Posted on 2 July, 2013
in Around The Horn, Musical Activities
THE “HANG AT TOM BECKER’S HOUSE
When traveling, I frequently brag about the jazz scene in Central Illinois that I have been a part of for some time now. Many folks from Illinois think that you have to go to Chicago, St. Louis or elsewhere to be part of a healthy environment, conducive to artistic growth. However, if you live in Central Illinois, and are willing to commute 30-60 miles in just about any direction, you may just discover that this region is blessed with world class jazz musicians, enthusiasts and venues
who are willing to showcase the American art form.
Case in point – Champaign-Urbana, IL is currently home to one of the best jazz schools (graduate and undergraduate) in the country. Its faculty, led by saxophonist Chip McNeil consists of some of the world’s most accomplished instrumentalists and recording artists. Among them are Chip Stephens, Tito Carillo, Jim Pugh, Joel Spencer, Glenn Wilson, Larry Gray and of course, Chip McNeil. The students come from all over the country to study with these geniuses. This creates an amazing environment in the C-U community, that unfortunately not too many people outside of the jazz circles are aware of. In Bloomington-Normal, IL there is Tom Marko (director of jazz at Illinois State University), Vibraphonist, and percussionist, Kevin Hart, Bill Schlipf, the singer, pianist and flautist Carl Bopp, Michael Carlson as well as yours truly. Bloomington-Normal is also the hometown of pianist, John Campbell, and the young saxophonist who is currently making a name for himself in NYC, Adam Larson. In Peoria, IL there is trumpeter and jazz studies professor, Todd Kelly, there’s Tim Brickner, Cory Flanigan, Larry Harms, Randy Emmert and John Dann. In Galesburg, IL there is the great trumpeter, Dave Hoffman who played with Ray Charles for 15 years, as well as bassist, Andy Crawford who both teach at Knox College. In Charleston, IL there is Sam Fagaly, Paul Johnston, J.B. Faires, and Jay Ferguson. Not to mention a great little jazz studies program of which I was a part of from 2000-2005 (directed by Fagaly). In Macomb, IL there is the pianist, Michael Stryker, bassist Matt Hughes and guitarist George Turner, all of whom teach at Western Illinois University. In Springfield, IL there is Ahmed Benbayla (who also happens to be an artistic administrator for the Chicago Jazz Orchestra), Frank Parker, Johnny Owens, Mark McNight, Sam Crain as well as Matt Schwartz, who from 2010-2011 bravely funded and ran Remy’s Jazz Club, a block away from the Capitol Building in Springfield, IL. During that year, Matt employed virtually all of the musicians mentioned above. In fact, if it wasn’t for Matt, and Ahmed Benbayla, who later took over the booking side of things at Remy’s, I would have likely would have lost my house. For that year alone, Remy’s has provided a lifetime of memories for many of us.
Am I forgetting anyone? You bet your ass I am. In Champaign, IL there is the great (and I am not using that word lightly here) Donnie Heitler, the blind pianist living in Champaign who has inspired countless young jazz musicians and knows virtually every tune there is, and can play them in any key with a hundred harmonic variations. There’s also the trumpeter, Jeff Helgesen (also in Champaign), who played in Ray Charles’ band for several years and has been part of the Central Illinois scene for well over a decade now. I must also mention the bassist, Ben Taylor, who I’ve played with off and on, over the last sixteen years. Ben has been a dear friend and mentor in many ways to me. There are a countless number of other students and freelance musicians working regularly throughout the area and interestingly, some making a living just by playing music. And, the scene is growing.
I’ll admit that as of late, I have taken this little gem of a jazz scene in Central Illinois for granted. You know how it is sometimes – the grass is always greener . . . However, this past Sunday (June 30th, 2013), served as a wake-up call.
A couple of weeks ago I met Tom Becker after a gig in Bloomington, IL. As we introduced ourselves and talked a bit, he invited me over to his house (Bloomington, IL) on Sunday, June 30th to meet the great jazz pianist, Kenny Drew Jr., who would be staying with Tom for several days. Having listened to several of Drew’s albums, but never having the chance to hear him live, I quickly accepted the invitation. Tom and I communicated briefly via email prior to his gathering, and he graciously insisted that I did not need to bring anything. Just myself. At this point, I was unsure as to whom would be there as well as what kind of environment it would be. After talking my lovely wife into making a batch of her amazing chocolate-chip cookies (and trust me, these are no ordinary cookies), I drove approximately 2 miles from my door to Tom’s, and was greeted by Kenny Drew Jr. himself. He just opened the door, let me in, and introduced himself. Very cool.
Prior to leaving for Tom’s house, I told my wife that I had no intention of playing in Kenny’s presence. I had resolved to visit with folks and if I was lucky, hear Kenny play in person. From the outside of the house, music could be heard. Live music. And after meeting Kenny, I turned the corner to see Tom playing his beautiful Baldwin grand piano, along with a tenor saxophonist and drummer, Bob McEntyre. Against my best wishes, Tom immediately insisted that I play as he had to prepare the food. And there I was, playing the piano with great musicians without having been inside Tom’s home for two minutes! After playing a couple of tunes, I got up to eat. Great, smoked pork tenderloin prepared by Tom himself, and a variety of other dishes prepared by his lovely wife Sue, and other visitors. As we ate, the house filled with jazz musicians from all over the region and
country. The great pianist, John Campbell, bassist, Richard Drexler, saxophonist Chip McNeil, saxophonist Glenn Wilson, trumpeter, Dave Hoffman, bassist, Josh Houchin, guitarist, LaMonte Pearsons, saxophonist, Brad Wheeler, singer and pianist Chuck Senrick, jazz studies students from Knox College in Galesburg, IL, saxophonist and bassist, Jeff Anderson, a fixture from the St. Louis jazz scene whom I crossed paths with during my time with Willie Akins in 2004-2005 and many others.
As the day unfolded, I found myself at one of the greatest jazz jam sessions I’ve ever been a part of, right in the middle Tom Becker’s living room. Audience members crowded the hallways, the stair case and just about anywhere they could get a glimpse of the “happenings.” Some of the day’s highlights included Kenny on piano, a brief appearance by John Campbell (if you’re not familiar with him, you should be), the trumpet of Dave Hoffman, and a rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Like Someone In Love” in two keys (E-flat and C) by Chip McNeil and Glen Wilson. Vibraphonist, Kevin Hart showed up, set up, and remained part of the session throughout the afternoon, as did drummers Tom Marko and Bob McEntyre. Josh Houchin and Richard Drexler shared the upright bass responsibilities, giving ample opportunity for a young jazz bass student (of Andy Crawford’s from Knox College) to “cut his musical teeth.” A young pianist, Kyle Kunkler, from Knox College who I’ve had the pleasure of working with before, showed up and claimed his place at the piano as well. I’ll proudly mention that these young players more than held their own amongst the seasoned veterans. Interestingly, there seemed to be more pianists in the house than any other instrumentalist. A rarity at most sessions!
This was the type of session that is reminiscent of the early jazz days, or “hangs” at a musician’s house that you only read about nowadays. And these weren’t just your average, run of the mill musicians. These were world-class, jazz musicians, recording artists, composers and educators all under one roof in a Bloomington, Illinois household. To hear Kenny Drew Jr. in person was nothing short of astounding. I used to study his father’s music, also a legendary jazz pianist who recorded with Coltrane, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey and many others. Kenny Drew Jr. is every bit as good as his father was. In fact, I’d venture to say he’s better. Bold statement? Perhaps, but I’d like to think that those who were present on Sunday would agree. Thanks Tom Becker, for opening your home to all of us. For your hospitality and kindness. This will be an occasion that I will share with musicians, students, family and friends for the rest of my life.
Kenny Drew Jr.
Pianist, John Campbell
Chip McNeil w/Kenny Drew Jr.