Controversy about the strength and sustenance that jazz's home in academia give to the music continues to be lively, as a visit or two to Jack Walrath's Jazz Trumpets Forum (on Facebook) will reconfirm. Whatever happened to learning your craft from older working role models on the bandstand, runs the nostalgic sentiment?
But there is little doubt that high school and college programs that develop jazz musicians are firmly entrenched, even indispensable. The narrow path presented by the dearth of all-ages performance opportunities is just one reason for not depending on the shrinking number of jazz nightclubs to nurture young musicians.
In that context, it's great to see teachers at the college level exhibit their expertise in the public sphere, as happened in one long set Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen when Butler University faculty took the stage.
In the future, it would be great to hear more originals from the group, but in any case there were some spicy arrangements to savor, starting with pianist Gary Walters' perky setting of Thelonious Monk's "Let's Cool One," which opened the set, and going on to alto saxophonist Matt Pivec's sensitively animated "Witch Hunt" (Wayne Shorter). I also enjoyed vocalist Erin Benedict's nimble version of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." It opened with the singer in dialogue with bassist Jesse Wittman and went on to explore some sparse textures without ever going slack.
Wrapping things up was a fitting tribute to the ultimate jazz educator, the late David Baker, in a romp through his "Kentucky Oysters," arranged by trombonist Rich Dole. Walters contributed one of his several stunning solos of the set to that finale; he was also crucial to the success of several of Benedict's songs, an indicator of his long history accompanying singers, principally Carrie Newcomer.
As for the soloing in what seemed to be the gig's mostly jam-session profile, there was a particular thrill to drummer Jon Crabiel's setting aside sticks and brushes to etch an astute manual backdrop for Wittman's solo in "Alone Together," in which the front line was left to the reduced horn contingent of Dole and tenor saxophonist Sean Imboden, compatible partners and individualists as well. Crabiel continued with his hands in play, complemented by footwork on bass drum and hi-hat cymbals, in a richly varied solo turn.
Throughout, Butler student Kent Hickey was an adept substitute player on trumpet, setting down an especially incandescent solo in Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." Guitarist Sandy Williams, always tasteful and focused, was among the other soloists in that zesty excursion.
This exposition by the northside university's professorial class was sufficient indication that there's plenty of proof in the academic jazz pudding. I will be happy to anticipate more in the future.