Jammin' with Doc Morgan

May 5, 2014
by Ashley Roberts
As we approach the close of the 2014 Da Camera Jam and the much-anticipated Fats Waller Dance Party on Friday, May 16, we spoke with High School for Performing Arts Director of Jazz Studies Emeritus, Dr. Robert Morgan.

Q: For years, you were the chairman of the music department at the High School for Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). How does your career with HSPVA connect with the Da Camera JAM series presented at Discovery Green? 

A: I am very happy to not only serve as artistic adviser/MC for the Da Camera JAM series, but also to provide artist suggestions and conduct pre-concert interviews for the Da Camera Wortham main stage jazz concerts.  I think my suitability for these roles is not solely because of the "HSPVA connect," but also because, as my father was a jazz musician, I’ve been a "jazz geek" from day one. I was the pianist/arranger for popular Houston big band leader, Ed Gerlach, for approximately 35 years. In this guise, I have shared the stage with virtually every accomplished jazz musician in the city, and am very good friends with most. 

Q: For our final Da Camera JAM concert, a former student of yours, Jason Moran, will perform the Fats Waller Dance Party on May 16. Can you tell us about your experience teaching him? 

A: Jason was an ideal student at HSPVA, musically and academically.  He was very serious and inquisitive about all his pursuits from day one and was consistently very pleasant to work with - a model student in all respects. Many artists, no matter their age, have blinders on when it comes to just about anything else, but never Jason.  I attribute this principally to his home environment and his wonderful, nurturing parents who exposed all three of their sons to the absolute best, culturally and intellectually. I will also note that, for his senior year, he was student director of our top jazz combo.  That position entailed a lot of mature responsibility, in that the group performed a great deal off-campus, frequently without faculty accompaniment.  Thus, Jason was often the "point person" dealing alone with whatever the situation required. 

Q: What do you think about Jason being a certified jazz genius? 

A: In regard to "certified jazz genius," I'm going to mostly beg-off from commenting.  I think that word ("genius") has been overused and carelessly applied for many years, and, has therefore become somewhat hackneyed and meaningless.  Interestingly, the MacArthur Foundation does not use the word itself, and, I have read, does not approve of its widespread usage for its Fellows (apparently, "genius grant" was coined by the media). Having said that, one definition of "genius" from Webster's Dictionary is, “an extraordinary intellectual power, especially as manifested in creative activity.”  I have no problem applying that to Jason Moran!

Q: What excites you about Jason’s return to Houston? 

A: Jason has performed in his hometown quite a few times, of course.  I recall his first "mature" home appearance was as a sideman with saxophonist Greg Osby at Miller Theatre, sometime in the late ‘90s.  Greg was a Blue Note recording artist, and it was the Osby/Moran recording sessions that brought Jason to the attention of Blue Note's legendary producer, Bruce Lundvall, who promptly signed Jason to the label, and "the rest is history." Thus, it is very exciting to anticipate yet more new territory in the form of the "Fats Waller Dance Party," which has been presented to great acclaim in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere.  Houstonians are very lucky to be next-on-the-list, at our wonderful Discovery Green!

Q: You were a part of the 713--> 212: Houstonians in NYC event in 2011, which featured many alumni of Houston's High School for Performing and Visual Arts, pointing to HSPVA’s influence on the jazz community. What impact has Houston jazz music had on jazz lovers and musicians worldwide? 

A: At least since the 1940s, there has been a concept in the jazz world known as the "Texas Tenor."
By definition, this means a tenor sax solo attitude that is aggressive, dripping in the blues, very emotional, with a hard, somewhat gruff, tone.  But, Texas Tenors are not rock and roll simpletons (to be blunt!), but can play complex chord changes with the best of them, albeit in a raw manor.  Interestingly, there is no other state/instrument pairing in the history of jazz, for example, there are no Delaware Drummers, Tennessee Trombonists, etc.  The Texas Tenor concept has definitely had a worldwide impact on jazz lovers and musicians, and Houston has been a major component of its evolution ranging from the venerable Arnett Cobb (whose daughter, Lizette, is a member of Da Camera's Advisory Board) to HSPVA alumnus Shelley Carrol, currently 1st tenor saxophone with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Q: Why do you think Discovery Green’s free annual jazz concerts are some of the park’s most popular music events? 

A: I think simply because, around the world, by far, most jazz groups are presented in a night club situation, with many non-music distractions interfering with unfettered enjoyment of the music. As an antidote to this, the outdoor festival concept has become immensely popular in the jazz community, beginning with George Wein's Newport Jazz Festival in the mid-‘50s. The concept has mushroomed over the years, now with dozens of such festivals produced annually worldwide, primarily during the summer. Thus, regardless of time of year, Discovery Green presents a similar, very appealing alternative for Houston jazz fans:  excellent music in a comfortable, healthy, hyper-pleasant outdoor setting with an excellent sound system at a "you-can't-beat-it" cost!       

Visit http://www.discoverygreen.com/1009731 to find out more about Jason Moran's Fats Waller Dance Party.