The Sankofa Tradition: A Reminder for the 21st Century

Guest contributor, Bob Morgan is for many years a long-time musical associate and close personal friend from Houston, TX. He recently retired from a 23-year very successful career as Director of Jazz Studies at Houston's High School for Performing and Visual Arts. (Another friend, lawyer/musician Bill Habern sponsors a yearly visit there by pianist Bill Mays and myself.) Bob holds BM and MM degrees from North Texas and a DMA in composition from the Univ. of Illinois. Beginning his career as director of the jazz program at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX, he went to HSPVA in 1976 where he remained until retirement. Under his direction, the HSPVA jazz program has become internationally known as a stimulating model for the successful training of young jazz aspirants.

He was selected by National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts as one of two "1997 NFAA Distinguished Teachers in the Arts," the first and only jazz instructor to be so honored. In 1998, he was selected for the "Presidential Scholars Teacher Recognition Award" by the White House Commission on Presidential Scholars at a ceremony at the White House. In 1999, Berklee School bestowed an honorary doctorate upon him in addition to the one he earlier had earned from the University of Illinois. A former trumpeter, he now continues an active career as a pianist and as a composer/arranger, also is in great demand as a clinician. In June, 2000, Bob was invited by Wynton Marsalis to be the Director of the first annual "Essentially Ellington Band Director Academy," held in Aspen, CO, under the auspices of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and in August Bob was one of three keynote speakers at Berklee's annual Music Education Institute. The following article was adapted from his remarks.

The Sankofa Tradition: A Reminder for the 21st Century

One of my ex-students, David White, has had some success as a film composer, most notably the mid-1990s film Sankofa, produced by eminent Ethiopian film maker Haile Gerima, who teaches at Howard University in Washington, DC. Before encountering this film, I was not familiar with the Sankofa tradition, and perhaps the reader is not either. Briefly, the word derives from the Akan peoples, a West African ethnic group that today resides in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Over the centuries, the Akan developed a highly artistic system of ideographic and pictographic symbols, each representing a specific proverb or saying rooted in the Akan experience. These symbols are used extensively in native textiles, metal casting, woodcarving, architecture, etc.

Perhaps the best known of these symbols is Sankofa, represented by a mythical bird that has its feet firmly planted forward, but its head turned backwards. Literally, the word means "Go back and retrieve," but practically, the concept means that, in every aspect of life, artistic, spiritual, business, whatever, you cannot move forward until you’ve looked back and absorbed where you’ve been. I can’t imagine anyone would disagree with that, but I think it especially appropriate to emphasize this at the dawn of the new millennium and to highlight the Akan culture, to whom the concept is much more sincerely prominent and practiced than perhaps it is in our own.

To repeat the Sankofa tradition: One cannot move forward until one has looked back to understand where one has been. What does this have to do with jazz education? In my opinion, a great deal. Actually, it has to do with everything! Jazz education, as we all know, has made unbelievable progress in its 60+ year history, and most of us are aware of the many landmark developments. So to some degree, we have all …looked back. But, there is much more to see. We all have pet peeves, and one of mine is – there are a number of landmark moments from the history of jazz education that – for whatever reason – are today mostly if not totally forgotten, or at least overlooked in terms of significance. I realize that we are all participating in a conference entitled "Music Education and Technology in the Millennium," and all week long, the emphasis is on the future – that is, "moving forward;" of course, this is crucially necessary, and the information being imparted this week is excellent. This whole occasion is as it should be. But, having been invited to participate, I think I can best serve the occasion by invoking the tradition of Sankofa and asking you to look back with me to fill in some gaps.

The Austin High Gang

The first item I would like to bring to your attention is the so-called Austin High Gang from Chicago. This began as a nucleus of kids who attended Austin High School in Chicago’s West End during the early 20s. Five kids got together and started jamming at the school, and got so caught up in it, they kept jamming on the weekends at each other’s houses, in a vacant apartment in the neighborhood, any place they were able. The original nucleus included no fewer than three musicians who would become legendary names not only in the annals of Chicago jazz, but in the annals of jazz in general:

1.) Frank Teschemacher, alto sax and, would you believe, violin; it was later that he took up the clarinet, for which he would become most famous. He was the informal leader of the group.

2.) Bud Freeman, saxophone, who was one of the giant swing era tenor players; World’s Greatest Jazz Band and more; died in 1991.

3.) Jimmy McPartland, a great cornet player who now, I guess, is remembered mostly as Marian McPartland’s ex-husband; also died in 1991

The quintet began playing at afternoon high school dances then popular in Chicago, and quickly morphed into a bona fide professional band called the Blue Friars, the name adapted from the Friars’ Inn Society Orchestra that the Gang had heard on records. Along the way, kids from other schools would sit-in, some becoming more or less full-fledged members of the band, most notably: Benny Goodman; and the prototypical modern and swing drummer, Davie Tough.

The Blue Friars flourished professionally and became synonymous with what would later become known as Chicago-style jazz. But, beginning in the mid-20s, the group slowly dissolved as the various members left to accept offers that would lead to mostly distinguished solo careers. For instance, Jimmy McPartland left in 1924 to take Bix Beiderbecke’s place in the Wolverines Orchestra.

Because so few today know of this group, the whole Austin High story is representative of the point I made at the beginning – that is, we haven’t looked back closely enough. In this instance, there is, in my opinion, a glaring omission. In all the reading I have done about the Austin High Gang, I have never encountered the name of the band director (or music director) who was at Chicago’s Austin High School in the early 1920s. Even Charles Edward Smith’s famous essay, "The Austin High Gang," written in 1939, is thirteen pages long, but with all that ink, this person remains anonymous. Am I suggesting that such a person taught Bud Freeman, Frank Teschemaker, and Jimmy McPartland how to play jazz? No, of course not. But, I am suggesting that such a person had everything to do with creating an atmosphere, musical and otherwise, in which such creativity could flourish. And, that he or she no doubt encouraged, rather than discouraged, a musical pursuit that, in many circles at that time, was considered wicked, sinful, etc., and even forbidden in most schools. I think it’s highly regrettable that this person remains anonymous. It seems to me that this person was, to some degree, one of the first jazz educators, and it is wrongful that we cannot salute him for this.

If one were searching for a wonderful and worthwhile research topic for a thesis or dissertation, this would certainly be one I would suggest. I don’t know if Austin High School, as such, still exists in Chicago. There is presently an Austin Community Academy that is part of the Chicago schools though I don’t know if it’s related. Possibly there are dusty archives somewhere that could shed some light on this anonymous pioneer.

Captain Walter Dyett

The next person I would like to discuss is, coincidentally, also related to the city of Chicago. Walter Henri Dyett was born in 1901, though I cannot tell you where; as his father was a minister, the family moved around quite a bit. Eventually settling in California, Walter began studying the violin, becoming concertmaster of his high school orchestra in Pasadena. He entered premedical school at Cal/Berkeley, also joining the university symphony. Music won out over medicine, however, and, in 1921, he relocated to Chicago, and by the mid-20s was playing with Erskine Tate and conducting orchestras at the Pickford Vaudeville theaters. He also spent time as director of an Army band that I assume was a reserve band, thereby acquiring the lifelong moniker, "Captain." In 1931, Walter Dyett became band director at Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago and later moved to DuSable High School when it opened in 1935.

Captain Dyett’s programs at Phillips and DuSable consisted of what one would expect at any big city comprehensive high school: beginning band, concert band, marching band, and ROTC band, with the notable addition of what he called "Booster Band" and "Booster Orchestra." In reality, booster band was a jazz band, and booster orchestra was what we probably now would call a pit orchestra. But one must remember he couldn’t use the word "jazz" in those days because it was considered improper in an academic environment. So, whereas his later counterparts in a similar situation used "stage band," "lab band," etc., he used "booster band." The booster band/orchestra played for school dances, special assemblies, and, beginning in 1936, for an annual show called the Hi-Jinks, which was apparently a vaudeville-type production of a very high caliber that attracted a huge following in the community. Dyett wrote and arranged most of the music featuring the singing, dancing, and theatrical talents of the student body, with the booster orchestra in the pit. It especially was the pit experience that his students later credited for sharpening their skills to prepare for a career in music.

The list of successful musicians who passed through Captain Walter Dyett’s program at Phillips and DuSable is quite astounding:

Saxophonists: Gene Ammons; Von Freeman; Joseph Jarman; John Gilmore; Clifford Jordan; Johnny Griffin

Trumpet: Sonny Cohn, who was for years in the Count Basie band also serving a long stint as the band’s road manager

Trombone: Julian Priester

Violin: Leroy Jenkins

Piano: Dorothy Donegan; Nat Cole

Bass: Wilbur Ware; Richard Davis; Fred Hopkins

Drums: Wilbur Campbell; Walter Perkins; Jerome Cooper

Vocalists: Dinah Washington; Johnny Hartman; again, Nat Cole

Beyond category: Red Foxx

One thing very impressive about this list is the wide range of style represented, even if one ignores Red Foxx. On the one hand, you have Gene Ammons, basically a blues-based player, but then you have John Gilmore, an avant-gardist who spent most of his career with Sun Ra, and Leroy Jenkins, who has had some impressive success as a contemporary opera composer.

Walter Dyett retired in 1961, and, without him, the Hi-Jinks shows ground to a halt within a few years. He passed away in 1969. A special Hi-Jinks show was resurrected in 1985 in conjunction with DuSable’s 50th anniversary, with a special dedication to Captain Walter Dyett.

Dyett is certainly remembered in Chicago – there is even a middle school named after him, producing a bit of trivia: So far as I know, he is the only jazz educator in the history of the endeavor to have a school named after him. Though remembered in Chicago, I don’t believe he’s remembered so much elsewhere, which I feel is a shame. It’s especially puzzling why the International Association of Jazz Educators has done nothing to honor this obviously very special person; I feel he should have been one of the first persons in their Hall of Fame.

Thus far, I have discussed an overlooked band and an overlooked individual; I would like now to discuss an overlooked school.

Westlake College of Music

Berklee opened its doors in 1945. The following year, a similar school was established in Los Angeles – the Westlake College of Music, founded by one Alvin L. Learned. The school was named after a park, Westlake Park, which was near its first location. Westlake is pretty much forgotten today, and that is precisely why I would like to discuss its existence.

However, there is not much information to be passed on. Of all the subjects being discussed, Westlake is far and away the one that has been researched the least regarding any information in print, on the Internet or elsewhere; but it was a very prominent school in the jazz world in the 1950s. Remember, the 50s was the heyday of so-called West Coast jazz, and a lot of attention was given to all matters pertaining to jazz on the Coast, especially Los Angeles, and this would include Westlake. I first became truly aware of jazz in the mid-50s – I would guess in junior high school – and I can remember reading of both Berklee and Westlake in Down Beat, Metronome, etc., at that time. I can’t say that Westlake was as prominent as Berklee, but I can attest that it was very prominent.

As I mentioned, Berklee and Westlake shared several similarities:

    1. The general goal of establishing a true jazz conservatory
    2. Benefiting from the fact of the then-new GI Bill
    3. An emphasis on teaching the Schillinger System as a compositional technique
I will share with you what I can relate as fact:

Of the Westlake faculty names I have seen, most were unfamiliar to me, but I can note that Russ Garcia, Howard Roberts, Dick Grove, and Bob Graettinger (private lessons) all taught there at one time or other. Students included Bill Holman, Gary Peacock, Bob Gordon, Charlie Haden, Bob Cooper, and Bob Graettinger. Reading a web site quote by Bill Holman that "we were all going to Westlake College of Music at the time," this implies that there were many students and a great deal of activity at the school, though there seems to be little surviving history. This would be another wonderful project for a dissertation. In fact, it seems to me a comparative study of Berklee and Westlake would be fascinating. Why has one so gloriously succeeded, while the other disappeared, pretty much without a trace? I am sure the reasons are a combination of artistic and business matters, but, again, it would be very interesting if someone would flesh out the details.

Speaking of business, apparently Westlake struggled from a business standpoint from day one. A former student there told me that the school had eight different locations during its existence, most of them in Hollywood, including one period when it was in the abandoned Screen Cartoonists office building. It moved from Hollywood to Laguna Beach in the summer of 1960, continuing to operate for about one more year, but drastically reduced in size and scope. There apparently was no fanfare when it ceased to be, probably around the summer of 1961. This same person related that the last he knew of Alvin Learned years ago, he was running a piano studio somewhere up the Pacific Coast Highway called "Al Learned Piano by Ear," a rather sad fate for this man who was reportedly much admired for his valiant efforts at Westlake.

Incidentally, readers may be familiar with a book entitled "West Coast Jazz" by Ted Gioia, published in 1992. Upon reading this book, I eagerly hoped for it to fill in some gaps about Westlake, but it does not do so. It does mention the school, but only from the standpoint of "Bill Holman attended Westlake," "Bob Graettinger attended Westlake," etc. Mildly critical, in one place it states that Westlake did little more than "churn out studio musicians."

Despite Westlake’s ignoble lifeline, from all indications, it did play a vital role in the jazz education world of southern California for over fifteen years, and I certainly think it should be remembered and credited for whatever was accomplished.

Marshall Brown

I next would like to discuss a gentleman that many people at Berklee knew and worked with, that is Marshall Brown. Mr. Brown was born in Framingham, MA, in 1920 and received music degrees from NYU and Columbia. He began teaching at Farmingdale High School on Long Island in 1951 and organized a jazz band there, the excellence of which soon garnered a great deal of attention that led to an appearance at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. They were the surprise hit of the festival; in fact, to quote from the Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz: they performed "to unprecedented acclaim, winning Brown international fame and an appointment to the Newport Festival board." A result of this was a long close association between Brown and Newport producer George Wein. Another interesting result was that Brown’s renown after the festival was such that he suddenly resigned from Farmingdale and became a consultant to the Newport festival. He later pursued a fairly successful career as a valve trombone player and small group leader.

Regarding his Newport association, the first thing he did, in conjunction with George Wein, was to recruit and audition players for an international youth jazz band to appear at Newport in the summer of 1958. George Wein must have established a huge budget for this, for, to quote from the subsequent album liner notes, Brown and Wein "hopscotched Europe conducting auditions on a back-breaking schedule." They came up with an incredible band that included eighteen players from sixteen different countries, the duplicates being from Austria and Sweden. The U.S. representative was Andy Marsala, an alto saxophonist who sounds fabulous on the recording though I’ve no idea of his present whereabouts. Other names very familiar to us today are Dusko Goykovich, trumpet, Albert Mangelsdorff, trombone, George Gruntz, piano, and Gabor Szabo, guitar.

I am quite sure many of you are familiar with George Gruntz from Switzerland who today leads an international big band of professional musicians whose tours are sometimes underwritten by Swiss corporations. By international, I mean that he endeavors to have players from as many different countries as possible. If you’ve heard it, you know it’s incredibly good. They tour all over the world and even occasionally in the states - - they’re undertaking their first tour of China this fall. The fact that George Gruntz was the pianist in this well-known international youth band years ago, I have always wondered if this might have planted the seed for him to have his own international professional band some day. It seems quite possible and is a rather interesting thought.

Marshall Brown’s International Youth Band gathered in New York in 1958 to rehearse for a few weeks. They appeared at Newport and were a smashing success. They later toured Europe and made a very impressive record for Columbia (CL 1246) though I do not think this recording has been re-issued on CD. Incidentally, most of the compositions played by the band were commissions, two of the composers being part of the Berklee family: John LaPorta and Arif Mardin.

The international youth band had only one season. Of course, it was a very expensive presentation, and I am sure that is why it was discontinued. However, for the 1959 and 1960 Newport festivals, Brown put together a band of young people auditioned only from the New York area. Larry Rosen, co-owner with Dave Grusin of GRP records, was the drummer with that band, and he states that about 600 musicians auditioned for it. Among the players selected were Mike Abene, Eddie Daniels, Ronnie Cuber, and Jimmy Owens. They rehearsed every weekend, and, in addition to the two Newport appearances, did some special concerts with guest artists like Cannonball Adderley, etc. They made one album for the Coral label also not reissued on CD.

Brown ceased his formal association with Newport after 1960. He continued to teach privately, but principally existed as a professional musician. Though he mostly was associated with traditional musicians like Ruby Braff, Pee Wee Russell, Wild Bill Davison, and Bobby Hackett, he did co-lead a quartet for several years with Lee Konitz. I am positive he recorded with some if not all of these groups, but am not aware of anything available on CD.

Coincidentally, Westlake College presented their Jazz Educator of the Year Award to Marshall Brown in 1957. The New York Times accorded him a very prominent obituary – he died on October 13, 1983 -- in which it described him as "a pioneer in bringing jazz education to high school students."

The Notre Dame Jazz Festival

Finally, I would like to briefly highlight the prototypical school jazz festival, and one additional individual. The University of Notre Dame has hosted a school jazz festival since 1958; I believe it is still in existence, but there have been so many festivals for some time now that it is difficult for any one to stand out. Though Notre Dame certainly does not receive the attention it used to, I would like to point out that when the festival began, it was extremely significant because it provided the occasion for much of the professional jazz community to first encounter the burgeoning jazz education world. This because Notre Dame chose for its adjudication panels not professional adjudicators (so to speak) but artists such as Cannonball Adderley, Bill Evans, Stan Kenton, Oliver Nelson, Clark Terry, Sonny Stitt, Herbie Hancock, and so on. In other words, the leading artists of the day experienced for the first time the magic being made in the country’s leading jazz training programs, and this occurred at Notre Dame.

Many names now very familiar received their first significant exposure at Notre Dame: Randy and Michael Brecker; Jamey Aebersold; Marvin Stamm; Billy Harper; Bob James; Maurice White (from Earth, Wind & Fire); Bunky Green; Jim McNeely; and on and on.

There is an excellent book that traces the history of the festival: "Big Noise from Notre Dame" by Joseph Kuhn Carey, published by the Notre Dame University Press in 1986. I have checked with Notre Dame Press as to its availability, and I regret to say that it is out of print. But it is an excellent book, and I want to note its existence; if interested, perhaps one can find it in a large library.

Ken Morris

In closing, I would like to mention an individual who is very obscure, but that is why I am mentioning him. I am indebted to John LaPorta for bringing this to my attention as I heard John speak about this individual upon his death some time ago. The gentleman’s name is Ken Morris. I knew him slightly, and I recall that he lived in South Bend, Indiana. He owned a ballroom in which big bands would play, and was a musicians union official. He had been an active musician at one time, though I don't recall what instrument and do not think he was an active player when I met him in the early 1960s. My reason for mentioning Ken is to emphasize that there are always behind the scenes persons making it possible for musicians to do their thing, and these usually anonymous persons should be loudly appreciated and brought into the spotlight whenever possible.

John’s point about Ken was that, until the late 1950s, the jazz education scene was very splintered, though with lots of wonderful things going on all over the country; for example, Berklee in Boston, Westlake in Los Angeles, North Texas in Denton, Indiana University, and so on. But each of these "pockets" was existing in a more-or-less vacuum, without much dialogue from one to the other. John observed that all of this changed when the Stan Kenton summer clinics were started in the late 1950s (1959, I believe). The Kenton clinic faculty purposely was put together to not only include the entire Kenton band, but a cross-section of the best jazz educators from Berklee, North Texas, the west coast, and so on.

What did Ken Morris have to do with this? He was the businessperson who put it all together and made it all possible. It’s hard to picture Stan Kenton or any of his staff dealing with dorm rooms, cafeteria food, keeping the dorms quiet, arranging for counselors – whatever- the un-fun trenchwork necessary in any endeavor, but certainly in any summer school workshop. Ken Morris served this purpose, and served it well. Not only was he the businessman behind the Kenton clinics during their entire tenure, but he was the force behind Jamey Aebersold’s clinics when they started in 1972, continuing to work with Jamey into the 80s when he finally retired. I knew Ken beginning in 1962 when I attended a 3-week Kenton clinic as a student, and knew him as a colleague when I taught at what he later called the National Stage Band Camps, and at a few of Jamey’s workshops. I can certainly attest to his professionalism and skill in making those landmark programs work.

To emphasize my point, when looking back (Sankofa), be sure your glance includes those crucial figures who work behind the scenes, but whose toil is not any less valuable than those in the front lines.

This is a very exciting time for jazz – and, by extension, for jazz education. For example, I hope everyone is aware of the new $ 103 million dollar building to be constructed for Jazz at Lincoln Center as part of the Columbus Circle renovation in New York. If not, go to the J@LC website ( and read all about it.

Also, if you really want a highfalutin’ justification for what we’re all doing, my wife, Helen, discovered an article in an in-flight magazine that the "American Dialect Society" undertook a project to identify the most significant new American words of the century. The article journeyed through the 20th century year-by-year identifying new words introduced each year, and somehow selected the most significant single new word for each year. It should interest you to know that the article proclaimed the most significant new word for the year 1913 to be: JAZZ. Furthermore, after selecting 99 such words, the article singled out one of them as being the most significant of the entire century. What did they select? JAZZ! What more does one need than the imprimatur of the American Dialect Society, by way of US Airways magazine, to make the art form truly legitimate (J )!

As noted, this is a very exciting time for all of us. Thanks to the innovations of computers and the Internet, this era has been equated in significance to the development of polyphony, the invention of the Model-T, the forward pass and more. Everyone should enjoy his/her career moving forward, but please remember the tradition of Sankofa, and occasionally take a long, careful look back. We all will be the richer for it.