By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist

March 8, 2020

In this column, I also review The Pacific Mambo Orchestra’s new CD with special guest, Jon Faddis, and Sarah Elgeti with her quartet. Sarah plays tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet and writes both lyrics and music. Paul Shaw is a drummer and bandleader who features Alex Sipiagin on trumpet as part of his talented quintet. I listened to the stunning new CD by Keith Oxman who features Houston Person. Having two lead tenor saxophone players on the same CD explores the uniqueness of both. Finally, I review John DiMartino, a pianist who is celebrating the music of the iconic Billy Strayhorn and he features Eric Alexander on tenor sax as part of his dynamic ensemble. Also, a reminder that there will be a memorial service for the great saxophonist, Jimmy Heath, on March 12th in NYC. R.I.P Jimmy Heath. On a lighter note, I was so pleased to get a one-on-one interview with Charles Owens, our very own Los Angeles treasure, a respected educator and master woodwind player.

Born April 5, 1937, Charles Owens has been a mainstay of our jazz community for nearly half a century. Charlie O, as I sometimes fondly call him, is a master woodwind musician. His passion and love of the saxophone started when he was a small child. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, his mother and father divorced during his early years. When Charles’ mother met and married William Owens, their family moved from Phoenix to Portland Oregon.

“Right around the beginning of the second World War, we moved to Portland, Oregon. My parents were looking for work in the shipyard, because they were making ships in Oregon. We lived in Oregon until the end of the war and then in 1945, on Thanksgiving weekend, we moved from Portland, Oregon to San Diego. I remember because the car broke down on our way and we had to stay at the filling-station all week-end, because the guy wouldn’t open up and fix the transmission. Finally, the mechanic came back on Monday, after the holiday weekend, and fixed it. We went on to San Diego. My mother and stepfather moved there because the aircraft industry at Convair was hiring. I went to elementary school, all the way through part of college in San Diego. We lived in Logan Heights,” Charles told me.

Shortly after, Charles and his parents traveled to Oklahoma on a short vacation. He was around nine years old.

“We went down to Sapulpa,Oklahoma to visit my father’s people. There were all kinds of instruments laying around their house; trombones, saxophones, drums, piano, whatever. I was there for a week and I had a chance to try all of them. I fell in love with a Silvertone alto saxophone made by Sears & Roebuck. Everyone in my dad’s family played an instrument. My Uncle Harry played the saxophone. My Uncle Herman played the trumpet and was pretty good. Aunt Eloise, my father’s sister, played piano and somebody played the drums. My dad liked to sing. He sounded a lot like the smooth lead singer of the Inkspot group. So, I just had a ball that week making all kinds of noise on all those horns and instruments. When I got back to San Diego, I asked my mom if I could get that Silvertone alto saxophone. She bought it for me and it cost fifty bucks,” Charles recalled.

I asked Charles who was his early influence on saxophone.

“Well, my first was Charlie Parker. I saw him in a movie and he had on this white coat and he was decked out, looking good and playing alto. Just something lit up in me. It was the best feeling. It was just beautiful to hear Bird play. I was eight or nine-years-old. I went to the Victory theater and there was Bird playing on the big screen. it was just heavenly. He thrilled my soul and made me happy.

“Everybody in my little gang of friends played saxophone. There was a guy named Johnny Hodges (not the famous Johnny Hodges) and then Daniel Jackson. Daniel would come by the house. We had a piano in the front room. He would play the piano and I would play saxophone. Then I would play piano and he would play saxophone. We’d learn songs together like,’I Remember April’ and ‘Cherokee’. Then there was James Hatcher. He played alto and we’re still buddies today. I got this gig with Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. They were the hottest band around San Diego during my high school years. We bought our little cars and kept them running off the gigs we played on the weekends. We had San Diego sewed up. Every time they had a house-party, people had to have Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. I was also inspired by Teddy Pico. He was a large, wonderful saxophone man and a big influence on all of us aspiring saxophone players. Daniel Jackson was another one of my main influences. He would show me stuff that would take me years to learn on my own. Growing up, I also loved Stan Getz. He played so pretty. Also, Gene Ammons was a big influence on me. I remember, as a kid, walking home from school and past this hole-in-the-wall joint that had a juke box. I’d hear Gene Ammons playing “My Foolish Heart” and it really spoke to me. I’d stand outside and listen.

“I majored in music and went to San Diego State for a couple of years and then went to Prayer View A & M University just outside of Houston, Texas. That’s where I met my wife, Mildred. We came back to San Diego from Houston. I was working at a ‘Jack in the Box’ making burgers and I thought, if I’m going to be in music, I’ve got to make a living some kind of way. So, I joined the Air Force to be in their band. That’s what kept me in music after college. My wife went on to college and I went to March Air Force base. It was a wonderful experience.”

When Charles Owens completed his stint in the Air Force, he continued his music education at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“I met Dwight Dickerson at Berklee. Dwight and I were playing in a strip joint. Dwight was playing piano. Hershel Dwellingham was playing drums and I was playing saxophone. We had a good time and made $125/week. I played the afternoon shift; 4 to 9PM. Dwight played from 9pm to whatever. Some kind of way, we became best friends. I’ll never forget this beautiful Puerto Rican lady. Oh, she hated my guts. She complained constantly that I never played the melody. He’s always playing some outside shit, she said. I did play the melody once, but after that, she was right. I was trying to be Coltrane,” Charles chuckled.

Charles Owens played with the Buddy Rich band from 1968 to 1970. He recorded with Buddy Rich in ’68, playing on an album titled, “The New One!” and he did some arranging on another album titled, “Mercy, Mercy.” In 1970, Charles began to play regularly with Mongo Santamaria and was a guest player on Mongo’s 1969 release of their “Afro-American Latin” album. On May 10, 1971, Owens relocated to Los Angeles and with the help of Ernie Watts and Don Menza, he became active as a studio session musician. The same year,Owens appeared on the Bobby Bryant CD, “Swahili Strut” and released his first album on the Discovery label titled, “Mother Lode.” In 1973, he played saxophone on Henry Franklin’s album, “The Skipper.” He talked to me about some of those studio sessions and television specials that he worked on.

“I had the pleasure of recording with Natalie Cole several times. I recorded with Marvin Gaye on the ‘Here My Dear’ album and Les McCann from time to time on his small band stuff. I didn’t record with Diana Ross, but I did play with her on tour for six weeks. I think I made $3,000 on that gig. That paid for my daughter’s birth. I worked with Michael Jackson too. It was a funny thing. He recorded all that great music, but he couldn’t sing the melody to A-Train. It was during a television taping and they tried and tried to teach him the melody,” Charles Owens sings me the melody that challenged Michael.

“But he just couldn’t learn that one part, so they discarded the idea of Michael singing A-Train. Another time, I worked with James Brown and this one night he forgot the words to ‘Livin’ in America’. He couldn’t remember the words to a song he had written, so they had to cancel the TV show we were taping. I also worked with H. B. Barnum and he was producing a lot of stuff. That work definitely helped me raise my family. By that time, we had a daughter and two sons.”

In 1978, he recorded with jazz vocalist, Lorez Alexandria, on an album titled, “A Woman Knows.” For this project he played flute and both soprano and tenor saxophones. Then, in 1979, Charles recorded his second album as bandleader, “The Two Quartets” for Discovery Records, featuring John Heard and Louie Spears as bassists, Alex Acuna and Carl Burnett on drums, Dwight Dickerson and Theo Saunders as pianists and Charles playing his tenor saxophone.

When the 80s rolled around, Charles Owens was in serious demand. He got the call to join the Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington.

“He would fly me out to New York.I’d make my little money and come back to L.A.,” Charles told me.

“It was a great inspiration to be around all of those truly wise and great players like Johnny Hodges, and hang out with Chuck Conners, a famous bass trombone player with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Also, Rudy Woods was another trombone player I met and Bubber (Miley). These are legendary Duke Ellington trombone players. It was like getting the stamp of approval for being a jazz player. It these cats dug you, they’d give you their flask and say, take a drink buddy. You’re alright. I was living my whole life, not wasting it. Being accepted by these real giants in the business, gave me that stamp of approval. Being around Mercer and Barrie Lee Hall Jr., a trumpet player that took the Cootie Williams spot in the orchestra, was great!”

NOTE:(Barrie Lee Hall was given Cootie William’s last trumpet when he joined the Ellington Orchestra. Barrie Lee was praised as one of the greatest plunger players of all times. He led the orchestra for about a year and sometime took over for Mercer Ellington in a leadership role when Mercer was absent.)

Around the same time,(1980), Charles recorded another album called, “Charles Owens New York Art Ensemble” with a group of iconic jazz players including bassist Ray Brown, pianist George Cables, drummer Roy McCurdy, that also featured James Newton and Red Callender. On this studio project they celebrated the music of Harry Warren. However, the album Charles Owens calls his ‘greatest achievement’ is the “Joy” album. That was released in 2010.

“That recording is the last one I did with Ron Carter, Mulgrew Miller and Lewis Nash on it. I flew back to New Jersey to record it in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. He was one of the greatest A&R men and that was my greatest achievement. It was a dream come true and I’m elated how it turned out. I believe it’s the best thing I ever put on a CD,”Charles shares with me.

There are many, many more albums that Charles Owens can be heard on. As a leader, back in 2007 he released the “So Far So Good” CD that he recorded in Europe, March 26th and 27th, right around his birthday.

Charles told me, “For the ‘So Far So Good’ recording, I flew to Germany. We played outside of Munich in a little town where this guy Steffan had a wonderful studio in the woods. Kirk Lightsey, Reggie Johnson and Doug Sides were living over there. It was really, really special working with Kirk Lightsey. Reggie Johnson is the bass player, that when Charlie Mingus died, he took Charlie Mingus’s place in the Mingus ensemble. He’s a great bass player. The record was released on the Organic Music label.”

Currently,the great Charles Owens has been sharing his talent, experience and knowledge with a plethora of young musicians, teaching both at UCLA and privately. Owens has an eye for talent. Back in the eighties, before anyone had ever really heard about saxophonist Rickey Woodard, Charles sent him to New Zealand to be our featured act at the grand opening of the first downtown jazz club in Auckland, that Dwight Dickerson and I hosted. Charles Owens was also one of the first to start singing the praises of Kamasi Washington. Both of these L.A. based musicians have skyrocketed in the jazz business and have become popular recording artists. Two other young lions he mentored are Azar Lawrence and Louis Taylor. He suggested Azar go to New York to further develop his career. The next thing he heard; Azar had landed a gig with McCoy Tyner. Charles tells me that Mr. Hamilton (who teaches at Berkley High School in Northern California) has sent him a number of excellent saxophone and bass students. A couple of young musicians that he recently has been mentoring are a San Diego trumpeter named Sam Kirdica and a Santa Barbara based saxophonist named Zane St. Andre. Professor Owens has high hopes for these two young talents.

The day I interviewed Charles, he told me he was leaving for Chicago, Illinois in the morning.

“I’m going to Chicago tomorrow to play with the Clayton/Hamilton orchestra and I’ll be back home Sunday. I’ve been playing in their band for about thirty years,” Charles alerted me.

I might add, he has recorded with this popular band on several occasions. Most recently, Owen’s recorded with the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra featuring Barbara Morrison and Ernie Andrews. The album is called,” The L.A. Treasures Project: Live at Alvas Showroom.” In 1995, he was part of their “Absolutely!” recording and in 1999 he played clarinet and tenor saxophone on their album titled, “Explosive.” In 2000, Owens played soprano and tenor sax on their “Shout Me Out!” album and again in 2005 on the “Live at MCG” recording.

“Speaking of big bands, I have my big band that’s going to be playing over at a French school on Pico near Beverly Glen this month. It’s a French private school where the children have to speak French and English in their curriculums. Then tomorrow we’ll be playing jazz in the Palisades for three and four-year-olds. The kids liked it so much last time we did it that the teacher wanted us to come back and do it again. Drummer, Donald Dean Sr. and I have been promoting jazz in the schools for several years. We have a Black History Month concert tomorrow on 108th Street. We did one yesterday at the 52nd St School and we were very well received,”
pride colors the tone of the reedman’s voice.

While riding to gigs that inspire our youth to appreciate jazz, you will find him playing “Soul Eyes” by John Coltrane on his car stereo system.

“That’s my favorite song right now. After teaching, I get into my car, turn it on and if I’m in traffic, it cools me right out. On ‘Soul Eyes’ Coltrane is really playing from the heart.”

When it comes to teaching and mentoring, Charles Owens has strong views about the best way to inspire students.

“I think it helps to have an older person, that knows what they’re doing, to tell you what to do and to be kind and offer positive suggestions. I try to explore what students can do better. I may encourage them to work on their tone or to practice, … but I always try to be nice. A teacher has to be able to inspire people. Sometimes you need to tell someone something to help them improve, but no matter how nice you tell them, they don’t want to hear it. A teacher’s job is to make them aware of what they have to do and to help them get to the next step. I’ve discovered that sometimes that helps me get to the next step. Teaching has taught me how to treat people. It’s so easy to give a person a compliment, along with the lesson, and see their face light up,” Charles counsels.

Finally, I asked Charles Owens, since he has lived on both coasts of the United States, what he thought the difference was between West Coast Jazz and East Coast Jazz?

“Well, the New York musicians tend to be a little more adventurous and a little less in tune than the West Coast musicians. The West Coast musicians are better musicians, because for a while there was so much work out here and you could get it if you could play in tune and if you could blend. Because of the studio sessions and the recording and performance band opportunities, West Coast musicians are a little more thoughtful about what they play. The New York musicians are more original and play a little more out of tune. That’s the difference I found,” Charles answered.

You can catch the Charles Owens Quartet on March 28th at the World Stage in Leimert Park. https://www.theworldstage.org/ He will also be in concert at The Merc in Temecula, California at the Sherry Williams venue for jazz on April 2nd.
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Christian Tumalan, piano/director/producer; Steffen Kuehn, trumpet/director/producer; SPECIAL GUESTS: Jon Faddis, trumpet; Dafnis Prieto, drums; Herman Olivera, vocals; Alex Britti, guitar.

The Pacific Mambo Orchestra is a Latin flavored orchestra full of celebration and celebrity. Now in their tenth year, PMO finally gained well-overdue recognition in 2013, when their crowd-funded, self-titled, debut album took home the GRAMMY for Best Tropical Latin Album. No newcomer to the big band circuit, they have performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Montreux Jazz Festival, San Francisco’s California Jazz Festival, The Aspen Jazz Fest, and many, many more. They are a popular orchestra that recently sold out their run at Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, California. You never know who is going to be featured with this ensemble of super talented musicians. The 20-piece orchestra is comprised of the Bay Area’s top talent featured with iconic names like Poncho Sanchez, Pete Escovedo, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, Prince and on this recording, trumpet legend Jon Faddis appears with the other well-known special guests listed above.

The orchestra’s take on the Chaka Khan hit recording, “Through the Fire” features Armando Cordobo and plush horn harmonics, along with Latin rhythms that happily dance and transform this R&B hit to a Latin treasure. The background voices add spiciness to the arrangement. The familiar, “A Night in Tunisia” tune features the stellar trumpet talents of Jon Faddis as soloist, and Dafnis Prieto is outstanding on drums. At times the Faddis trumpet sounds more like a whistle than a horn. His upper register notes are always mind-blowing.

Here is a musical project that never stops propelling you forward with energy, producing tune after tune that is danceable and joyful. This music will brighten any day and burns as hot and beautiful as any South American sunny day.
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Sarah Elgeti, tenor saxophone/flute/bass clarinet/arranger/composer; Sidsel Storm, vocals; Anders Krogh Fjeldsted, bass; Henrik Holst Hansen, drums; Nils Raae, keys/harmonica; Alexander Kraglund, violin; Soren Birkelund, clarinet; Marianne Caecillia Eriksen, baritone saxophone.

“Magical Thinking” opens this album with Sarah Elgeti’s flute smoothly delivering the melody. Ander Krogh Fjeldsted takes a brief but engaging solo on bass, followed by the piano keyboard creativity of Nils Raae. It’s an electronic presentation that layers instrumentation and makes the project very apropos for meditating and thinking magical thoughts. Sarah Elgeti has headed her own quartet since 2007. She is both composer and arranger, bringing her Scandinavian background and cultural heritage into play on this project. The multi-talented Ms. Elgeti plays tenor saxophone, flute, bass clarinet and writes both lyrics and music. On Track 2 she has Sidsel Storm interpret her composition, “Whereto?” with a soft, lyrical voice. Sidsel sings, “You have beheaded dragon after dragon, bathed in his blood. Did not become invulnerable nor tired…moving on your way again and again … transcending limitations.”

The arranger’s detail to blending woodwinds gives this production a pan piper feel of easy listening jazz. The pianist also has the distinction of being quite adept at playing harmonica and offers a solo that swings on the tune, “Changing Whispers.” Sarah Elgeti is a smooth reed player. She originally studied guitar and bass as a youth in Denmark, but at fifteen, began to play the tenor saxophone in her school orchestra. She found a passion for that instrument and you can hear this on their third track. She expanded her love of the reed instruments by mastering flute and the clarinet. Consequently, she has worked as a studio musician, performed in theatrical productions, played both classically and in a variety of ensembles. She’s worked as an educator and conducted big bands, so the lady from Denmark is quite versatile. Since forming this quartet, Sarah Elgeti has toured throughout Europe and Japan, featuring her original compositions and arrangements. This is the group’s fourth album release and on the whole, the music is very soothing and quite ‘laid-back.’
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Paul Shaw, drums/composer; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Brad Shepik, guitar; Gary Versace, piano; Drew Gress, acoustic bass.

Paul Shaw grew up in Southern New Jersey and was a child drummer who began playing the instrument at five-years-old. During a stint in the military, he gained experience by playing in their jazz orchestra in the 1st Marine Division Band at Camp Pendleton. Shaw moved from the Marines to the Air Force as a big band drummer. During his time in the Air Force, he performed with a variety of Air Force bands throughout Europe and the United States, including the United States Air Force Falconaires.

“Heartland” is the first tune and introduces us to Brad Shepik on guitar and the trumpeter, Alex Sipiagin. Gary Versace, on piano, lends a brilliant solo to this track. The tune is of moderate tempo with a well written melody that gives the ensemble players an opportunity to stretch out and improvise. Drummer, Paul Shaw, has composed every song on this album. On Track three, the ensemble introduces a pretty tune titled “Song for Everyone.” Once again, Shaw’s melody is prominent and repeatable, setting the stage for his musicians to dance atop the chord changes and fully express themselves. He graciously shares the spotlight with his ensemble members. It isn’t until the fifth song of this production that Paul Shaw steps out front and takes a dynamic drum solo. He shines on the song, “Peekaboo” and there’s nothing hidden about his talent on the trap drums.

Paul Shaw has played with quite a few notable jazz giants including Rufus Reid, Bill Watrous, Tom Coster, Johnny O’Neal, L.A. based guitarist and bandleader, Jacques Lesure, Donald Harrison and Oscar Brown Jr., to name just a few. But Shaw is not limited to jazz. He’s diverse. His drum chops have propelled the music of Wynonna Judd from the Country Western world and Celine Dion from the pop music charts. He has also worked with gospel icons, CeCe and BeBe Winans and in the next breath, he’s holding the rhythm in place behind the Blues Traveler. For a while he was a member of the Atlanta based quartet, The Swing Association, voted best jazz group in Atlanta. Currently living and working in New York City, this album is a successful representation of his drum mastery and his expert composer skills.

I also found the cover art by Mikela Swenson to be eye-catching and creative. It made me want to put the Paul Shaw Quintet CD on my CD player and spend the next fifty-plus minutes enjoying the quintet’s concert. This album will be released March 27, 2020.
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Keith Oxman & Houston Person, tenor saxophones; Annette Murrell, vocals; Jeff Jenkins, piano; Ken Walker, bass; Paul Romaine, drums.

Keith Oxman is a Denver-based saxophonist who has enjoyed collaborating with some very iconic players over the years. He’s recorded with saxophone master, Dave Liebman, great trombonist Curtis Fuller and San Diego based, famous reedman, Charles McPherson. This time, he has chosen the soulful player, Houston Person to join him on his “Two Cigarettes in the Dark” project. The two awesome sax players open with “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.” Oxman plays alone on Track two, to express his original composition titled, “Voss Is Boss.” During this arrangement, Paul Romaine is given an opportunity to showcase his creativity during a spirited trap drum solo. On “Everything Happens to Me” Oxman features Annette Murrell on vocals to sell these unique and beautiful lyrics. She does a delightful and believable job of telling the story, followed by Houston Person’s sexy sax solo and Keith Oxman’s satin smooth tenor playing. Both players are uniquely gifted and each offers their own specific style. Perhaps Charles McPherson described them best in the liner notes.

“I have known and been familiar with Houston Person’s great talent for years and consider him to be one of the important tenor stylists of note today. Keith, with his long flowing lines and Houston with his warm, soulful rich tone and melodic strength create a contrast of tenor styles which works well on this CD,” wrote McPherson.

When not gigging or recording, Keith Oxman has been teaching at Denver’s East High School for the past twenty years. Perhaps with some sarcastic humor, he has named one of his original compositions ‘Murphy’s Law Impacts L.E.A.P.’ This refers to a controversial program for Colorado teachers that is less than popular.

On the title tune, “Two Cigarettes in the Dark” Jeff Jenkins soars on the 88-keys, making his musical statement on the piano with strong mastery. The Hank Mobley tune, “Bossa for Baby” is Latin flavored, but Houston Person and Keith Oxman manage to pump a bluesy feel throughout the tune.

Benny Golson hailed Keith Oxman as a musician ‘of great consequence.’ NPR Radio Network described Houston Person as ‘one of the most soulful jazz players on the scene.’ Put them together and you are blessed with an album of virtuosity and joy.
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John Di Martino, piano/arranger; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; Boris Kozlov, bass; Lewis Nash, drums; Raul Midon, vocals.

If you are a lover of Billy Strayhorn and his incredible legacy of compositions, this is an album you must add to your collection. Pianist, John DiMartino has chosen fourteen of Strayhorn’s awesome songs to interpret on this album and every one of them is well-played and beautifully arranged. Strayhorn is certainly one of America’s greatest composers of the 20th century and was an integral part of Duke Ellington’s legacy and orchestra. On this album, you will hear those familiar tunes that have become jazz standards and a sprinkling of those that may not be as familiar. But every single song and Di Martino’s arrangement on each, is noteworthy. The tenor saxophone of Eric Alexander pleasantly captures the spotlight and compliments Di Martino’s excellent piano creativity. On “Isfahan (Elf)”, the fifth cut on this project, dynamic drummer Lewis Nash is featured and trades fours with gusto. We also get to enjoy the big bass sound of Boris Kozlov during this tune. Kozlov echoes the melody of the song, playing tag with Eric Alexander’s sax lines and it makes for a very interesting arrangement. “Lush Life” features the warm vocals of Raul Midon. “Chelsea Bridge” is radiantly interpreted by Eric Alexander and when John Di Martino follows with his solo, we are reminded how beautiful this Strayhorn composition really is. You will enjoy all your Billy Strayhorn favorites including “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” “Daydream” and of course, “A-Train.” I could not find video of his current trio, but here is John DiMartino playing “Daydream” solo.

The title tune, “Passion Flower” is often tooted as one of Strayhorn’s finest compositions. The great composer seems to have had a love affair with flowers. You will also hear this quartet’s renditions of “Absinthe (Lament for an Orchid)” and “Lotus Blossom.” Whichever tune is your favorite, they are all represented well by the quality and passion of these musicians.
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In conclusion, On March 12, 2020, inside the Rose Theater of the Jazz at Lincoln Center venue, a legendary saxophonist, composer, bandleader, educator and NEA Jazz Master will be honored in New York. We lost the great Jimmy Heath on Jan 19, 2020. This will be his memorial celebration. Doors open at 6:30pm and the event will begin promptly at 7pm. General seating is first come first serve. His celebration of life will be webcast live via jazz.org/live.
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  1. REVIEW: The Pacific Mambo Orchestra Reviewed By Musical Memoir's Blog - LYDIALIEBMAN.COM Says:

    […] By Dee Dee McNeil, Musical Memoir’s Blog […]

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