by Tom Walsh
This past spring members of the 1965-66 IU Jazz Ensemble gathered in Bloomington May 27-29 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their historic tour of the Near East and South Asia. The tour came about as a result of being selected as the winning big band at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival in 1965 under the leadership of Jerry Coker. Following on this honor, the group was invited by the U.S. State Department to embark on a cultural diplomacy tour of the Near East and South Asia in early 1966. Members of the ensemble were allowed to miss an entire semester of school to represent the IU School of Music. They experienced both the beauty and wonder of the exotic places they visited and they also suffered primitive conditions, witnessed political unrest, and directly felt the political tensions of the day.
To learn more about this extraordinary tour, read the article written by band member Craig Andrews, “A Life-Altering Event: The 1966 IU Jazz Ensemble U.S. State Department Near East & South Asia Cultural Exchange Concert Tour.”
The 2016 reunion began Friday, May 27 with a performance and jam session at Bear’s Place organized by Bloomington jazz trumpeter and promoter David Miller. The evening started off with a tribute to David Baker. David Lahm led members of the 1966 jazz ensemble in a reading of his piece, “A Portrait of Dave Baker.” Lahm met Baker in 1959 at the Lenox School of Jazz and wrote this gospel-flavored tune in the 1980s to capture Baker’s soulful personality.
The performance included David Lahm, piano, Whit Sidener, flute, Jerry Greene, alto saxophone, Gary Campbell, tenor saxophone, Carl Atkins, alto saxophone, Randy Brecker, trumpet, and Don Harry, tuba from the 1965-66 band. They were joined by Lon Gormley on trombone, 2016 graduate Quinn Sternberg on bass, and former IU Jazz student John Valdez on drums. Also in attendance were Craig Andrews, Chris Gallaher, Andy McDonald, Brian Martz, Paul Navarro, and Gary Smart. Afterwards members of the band—Randy Brecker, Gary Campbell, Jerry Greene, Carl Atkins, and David Lahm—took turns performing a few tunes. Pianist Gary Smart also took to the stage to perform an original blues composition. A few IU Jazz students mixed into the ensuing jam session which was led by David Miller and continued past midnight.
An additional treat for those in attendance that evening at Bear’s Place was to hear one track of a recording the band made during their tour. The band recorded a full record album of music on April 21, 1966, while in Beirut, Lebanon. In 2009, a collector discovered this record and posted about it on the website Waxidermy. One of the pieces from the band’s book on the tour, Whit Sidener’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train,” was performed as part of the 2016 Jazz Celebration in honor of Whit being inducted into the IU Jazz Alumni Hall of Fame and to commemorate the 1966 Tour.
On Saturday a subset of the group gathered to tour the “Old Building” (Merrill Hall) and the “Round Building” (Music Addition). Starting in Recital Hall, moving to the teaching studios on the 3rd floor of Merrill Hall, and then to the rooms where the jazz ensembles rehearsed on the 4th floor of the Music Addition, the group reminisced about studying with professors such as Bill Adam, Eugene Rousseau, Tom Beversdorf, Phillip Farkas, and others.
“It was particularly interesting to me to see how little has changed in what we called ‘the old building’ and what is referred to today as ‘the round building’,” Craig Andrews noted. “It was particularly moving for me to stand outside Mr. Adam’s old studio and to return to our jazz ensemble rehearsal room on the 4th floor of ‘the round building’.”
Reflecting on their experience, Gary Smart said, “I think the ’66 tour was the beginning of my love affair with travel, other cultures and their ways of thinking about life, their arts, languages, spiritual life, foods, all of it. I left as a Midwesterner and came back changed. My mind was opened to a world of possibilities.” But, he continued, “I sure was happy to get home I remember. I have always appreciated being an American after seeing the Mideast! And yet I came back admiring many things about those cultures. We all learned so much from the experience.”
This was not the first reunion of the 1965-66 IU Jazz Ensemble and it will likely not be the last. In May 2015, the group gathered for an “almost 50-year reunion” in Knoxville, Tennesse, home of Jerry Coker. They plan to meet again in Bloomington in two years.
Through the Tour these musicians forged a bond that has lasted for 50 years. Brian Martz noted, “As we gathered for our first reunion I found that I was really glad to see every person as they walked through the door, and I felt a deep connection to each and every one. That was wonderful! And one of my favorite parts of both reunions was the memories that were shared as the photos from the tour that Chris Gallaher and I brought were projected onto a screen. People remembered things that I didn’t know had happened, and some of us got into some pretty crazy situations, and somehow managed to get out of them, too. We had a great time together!
Randy Brecker echoed these sentiments, “What I enjoyed most about the reunion was the camaraderie we still felt and have after all this time has passed… and the jam session was a lot of fun!”