ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Jazz Time
(Sista Monica Parker)


Main Story | What is this thing called jazz? | Sista Monica & Elvin Bishop

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IT'S 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 strings.

"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 any more."

Of course, 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 them in.

"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 own ideas.

"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 elementary schools."

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 it."

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 the county.

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 the Bay.

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 trad.

 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 music."

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 School.

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 collective selves.

"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."


Sista Monica & Elvin Bishop

[up-close photo of Sista Monica singing]THE 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 happen.

"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."

[photo of Elvin Bishop playing guitar]"As 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 without.
  • FRIDAY, APRIL 5, 0pening ceremonies, noon Bayshore Mall Cafe Court with music by the Buck Creek Jazz Band and the Marine Corp Dixieland Band.
  • 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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