West Texas Jazz Society – Background-2015-08
West Texas Jazz Party – A Brief Background (1967 – 2016)
1967 was an interesting year in music history. The Beatles released “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the number one record in rock history (according to Rolling Stone Magazine), Louis Armstrong released “What a Wonderful World” (perhaps his most enduring song), and an iconic jazz party sprang up on the West Texas desert with little notice in broader culture. Except for the musicians who performed and the 124 attendees who crammed into a small club atop the Inn of the Golden West in Odessa, no one should have noticed. It began as a private party, and despite its success, the party has been below most folks’ radar for 50 years.
By unofficial count, there have been nearly 180 different musicians to attend the West Texas Jazz Parties over the years, and another 100 or so headline musicians to perform at other West Texas Jazz Society events. The party is world famous in jazz circles, having been a “must-hear” event for local fanatics and a group of visiting jazz devotees for parts of seven decades.
Several of the musicians attended almost 20 parties in a row (Flip Phillips and Milt Hinton). The long-time music director Jack Lesberg attended more than 30 years in a row. Pianist Ralph Sutton appeared at more than 30 parties covering every decade until 2001. The dean of West Texas parties, Bucky Pizzarelli, has been making an almost yearly pilgrimage to the Permian Basin since 1968. At its peak, the party was actually two events — one called the Odessa Jazz Party, and one dubbed the Midland Jazz Classic. From 1977 until the early 1990s, the parties occurred in ping-pong fashion each spring and fall.
Jazz in West Texas: A Half-Century Love Fest
This is a brief, yet wholly true retelling about the circumstances that brought life-changing music to bookend West Texas towns over half a century. The relationships between the jazz musicians and this area is legendary, as is the love-hate relationship between sister cities Odessa and Midland that has helped fuel interactive jazz performances for two decades.
Paradoxically, it would be hard to find one significant jazz musician from the Permian Basin. The book Texan Jazz, by Dave Oliphant (University of Texas Press, 1996) lists jazz musicians from across the state, but none from the 86,000 square miles of Permian Basin geography surrounding Midland and Odessa. You could say that the Jazz Society has both introduced jazz to West Texas and been responsible for keeping it in front of local audiences for 50 years.
“For the past 25 years, jazz has come to West Texas because the Jazz Society believed the area should continue to experience the music, and because we refused to let local booms and busts kill it,” said Margaret Gillham, president of the West Texas Jazz Society. The original Odessa Jazz Party, begun in 1967, was the product of very good times in the Permian Basin. The Midland Jazz Classic, begun in 1977, emerged during equally rosy times. With the exception of the decade including World War II, the highest employment growth in Texas occurred during the 1960s and 1970s. It was a good time to start a jazz party.
The Prelude (Dick Gibson’s Colorado Parties) and Odessa Jazz Party – Act I
Dr. O.A. “Jimmie” Fulcher was the man who spearheaded the original party, no matter who you ask. Along with Denver businessman Dick Gibson and legendary West Texas businessmen such as Will H. Faris, Ernie M. Schur, and Pinkie Roden, the Odessa party had the vision and the monetary backing to get the concept off the ground locally.
Dr. Fulcher’s inspiration goes back much further. He was an early jazz promoter in West Texas, hosting numerous musicians in the Permian Basin. They often stayed at his home, and played at clubs like the Golden Rooster in the old Lincoln Hotel. In 1967, the Lincoln Hotel was rebranded the Inn of the Golden West just in time for the first jazz party.
The Odessa party experienced great success and popularity throughout its first eleven years up to Dr. Fulcher’s death in November 1977. Ernie M. Schur picked up the reins of the party after Doc Fulcher’s death in 1977, and was succeeded as President of the Odessa Jazz Association by Dr. John H. Sheets. Dr. Sheets was Chief of Staff at Odessa Regional Medical Center and was granted numerous patents for an intraocular lens procedure used in cataract surgery, for which he is world famous.
Act II – Midland Jazz Classic – Midland Joins the Party
Interestingly enough, in the same year Dr. Fulcher died, the Midland Jazz Classic was born with the help of local Midland businessmen Max Christenson and Bobby Crues – and twenty or so of their friends. In his book Jazz Matters (University of Arkansas Press -1989), Jazz writer Doug Ramsay remembers that there were 22 people who each put up one thousand dollars to hold the first Midland Jazz Classic in 1977.
According to surviving Midland Jazz Classic founder and recent West Texas Jazz Society Board Member Bobby Crues, Christensen was the President of the Midland group for the first nine years, and Crues, a local investment consultant, was President of the Midland Jazz Association for the next nine.
A major difference in the two parties was that Midland invited some more adventuresome players from the West Coast, and also added vocalists to the proceedings. People in each city would say of the other party that the major difference was that it wasn’t “here”.
Act III – A Quarter Century as West Texas Jazz Society
By the end of Bobby Crues’ time as President of the Midland party, both oil fortunes and the interest in running a jazz party waned. Founder Max Christensen had died in 1994, and with a lull in the local economy, it was time for the Midland and Odessa jazz events to merge in the late 1990s under the umbrella of the West Texas Jazz Society, a 501 (C) (3) non-profit.
Legacy jazz parties in both Odessa and Midland took most of the week. Musicians remember coming in on a Tuesday and playing that evening, and then leaving on the following Monday after playing concerts and after-parties for six consecutive days.
However, the dwindling oil fortunes — and lack of whirlwind support that accompanied the original parties — have changed party dynamics. Today’s jazz party is either three or four days, and the after-party – on the last evening – is tame in comparison, if it occurs at all. The number of attendees has shrunk incrementally since the early 2000s – attrition that is due to an aging clientele and changing tastes.
Conversely, most of the musicians who attend the party are not collecting social security, making the party still a target for baby boomers with an interest in good music. Johnny Varro considers the younger musicians at the party — Varro was born in 1930 — to be the great young players of this generation. Varro should know, because in his 20s he accompanied men like and Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins and Rex Stewart while working in New York when the first generation of great soloists were still living.
Musicians As Friends: Why Jazz Parties Matter 50 Years Later
And there are some great stories — and a little intrigue — surrounding the oldest jazz party in the United States. Primarily, those circumstances are important mostly to the people who inhabit the hard-scrabble land of the Permian Basin. These are the people who have kept the music alive for nearly 50 years.
Like a lot of Midland and Odessa fans with pianos, Midlandite Bobby Crues was fortunate to be serenaded by some of the best visiting jazz pianists when they visited local homes. Crues remembers what it was like to have Ralph Sutton visit one time to rehearse on his piano — and that the piano needed tuning immediately afterwards. More recently, Margaret Gillham remembers a gathering at her home when she hadn’t had the piano tuned, and Rossano Sportiello suggesting that she should have it tuned before he visited again.
A number of old-timers remember having Teddy Wilson play their piano. Local pianist and piano tuner Dean Baker tuned he pianos for both jazz parties for years. Based on stories by Dean, Bucky Pizzarelli, Bobby Crues, Dan Black and a host of others, most remember that Wilson would often return to entertain late night revelers in the ballroom of the hotels when after-parties were complete. And most everyone remembers that the various after-parties were sometimes nearly as long as the concerts.
One of Dr. Fulcher’s nurses remembers that some of the musicians would show up at the doctor’s office to revive themselves with a vitamin B12 injection or some other treatment for their hangovers after a late night party so they could do it all again the next night.
Dan Black, Dee Griffin and former board member and piano tuner Dean Baker remember that during the jazz party, you really couldn’t keep your regular schedule if you wanted to hear all the music. Ingrid Zeeck recalls that her husband Philip, a local doctor, planned to take off the week of the jazz party if he was able, because the late nights made it nearly impossible to work.
Given that Odessa and Midland are not on the non-stop airplane route for many commercial airlines from New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, the musicians would take the better part of a day to get to the Permian Basin, and another full day to get home. But once musicians arrived, the party was on. Some of the musicians just wanted to relax by the pool and sit in the sun. As Ralph Sutton’s wife Sunnie tells it, the musicians spent most of the day around the pool or in and out of each other’s rooms around the pool. Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli recalls that you never knew who would be in your room, or what time they might be there. For the musicians who were golfers, such as the long time attendee Flip Phillips, golf was plentiful. Dan Carpenter, a local investor and jazz fan who still attends the party, recalls playing tennis with many of the musicians, including recent attendees Harry Allen and Joe Ascione.
Distinctive Things Musicians and Fans Remember
- Flip Phillips was the ultimate set leader, based on his Jazz at the Philharmonic experience
- Pee Wee Erwin was right behind Flip and provided high energy sets
- Ralph Sutton always set the tempos in his sets (just ask Ed Polcer)
- Milt Hinton liked to turn his bass up louder as he got older
- Red Norvo was deaf, and the rhythm section had to follow him
- Bud Freeman affected a British accent, but was born in Chicago
- Wild Bill Davison was arrested in New York after firing a gun in a taxi
- Jake Hanna was wickedly funny, and disliked people with no sense of humor
- Peanuts Hucko liked the same arrangements played the same ways
- Musicians who could not hold their liquor did not get asked back
- At least one musician with pre-Alzheimer’s was caught trying to check out a couple of days early
- Bob Haggart was considered by some the finest overall musician of his generation
- Milt Hinton was on more recording sessions than any bass player in history
- Jack Lesberg was Music Director of both parties from the beginning through at least 1996 (depending on when Midland stopped hosting its own jazz party). He attended the Odessa party until 2000.