Hurricanes and jazz | Guest column

  • Mon Oct 2nd, 2017 5:15pm
  • Life

By Gary Alexander

In this hurricane season, we can be thankful we don’t live in Texas, Florida or Puerto Rico, targeted by Harvey, Irma and Maria. To paraphrase Henry Higgins, “Hurricanes Hardly Happen Here.” But one did.

On Friday night, Oct. 12, 1962, I was a high school senior driving to the Orpheum Theater in Seattle to hear the King of Jazz, Louis Armstrong. During Seattle’s 1962 World’s Fair, I got to see many leading lights of jazz perform, up front and personal – often from the front row: Benny Goodman (on his way to Russia for the State Department), Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Errol Garner, Dave Brubeck and more.

But Satchmo was special. He lifted my spirits as well as my musical mind. I left the Orpheum on Cloud Nine, so inspired that I felt my 1953 Plymouth roadster elevate and change lanes without my permission.

When I came back down to earth, I recognized the wind did it, not my musical dream state. That night was the worst recorded hurricane in Northwest history. When I got home, a huge Douglas Fir had fallen on our Normandy Park property, narrowly missing my upstairs bedroom. Category 3 hurricane force winds buffeted the entire Northwest. Winds in southwest Washington state registered gusts of 160 mph.

Although sustained winds didn’t exceed 65 mph in Seattle, winds reached 100 mph in Renton, near my home. Those gusts lifted my car that night. Still, I like to think Louie’s soaring trumpet played a part.

Something like that happened this time last year on Lopez. There were threats of high winds on the day Garfield High School’s Jazz Band planned their ninth consecutive October visit to Lopez Island, which had become their first public performance of the school year from 2008 to 2015. After several last-minute calls and emails, concert promoters Dean and Carolyn Jacobsen and band director Clarence Acox agreed that it would be too dangerous to bring a busload of kids on the freeways and ferries that day, so we cancelled the concert. The winds never picked up seriously that day, but we don’t regret making the decision for the safety of the kids. We hoped to reschedule in the winter, but that never worked out.

Garfield has been voted the best high school jazz band in America four times since 1999, the most of any band. The band we first heard here in 2008 was one of those winners, as was the 2009-10 band. The last four Garfield bands have also reached the 15-band finals of the Essentially Ellington contest in New York at Lincoln Center, with jazz-star judges led by Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis, overseen by the Duke.

The Garfield High School Jazz Ensemble is a 33-member jazz band (with two complete sax sections and a deep bench in the rhythm section), including students from a wide variety of cultural and economic backgrounds. Garfield generates such a huge interest in jazz that it maintains three levels of jazz bands.

Whatever fortunes await this band next spring, we on Lopez can say “we heard them first.” Come to Woodmen Hall on Saturday, Oct. 14 from 2 to 4 p.m. for the best big band you’ll ever hear … here.

Gary Alexander programs jazz and The Great American Songbook on KLOI, 3 to 6 p.m. each Friday and Monday. Tune in for an extended sample of Garfield’s big band recordings Friday October 13 on KLOI, 102.9-fm or streaming live audio at www.KLOI.org (click: “Listen Live”).

Special thanks to Dean &Carolyn Jacobsen for making this series possible, along with Friends of Woodmen Hall, Clarence Acox, the Garfield Jazz Foundation, band members and their families.