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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Masters of Jazz

Legends at the Conservatory

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Education has always been a key factor in the musical upbringing of jazz trombonist Slide Hampton, especially since he taught himself to play at an early age. It all began the day his father handed him a trombone that happened to be left-sided. Slide was right-handed. But in a musical family of 12 children who all played and sang (eight boys, four girls), he worked with what he was given, including an innate talent that would lead him to master such a physically demanding instrument.

Of course, growing up in Indianapolis with fellow jazz legends like trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and guitarist Wes Montgomery greatly influenced his style, as well as the friends' eventual love and expertise in bebop, among other styles.

"Music was in my house from the very beginning," recalls the Grammy Award-winning musician, in a phone call from his New Jersey home. "One of the benefits [of being self-taught] was that I had to try hard to get the most out of it."

Hampton, who turns 77 in a month, succeeded in doing just that-and then some. He is renowned for his work as a composer, arranger and teacher, having taught master classes at Harvard University and other major institutions. And the jazz legend is already looking forward to his next show-which just happens to be in Milwaukee.

Hampton is appearing at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music (WCM) for three performances March 25-26 along with his World of Trombones. Featured in the shows is the rhythm section from WCM's We Six combo, all of whom are on the Conservatory faculty: Jeff Hamann, bass, Dave Bayles, drums, and Mark Davis, piano. As the We Six Trio, they will play their own set as well as join Hampton and his band for the final set.

Education and Performance

Mark Davis, a lifelong Milwaukeean, also understands the importance of a music education. As chair of WCM's jazz piano and theory department, Davis has been both teacher and student at the Conservatory, starting out in grade school improvising on the piano. And for Davis, who learned from such Milwaukee jazz stalwarts as David Hazeltine and Berkeley Fudge, who's still on the faculty and a member of We Six, there's a definite connection between education and performance.

"There's a flow between the two, in a way," Davis says. "As educators, we educate people on the different aspects of the music, the players and the styles."

And as the We Six combo, the group follows a Milwaukee tradition of embodying "straight-ahead" jazz developed over the years by local performers such as Brian Lynch, Manty Ellis and Buddy Montgomery. We Six performs four concerts a season, creating themed concerts as well as focusing on jazz greats from U.S. cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Indianapolis.

"It's fun to be able to explore a particular area or scene," Davis points out, adding, "I've gotten a real strong connection and respect for the tradition coming out of great bebop players like Charlie Parker and Bud Powell."

And as the younger Davis points to past greats like Parker and Powell as influences, these same musicians were contemporaries of Hampton, whose joy and love of bebop lie at the heart of how he composes.

"Improvising is the center of composing," Hampton says. "It's the main thing, as that's where all the stimulation and ideas come from."

Hampton, who suffered a stroke in June 2008, has been getting his groove back with lots of composing in recent weeks. He plans on closing the Milwaukee shows with a new composition, "Caravan," that has "the melody inside the harmony. It's a very innovative piece and I'm enjoying it more and more as I go through it," he adds.

So what does the legendary jazz musician hope people take away from the experience? "I hope our music will bring people together in a loving attitude," Hampton says. "We don't encourage war. We only encourage music."

We Six Trio performs with Slide Hampton at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, 1584 N. Prospect Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, and 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 26. For more information, call (414) 276-5760 or visit www.wcmusic.org. n