond “straight-ahead” and “more and more people were asking me to do that kind of stuff. I was also part of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop, which is a big band composers workshop started by Bob Brookmeyer many years ago. But most of the time I was there it was run by Jim McNeely. So I was heavily into writing for the big band and also I was the contractor for many years for the reading band. And eventually I started this big band series, Monday night thing, but in Brooklyn because the Brooklyn creative scene was really starting to thrive and most of the people I played with were based in Brooklyn. The series was called Size Matters, always a different band in rotation more or less, but it was always original music, and that went on for 4 ½ years.”
Meanwhile JC also “had my hands in a lot of different things. I got called to conduct a lot of different big bands – did several recordings. The Alice Coltrane Orchestra thing came out of all that stuff. I had a lot of different opportunities that came directly out of the Hollenbeck thing. I became sort of associated with the creative big band scene. It really was part of BMI. I was one of the faces of that BMI workshop.”
Back Home in Minnesota
In 2016, after more than a decade on the New York jazz scene that earned him consistent placements in Downbeat polls for trombone performance and big band arranging, JC and his wife, composer/conductor Asuka Kakitani, moved back to JC’s home town, Northfield. With a young family (including their young daughter), it was time to head back to the Midwest. Notes JC, “We didn’t have jobs. We move here more or less on a whim.” It didn’t take long for them to find their way into the area jazz scene, starting big band reading sessions that became the Twin Cities Composers Workshop, coleading their Inatnas Orchestra [the name comes from a confabulation of their last names], and for JC, leading trios and quartets and lending his trombone to other ensembles, including Chris Bates’ Red 5. And heading back to New York now and then for some ongoing projects.
JC was hardly sitting idle when Doug Snapp announced his retirement from JazzMN. But JazzMN trumpter Elaine Burt suggested that he apply and “just kept bugging me about it. ..she really wanted me to do it, so she had me talk to Pete Mills, who runs the Columbus (OH) Jazz and Arts organization, which is a similar thing. It’s kind of the model. I found out later from Doug that he actually got some grant money to go visit that organization when he started JazzMN. JazzMN is loosely based on that organization. I just started to think more and more about it, and decided I would just put myself out there and not hide anything about who I am…I talked to Maria [Schneider, who had been a JazzMN guest artist recently] and she was super enthusiastic and thought it would be great if I was doing it.” Apparently the JazzMN Board agreed, and by the final concert of the 2018-19 season, announced JC’s appointment.
A Vision for JazzMN
When searching for their new Artistic/Music Director, the JazzMN Board sought someone to help implement a new vision that grew out of focus group discussion a year earlier. That vision included expanding the big band audience and the organization’s commitment to education. How will JC bring JazzMN to a wider audience?
JC notes that “one of the things that Doug said was, ‘Everybody in this state knows who the Minnesota Orchestra is, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. But unless you’re an avid jazz fan, you’ve never heard of JazzMN.'” But JC hopes to change that. “First of all, there’s a strong fan base that’s been established for 20 years, and it’s an expectation that there will be a quality performance. I’m kind of amazed by how Doug [Snapp] has managed to hold this together. It’s not just him, but he’s been the constant and it’s been his vision to do it. I was thinking that it started in 2000 or a little before that, when there was a recession, and this still managed to take off…A lot of things like this died at that time. The band, in terms of personnel, will be mostly the same people. So my biggest thing is that, especially now that we’re at the Chanhassen [Dinner Theater, where JazzMN moved to a year ago], we’re a little bit limited with the audience that is going to come to the show, [not only] the cost factor, but also the environment… There’s a lot of Chanhassen theatergoers who come to [JazzMN] shows now. We lost a lot of the people who were coming to the Hopkins [High School Auditorium] shows, but we’ve replaced them with this new audience. So that being said, we’re only scheduled to play at Chanhassen this year. I want to play at other places. A big goal for me is to play places sometimes that don’t cost us anything, so that it’s easier for people who can’t really afford a jazz concert ticket to hear us more regularly…”
Notes JC, “Of course, the money has to come from somewhere. We’re dealing with a budget and stuff like that [this season] and we’ll just see what happens. I’m doing my part to not scare people away – the loyal people. I’m not feeling like I’m compromising anything to do that. This first concert theme is very mainstream – ‘Gershwin, Basie and More.’ I’m going to have some other ‘more’ things, but mostly it’s that, and I love that music. I found some charts that are different takes on both Basie and composer Gershwin.”
“I feel like a big part of my role is also expanding the listeners’ palettes based on things that they have some familiarity with. That last show that Doug did that I happened to play on [April 2019], I was pleasantly surprised by what the program was like. Again, I had a perception of what JazzMN was, not based on my own experience [but] mostly on what people said about it. I [thought] that was a very modern show. They took a poll from patrons about what charts over the last 20 years they liked and wanted to [hear again]…”
There is some perception that JazzMN is a pretty conservative organization in terms of band repertoire, but JC notes that “Doug doesn’t want it to be that way, and I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it could be that [the JazzMN Board] needed it to be [traditional] because this is who comes to our shows … But they said to me right away, ‘We are not artistically restricting you in any way.'” One of JC’s ideas to expand the JazzMN repertoire includes a commission process, starting with the Inatnas Orchestra. “This year we’re going to have one concert in May or June or something like that, with judges involved in that show, and they’re going to pick the best piece –and then whoever is the composer of that winning piece is going to be commissioned by JazzMN, and we’ll premiere that piece in the next season.”
“I want to [perform at] other venues in general, where I don’t feel any restrictions about what kind of repertoire we can do. ..I’ve got some big ideas about certain kinds of guest artists I want to bring in next season. It’s going to cost a lot of money and we have to figure out how to pay for it, and we have to figure out where we can do it…not necessarily bigger than Chanhassen…But we need a place that’s going to be at least that size, other venues and other financial situations where it feels like we just do whatever we want. The board is totally open-minded.”
JazzMN and Education
One of the areas that the JazzMN Board wants to expand is the educational component, and this is an area of great interested to JC. “We now have established an education committee, we’re going to try and meet for the first time in the next couple of weeks, so I’m interested to hear what people say. One thing [I want to do] is at least once a year I want to have a high school guest soloist to play on a concert – probably like one piece, on the concert with Luciana Souza [spring 2020]. It’s very much in the front of my mind, right from when we moved here, the diversity thing, and that’s ethnic and gender, and so I would like having a female guest artist and then having a female high school student. One of the biggest things I said right after I [was hired] was to re-establish the Winter Jazz Blast that went away when McNally Smith [College of Music] went away.”
JC sees the education component of JazzMN as critical to building the audience for big band music as well as building a strong cadre of big band musicians. “The level of the high school jazz players in this state is pretty impressive. Most of them go away and don’t come back. I want to be part of building a community here where those guys want to stay. It’s like why would I need to go when I’m getting all the satisfaction here?” And if we maintain a core of musicians, will we get the audience for them? “I think the more that jazz is part of the curriculum and the more visible it is in these curricula, I think we’re not that far from it being a cool thing.”
The New Season
The three-concert season for 2019-20 features three vocalists as guest artists, starting with Debbie Duncan on October 7 (Gershwin and Basie and More), Yolande Bruce on December 16 (“Let it Swing: JazzMN Plays the Holidays”), and acclaimed Brazilian singer Luciana Souza on April 20.
Regarding the opening concert with “Minnesota’s First Lady of Song” Debbie Duncan, JC notes that “Debbie’s going to sing like three tunes – one of my arrangements, actually, of ‘Summertime.’ She’s going to scat a little bit on that. It’s going to be fun…I wanted somebody who could [scat] on this first show. We’re also playing compositions and arrangements by Billy Byers, Frank Foster, Ernie Wilkins, Benny Carter, Nelson Riddle, Quincy Jones, Shorty Rogers, Thad Jones, Jim McNeely, and Asuka Kakitani.
And then Yolanda Bruce is going to sing with us for the holiday show. I started looking at repertoire and actually it’s going to be fun for me. It’ll be fun because there’s some really cool charts out there. Actually a Hanukkah piece by an actual Israeli [composer], not arranged by some factory arranger for Hal Leonard or something.”
Of the spring concert with Luciana Souza, JC notes that “JazzMN always has a vocalist [on the program], but let’s have her be the feature, just like having a feature instrumentalist… It’s going to be an amazing concert. I’ve been talking to Luciana. The only problem now is which charts [to include]… that are amazing, that have been arranged by all of my favorite arrangers….I put all of my efforts into this one artist this first year…She’s got a lot of different kind of appeal. She just sang with the Minnesota Orchestra earlier [in August]. There are some cultural things, we’re going to definitely do some traditional Brazilian music and some things that are not, and that she also just really thrives in…[and] she is going to do at least a Q&A or something like that; maybe some kind of workshop. So that’s going to be cool. I want to have people like that who are super exciting and that some people have heard of and maybe other people haven’t, and be like, wow.”
And always his mission to expand the audience, expand awareness, to grow JazzMN. “I don’t want to just keep it going. I don’t think they [JazzMN] wanted to hire somebody who just wanted to keep it going…I really want to expand it. I do want to make it available to the people that used to go but now it’s at Chanhassen. I want those people, and people who can’t afford a ticket to that show. I want those people, too… Terry (Board President Terry Jaffoni] has talked about it. She’s talking about trying to increase the umbrella of JazzMN. It shouldn’t just be this one band. We’re already talking about having smaller offshoots of the band – smaller groups and stuff like that. But how many things can we fit under that umbrella? ”
JC Sanford already has a long history of fitting a lot of ideas and projects under his umbrella. And we’ll get a taste of that umbrella when the JazzMN Orchestra opens a new era, and a new season, on October 7.
The JazzMN Orchestra opens its new season on October 7, 5:30 pm, at Chanhassen Dinner Theaters. Information about concerts, tickets and more at the JazzMN website, www.jazzmn.org. Keep up with JC Sanford’s other activities at www.jcsanford.com