SFJAZZ Honors Respected Jazz Journalist


The tables were turned at this year's SFJAZZ on November 3rd as the Festival paid tribute not to a musician, but to long-time Examiner, Chronicle and on-line critic Phil Elwood. The evening featured a wide variety of musical styles and reflected both Elwood's diverse taste as well as the wide array of talent to be found in the Bay Area.

The Monday night show started with a photographic retrospective of Elwood through the years, on KPFA (where he spent over forty years as a jazz broadcaster and historian), with musicians, at Jazz festivals (some he actually assisted in their formative years) and even in his Berkeley High School band from the late 1930's!

The musicians for the evening were in large measure chosen by Elwood- not only so he could have an opportunity to hear some of his "local favorites," but also to highlight the different eras of Jazz by those who could do it best. Starting with Leon Oakley Friends of Jazz, the toe tapping sounds of New Orleans revival filled the Hearst Theater, bringing to mind the music of Turk Murphy or Jack Teagarden. The natural progression would then lead to swing music, a role most ably served by Larry Vuckovich and his Young at Heart Ensemble. The band tore it up with the classic "Jumping with Symphony Sid" and eventually took an interesting turn into Serbio-Salsa music that can only come from the mind of someone like Mr. Vuckovich. The Bulgarian-Latin tune offered percussionist John Santos and drummer Akira Tana to shine and put a big smile on everyone's face. The set ended with Noel Jewkes's composition "Lester's People," a number dedicated to the late KJAZ show of the same name, hosted on Sunday evenings by Bob Houlihan if memory serves. (I sometimes had a DJ shift right after Bob's show, so I remember it fairly well!.). Larry and his rhythm section then served as the house band for vocalist Kim Nalley and later Denise Perrier. It was Denise who brought out the fact that in addition to everything else, Mr. Elwood had been a high school teacher, and had filled such a role for Ms. Perrier's senior history class. She also sounded great.

After the intermission, it was time for the official accolades for Mr. Elwood. The tribute was actually in the form of the annual Beacon Award, usually presented to a musician. But as explained by SFJAZZ Executive Producer Randall Kline, Phil Elwood, through his years of music reporting and broadcasting, has been a virtual "beacon" for the Jazz scene for half a century. Representatives from the Chronicle and Sees Candies, who funded this year's award, echoed these sentiments. Phil provided a few memories of his own and reminded everyone that it's important to know where the music came from.

It was then on to part II of the evening's music, featuring the bebop portion of the proceedings. The group was in fact Mel Martin's Bebop and Beyond, a perfect representation of the bebop era. Before playing, Martin remarked how much of his early Jazz knowledge came from Elwood's KPFA shows. The band's own history is also tied to the Festival, as their debut show was at the Festival's first concert at the Herbst Theater 21 years ago. The group jumped into some straight ahead tunes, including "Souvenir" by Benny Carter, and a Coltrane-esque tune written by Martin, featuring his wonderful curved soprano sax.

The final event of the evening was the most ethereal, with internationally renowned pianist Denny Zeitlin and his "favorite" rhythm section of Mel Graves on bass and George Marsh on drums. It's obvious that there is a deep connection between all the musicians, especially when the melody lines are stretched thin and tunes take time to coalesce into a recognizable composition, as was the case with "It Could Happen To You". It was a very ECM-like set, ending with a "Body and Soul" that featured Zeitlin plucking the piano strings to great effect.

This review will end with the words of Denny Zeitlin, who remarked that Phil Elwood's Jazz writing is great since he is one of the few who can write "with the music, not write at it!" Indeed and congratulations to Mr. Elwood from this writer and Jazz Now.

by Michael Handler

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