Monday, November 10, 2014

Jan Jarczyk Tribute

On Friday evening I shared a brief eulogy honoring my former composition teacher, Jan Jarczyk.  Jan passed away in August.  His family organized a series of concerts in the cities where he lived and worked, to celebrate his life and music.  This was the third stop, at the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA, following gatherings in Montreal and Toronto.

I was one of three invited speakers, along with drummer Marcello Pellitteri and Jan's daughter, Amaryllis, who read comments by Berklee emeritus professor, Ken Pullig.  Our remarks were interspersed between musical selections performed by a stellar quintet led by tenor saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone.

Celebrating the life and music of pianist and composer, Jan Jarczyk.

I chucked during a story shared by Pellitteri.  Three times he turned in a composition assignment to Jan only to be handed the piece back with the advice, "You can do better."  In my own experience I can attest that Jan certainly did possess the uncanny ability to make us reach to achieve higher levels.

When I spoke, I alluded to Jan's legacy through his teaching and example:  McGill was a special place in the early 90s, because students came from all across Canada to study there.  All regions of the country were represented.  When we graduated, some went back to their home provinces, some stayed in Montreal or went to Toronto or Vancouver, some moved to Europe, and others tried their hand at New York.  Jan's spirit, music and teaching impacted a lot of people, and I hear it in Canadian jazz.  When people say that Canadian jazz has a unique sound of its own, I don't think its a tremendous stretch to say that sound can be traced back to Jan.  I'm not saying he produced musical clones of himself.  He didn't.  He did, however, push us to dive deep into the exploration of harmony, melody and the development of ideas.  I hear Jan in the music of Josh Ranger, Joel Miller, John Stetch, Mike Downes, Bryn Roberts, Jim Head, Tilden Webb and many others.  He's there.

Jan arrived at McGill half way through my undergraduate studies.  If I remember correctly, there were only two full-time jazz faculty before he was hired.  One was a big band expert with a penchant for Sammy Nestico; the other was a "hard bopper" influenced by Kenny Dorham, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley.  Jan instantly flipped the scene on it's head with improvised solo recitals on piano or pipe organ(!), in addition to his vast catalog of sophisticated, quirky compositions.  He opened our ears to other possibilities, and suddenly it "became cool" to admit to liking Jan Gabarek, Keith Jarrett and other cutting-edge improvisers.  Frequently groups of us would make the trek to hear Jan at Claudio's, a loft jazz club/restaurant in Old Montreal.

But when I think of Jan, I smile thinking of his fun personality as much as I think about his music.  I played a trick on him once, which I outline in the introduction of the following tune, which was performed a couple of weeks ago at a UCONN faculty showcase concert.

My one disappointment in the evening was how little of Jan's music was performed.  I was really looking forward to hearing his tunes played live, but I think they only did two of his pieces:  an Ornette (Coleman)-like melody followed by free improv and "There Is Always Time".  (They may have done one other.)  I heard that in Toronto his tunes were played exclusively --- as they should have been.

Saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and George Garzone performing at the Lilypad in Cambridge, MA
Bergonzi and Garzone "tearing it up" at the Lilypad in Cambridge.
I wish I could have also attended the gatherings in Montreal and Toronto.  It would have been nice to hear my Canadian friends share their memories.  Since his passing, I have had several opportunities to chat with former classmates about him, but until Friday night I hadn't made the complete emotional connection that he is gone.  Visiting with Jan's wife and daughter was especially touching.  It was a bittersweet evening that I will treasure, along with my other memories of Jan.

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