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(Sista Monica Parker)
by BOB DORAN
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GOOD FRIDAY AT LINCOLN Elementary in Eureka, the day before spring
break, and the kids are in for a treat. Instead of one last dose
of reading, writing and arithmetic before vacation, they are
ambling into the school auditorium for an interactive music program,
something called "What is this thing called jazz?"
In a way it's a prelude to Eureka's
annual Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival. Now in its 12th
year, the three-day extravaganza is at its heart a fundraiser,
according to Kelly Sanders, director of Redwood Coast Music Festivals
Inc., the organization that oversees the jazz fest and Blues
by the Bay.
While the lion's share of the
proceeds go to senior programs ($272,000 so far), since 1996
the organization has begun funding and coordinating projects
relating to youth music education.
Don Moehnke serves on the jazz
festival committee. He's also a music educator -- and the man
who conceived "What is this thing called jazz?"
Music educator Don Moehnke plays jazz
with Lincoln Elementary fifth grade students.
Moehnke began his career as
a music teacher in 1958, worked his way through all the elementary
schools in Eureka teaching beginning band, then went to Winship
Junior High when it was first built and taught band, choir and
"Then I was asked to go
to Eureka High School to teach," Moehnke recalled. "I
taught at Eureka High for about 26 years -- band, choir and orchestra,
theory classes, etc. Not long after I got there, around '68 or
'69, we started the first jazz band class."
When Moehnke was growing up,
there was no jazz taught in schools. In fact when his band director,
Louis Weichselfelder heard that he had been jamming with
some jazz musicians, he frowned on the idea, even threatened
to throw young Don out of band.
"He said. `I don't think
you ought to do that. It's not really good for you.' We were
playing Wagner and John Phillip Sousa, straight ahead things.
He told me if I played jazz I shouldn't be in the music building
Moehnke did not give up jazz. And it turned out when his teacher
found out he intended to stick with it, he softened, even to
the point of offering the music building for a practice space
-- as long as they kept it a secret.
"He knew we were excited
about it, that it was important to us, but because of his schooling
he didn't want to be part of it. He was hanging on to what he
thought was important. And I don't fault him for it; I learned
a lot from him."
Moehnke sites Woody Thompson
as another big influence. "He was a jazz player and also
taught at Arcata High School. He played in a big band, one I
joined later in my life. It was called Eddie Clay and His Band
of Today. We played at the Municipal Auditorium. Boy, we packed
"It was what they called
a `tenor band.' It had a full saxophone section with two tenors,
three trumpets, trombone and rhythm. Woody Thompson was the guy
who really ran the band, a great trombone player. All the guys
in the band kind of took care of me. I played third trumpet.
I started taking my first solos in that band. They'd say, `Don,
try it!' I don't know that I did that well."
After Moehnke retired from Eureka
High in 1993, Humboldt State asked him to teach music there part
time. That was nine years ago, and now he claims he really is
going to retire.
"One of my side projects
was a series of jazz clinics funded through the Redwood Coast
Dixieland Festival by Salomon Smith Barney. They've been really
good about helping kids out."
Moehnke led after-school clinics
at area high schools and junior highs.
"We worked on jazz tunes,
on how to ad lib, how to take a chorus. I was looking back on
my own playing and learning how to take a solo was the hardest
thing. When you read music on the page it's all worked out for
you, but when you take a chorus, you have to improvise with your
"When I first started,
I thought I always had to have a totally new idea. As I learned,
I found that jazz people borrow from each other a lot. I wanted
to help kids with that. I'd teach them little ideas they could
repeat and put into their solos if they wanted. It's like learning
a language and learning new words. I had them play one chorus
after another. That way they would lose some of the fright."
Besides supporting the clinics,
Salomon Smith Barney donated money to buy musical instruments
for Eureka City Schools so that students who may not be able
to afford to buy or rent an instrument can use one for free.
When Moehnke saw that this year all of the money from Salomon
Smith Barney was going to instruments, he used funding from elsewhere
for new jazz programs he had in mind.
"The new grant came from
the McLean Foundation. I believe it's the same McLean who owned
the Eel River mill. After having done these clinics I thought
it would be fun to do `What is this thing called jazz?' for the
His intent is threefold: "The
first thing I want to do is have young people understand that
there is something called jazz, that it is a true America art
form. Secondly, I want them to have some idea what it's about,
and how we do what we do. Hopefully, third, this will maybe lead
them to an interest in hearing more -- or better yet playing
jazz themselves some day.
"Jazz is in the roots of
so much music we hear today. It keeps expanding and changing
and evolving, but it has it roots in what happened in New Orleans,
primarily drawing from African and European influences. It's
our own music and I want kids to know at least a little bit about
In their short
program Friday, Moehnke and company swept through jazz history,
breaking down tunes by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles
Davis and Sonny Rollins as object lessons in swing, cool jazz
and Latin influences.
Moehnke says he does the same
sort of thing in his college course on jazz. "History has
to be presented with some sort of excitement to it -- with a
hook, if you will."
After the session at Lincoln,
the school's music teacher, Mike La Bolle, returned with his
students, a small group of fifth graders, all of them new to
music. Some bought along drum sticks; trumpets, flutes, a clarinet
and baritone horns were unpacked.
With Moehnke's band playing
an Ellington tune, "Duke's Place," the students took
turns playing a solo, albeit one that only required one note.
"By the end of the session
I wanted each of them to have played one chorus by themselves,"
said Moehnke. "Playing a solo with a professional group
is something I never got to do at that age. I'm hoping they will
remember the experience."
After spring break and the jazz
festival are over, Moehnke and company will return to the Eureka
school circuit. Before they're done they will play at all seven
elementary schools. A related program will bring trumpet player
Mike Vax as a guest artist with various groups at the jazz fest,
then at jazz clinics in high schools and middle schools around
This weekend Moehnke will be
playing at the jazz festival with his band, Nice `n' Easy, first
on Thursday at OH's Town House for the pre-fest Taste of Main
Street, then at Club West Saturday morning. The band includes
pianist Patty Holbrook and two of the musicians who played with
him at Lincoln. Don's son, Bill Moehnke, is the drummer and Bear
Winkle plays bass.
Bill and Bear are also members
of Humboldt's steady rolling Dixieland combo, the Hall Street
Honkers. Winkle also sits on the jazz festival's band selection
committee with Don.
"Bear is an unsung driving
force for the festival. I'm just amazed at how he's able to set
the schedule, work those bands and make them come together without
too much ill feeling," said Don.
Early in the festival's history,
the selection committee realized that the Dixieland fest had
to evolve to remain viable. While the initial lineup was designed
to attract those who follow the Dixieland circuit, that audience
alone was not enough. To attract more attendance from the local
residents, other types of music were added to the mix.
One of the first "alternative"
acts added, Pieces of Eight, returns this year. The core members
of the swinging R & B combo from Los Angeles played with
the late Joe Liggins in the Honeydrippers, a band named for his
signature tune, one of the first big R & B hits in the mid-'40s.
While Pieces of Eight offer
a less traditional take on jazz, some of the new additions are
not jazz bands at all. Gator Beat from Sonoma mixes Cajun, zydeco
and New Orleans funk to keep people on the dance floor. The Compost
Mountain Boys play steaming bluegrass. The HSU Calypso Band has
a Caribbean steel band sound.
This year's festival also continues
a tradition begun a few years back: a venue aimed at those who
have no interest in Dixieland jazz whatsoever. Aside from the
Sunday hymnals, the Eureka Municipal Auditorium steers clear
of traditional jazz (aka "trad"). The headliners, Sista
Monica and Elvin Bishop, are acts that come to the Dixieland
festival from Redwood Music Festivals' other event, Blues by
While these variations on the
jazz theme have succeeded in drawing a wider demographic from
the local market, there is an unintended side effect. The festival's
band selection committee knows full well that trad jazz fans
can be touchy. Some will not travel to attend a festival if they
don't think there's enough pure Dixieland jazz in the mix.
"The trad people can be
really hardcore," said Moehnke. "Some of them follow
the trad bands all over the country or all over the world. They'll
look at your lineup and say, `Well, they need one more trad band
before it will be any good.' They'll count then say, `They've
got just enough trad; I'm going to go.'"
That's where Winkle's skill
comes in. Study the schedule and you will see that he has programmed
the lineup so that trad aficionados can always find something
they like without having to roam too far. The Eureka Inn and
the Masonic Hall offer programs that are almost exclusively trad.
Then you have the Adorni Center where you could stay all day
for a program ranging from bluegrass and zydeco to swing and
What is this thing called jazz?
WHAT IS THIS THING CALLED JAZZ? We posed
the question to some of the musicians coming to play at the jazz
festival. The most succinct answer came from Jim Ritter, cornet
player and co-leader of Buck Creek, a trad band from Virginia.
For Ritter, the definition boils down to two words: "American
Don Moehnke agrees with Ritter. "Jazz
is American; it's a completely American art form," he said,
"one where each player, either individually or collectively,
is composing. It's real-time composing to a formula combining
African and European forms.
"We use a lot of the chords that come
from Europe, but our rhythms, the call and response, the ways
we shape notes and shape pitches come from Africa."
Dave Ruffner is trombonist, harmonica player,
booking agent, webmaster, business manager and leader of the
Fresno-based Blue Street Jazz Band. He has also been a high school
band director for many years, including 20 years at Fresno High
Ruffner also serves as the youth editor
and columnist for the American Rag, a monthly tabloid that promotes
Dixieland jazz music across America. He leads a Dixieland youth
band of his own, the Raisin Babies Jazz Band, originating out
of Fresno High.
Ruffner explained: "Some old-timers
said that the word `jazz' pertains to sex. It's roots are African
rhythms coupled with European harmonies, so it is a marriage
between the black and white culture. Some say that jazz was spawned
in a place called Congo Square located in New Orleans where the
slaves were allowed to dance the `Bamboula' on Sundays.
"The first jazz musicians such as
Buddy Bolden were black and they drew their repertoire from spirituals,
work songs from slavery times, marching band music, opera and
countless other sources.
"To me true jazz is improvised music;
it's a way for me to communicate my feelings. When I play jazz,
I feel euphoric as I did when I was young playing sports. I see
jazz as a conduit to one's spiritual side and a link to our universal
"I play music because I love to play
music. I receive complete joy from performing and when the performance
is over I always feel a sense of release and fulfillment that
nothing else seems to give me.
"Music can express feelings and thoughts
that are far beyond written descriptions. Since jazz is a creative
music, I think just as a child imitates his father's behavior,
musicians imitate the creative behavior of God when we perform."
Monica & Elvin Bishop
JAZZ FEST HEADLINERS don't really play jazz. Blues guitarist
Elvin Bishop and blues/gospel belter Sista Monica Parker offer
an alternative to Dixieland with shows on Friday and Saturday
night at the Muni featuring the blues.
Bishop grew up in Oklahoma,
but Chicago was the source of most of the music he loved. He
moved there at the tail end of the '50s using a National Merit
Scholarship as a ticket to the University of Chicago campus --
conveniently located on the South Side, "right smack dab
in the middle of the blues scene."
He didn't stick with college.
Instead he studied the blues learning from masters like Otis
Rush and Junior Wells. He found a kindred spirit in another student,
Paul Butterfield, and along with Mark Naftalin, Mike Bloomfield
and Howling Wolf's rhythm section --Sam Lay and bassist Jerome
Arnold --formed the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
The band's take on Chicago music
often morphed blues tunes into jazzy psychedelic rock jams with
dueling guitars. It proved to be a perfect mix for mid-'60s America.
"It was an idea whose time
had come," said Bishop in a call from his home in Marin
County on a spring day he had spent working in his garden. "There
was all this great music laying around, unappreciated by the
white public for many years, and it started creeping in around
the edges. Our band came along and was a vehicle for that to
"We were maybe like the
Johnny Lang or Kenny Wayne Shepard of our time, except that we
were some of the first white people to form a blues band. At
that time and down to the present, the general public finds it
easier to accept the music in a young white package than in an
old black package."
The Butterfield band recorded
three seminal albums before parting ways. Bishop ended up in
the Bay Area with his own band. The Elvin Bishop Band developed
a sound that added a southern country twang to the blues and
recorded several albums. Bishop even had a top-40 hit with the
song, "Fooled Around and Fell in Love."
time went along I just sort of played whatever felt right to
me. There were times like the late '70s to the mid-'80s when
you couldn't get away with much blues. The blues is never going
to be a dominant musical form, but I think it will always be
a strong alternative taste."
Does the music Bishop plays
today have anything to do with jazz?
"Just lightly around the
edges. It has more in common with blues and gospel, maybe even
country, than it does with jazz. It's basically all of the American
roots music just kind of filtered through my personality. I don't
make much of a conscious effort to fit into any particular genre.
I just let 'em come out.
The Lioness of the Blues, Sista
Monica Parker, stole the show at last year's Blues by the Bay
-- and she's poised to do the same thing at the Jazz Fest.
Parker grew up in the Midwest
singing gospel in the choir. When she sang outside of church
it wasn't blues.
"I was never into the blues,"
she said in a phone call from her office in Santa Cruz. "My
background was more R&B, like Gladys Knight, Aretha or Al
Green. But when I relocated to California, everybody was talking
about the blues -- blues this, blues that.
"I was still doing my 9-5
job, but one day I decided I was going to start singing again
-- singing the blues. I started out singing in my bathroom, then
bought a microphone and converted my garage into a little studio.
I hired a band -- that was in 1992 -- and next thing I knew I
had recorded all these records, started a label and traveled
around the world."
Just last week Parker was playing
festivals in Norway and England. She answered follow-up questions
from a London Internet café near Piccadilly Circus. Before
the year is over she will perform concerts in Venezuela, Italy,
France, Holland and in Belgium where she recorded her latest
album, Sista Monica Live in Europe.
Another CD, Gimme That Old
Time Religion was released at the same time.
Why a gospel album? "I
say, `Why not Gospel?' I like to surround myself with the truth.
Gospel and blues music is true music.
"When my tenor sax man
Ken `Big Papa' Baker passed away, I was very saddened by his
passing. I wanted to stop singing for a while. I couldn't hear
my voice without his tenor sax. Danny B., my piano player and
producer, told me that I could not stop. I had to find my voice
again and that is what Kenny would want.
"So I started singing `Amazing
Grace' in my car one day. I started crying, I could hear my voice
coming from my heart. I started feeling better, emotionally and
spiritually. Then I thought perhaps that is what I should do:
sing songs that I grew up on back as a little 7-year-old girl
back in Gary, Ind., and Chicago.
"So I went and listened
to Mahalia Jackson, Mavis Staples, Rev. James Cleveland and other
gospel greats like the Hummingbirds, and recorded some of those
good old time traditional gospel songs.
"It's true music. It's
healing music and good for your soul. I am a vessel. God gave
me this voice as a young girl and I did not discover it until
I was 36. Now I am 45 and this will be my 10th year singing professionally
-- and life is getting better and better. People are embracing
me as an artist and my music as a source."
While she has added gospel to
the mix, she certainly has not left the blues behind -- even
if the blues scene has fallen on some hard times.
"The state of blues and
all music globally is challenging these days," said Parker.
"Even mainstream artists are having a difficult time. However,
the festivals are here to stay. I love festivals like this one
coming up because children will be there; old and new friends
and fans will be there.
"The energy will
be in the room. I am so excited! Can't hardly wait. Blues by
the Bay was so good I want to feel that energy again. Look out
Redwood Coast Dixieland Jazz Festival -- the Sista is coming
to town. :-) "
Jazz Festival Special Events
The 12th Annual Redwood Coast Dixieland
Jazz Festival takes place April 5-7, with performances at seven
venues in Downtown and Old Town Eureka.
- THURSDAY, APRIL 4, Taste of Main Street 5-8 p.m. Big Band Kick-off
Dance at the Adorni Center, 7-10:30 p.m. with music by For
Dancers Only. Tickets $5 with festival all-event badge; $7
- FRIDAY, APRIL 5,
0pening ceremonies, noon Bayshore Mall Cafe Court with music
by the Buck Creek Jazz Band and the Marine Corp Dixieland
- SATURDAY, APRIL 6, free concert at Old Town Gazebo, at 11 a.m.-3
p.m. with the Marine Corps Dixieland Jazz Band and Gator
Beat. Dance contests at the Muni. Registration begins at
1 p.m.; qualifying rounds begin at 2:45; finals at 4:15; winners
announced at 5:15 p.m.
- SUNDAY, APRIL 6,
Morning Hymnals at 9 a.m. Free to all at the Muni; badge holders
only at the Simpson Tent and the Eureka Theater.
DAYTIME PARKING all
weekend at Humboldt Bank Plaza, 2440 6 St., during festival hours.
Free shuttle runs to all venues. Call 445-3378 for more information.
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