Nolan Stolz Quartet @ the Las Vegas Jazz Festival

Today: July 24, 2001 at 9:02:33 PDT Cool school: Local colleges revive jazz for Las Vegas students
By Jennifer Knight
On a hot Saturday afternoon beneath Fremont Street's steel canopy, the cool liquid sound of John Coltrane pours over an aging crowd like a fountain of youth.

The horn section wails away on brass instruments in small tornadoes of syncopated sound. And the tap, tap, tap of the drummer's cymbals are in perfect cool rhythm to the 1950s jazz music, pushing back time for a moment.

Aside from two-day jazz festivals similar to these, jazz has faded from the smoky bars and nightclubs of Las Vegas, where it was once king. Yet, in a city that remakes itself every decade, this American art form is experiencing a reincarnation in an unexpected place: the halls of academe.

"Jazz is alive and well, but more in the colleges and universities than in the public arena," said Tom Ferguson, past president of the International Association of Jazz Educators and a music teacher at the Community College of Southern Nevada.

Music students are increasingly interested in the study of jazz. The draw comes partly from younger students who view jazz as fresh and exciting. But the education at Las Vegas institutions of higher learning offers two valuable assets: more experienced teachers and the opportunity to learn improvisation.

"I believe that a lot of music students have something inside of them that needs to be expressed, and with jazz, you actually have the opportunity to speak your own opinions," Stefan Karlsson, coordinator of UNLV's jazz studies, said.

The number of students majoring in jazz studies at UNLV has more than tripled in five years, from 20 students to 65.

"Every year there's definitely been an increase," Karlsson said. "Our jazz bands are used all the time. University-wide, we send out groups all over campus and all over the city."

Among some of the musicians at the Fremont Street Jazz Festival in June was 20-year-old Nolan Stolz, a UNLV senior who plays the drums. He and his peers are the new generation of jazz musicians getting their education in classrooms rather than the road.

"My generation is very interested in retro," Stolz said. "What's nice about the jazz era is you can put on a record and not worry about anything. You just listen to the beauty of it."

While Stolz' peers were tuned into MTV, he had his own list of music idols that included Buddy Rich, Miles Davis and Gene Krupa.

"I listen to rock now, and that stuff just seems very primitive," Stolz said.

CCSN has experienced a similar renaissance in its jazz program. The Jazz Combo Camp, run by Ferguson, is designed to keep the music alive by reaching out to a younger generation. When the program began four years ago, it had only 20 students. This year there are 70.

Now the school has two big bands instead of one, and five combos.

"There are no jazz clubs to play now," Ferguson said. "That's why the old guys like me come and play at the colleges."

Students going into the field are aware of the hardships that face them. Some, such as Camille Jentgen, a 21-year-old senior majoring in jazz, plan to teach jazz for that reason.

"I don't think that we think of jazz ever becoming as popular as rock or pop," Jentgen said. "That's almost the attraction, I guess. It's our own special music in a way."

Stoltz said that he is prepared to rough it.

"It's really rough whereever you go for a gigging musician," he said. "There's never been anything else that I wanted to do. It's a matter of how you want to make your money."

The growth of the jazz movement in higher education circles is heartening to older musicians who feared that this art form would die with them.

Jazz began to trail away from the national mainstream after the young generation in the '60s and '70s turned to rock 'n' roll. There was still a place in Vegas for live band, though. At the height of the 1950s and '60s, more than 800 musicians worked in town. Now there are 100, according to Ferguson.

Local jazz greats such as trombonist Carl Fontana feasted on a daily diet of live band shows at the time, and the work looked as though there was no end in sight. A musicians strike in the 1980s changed all of that. Shows began going to prerecorded music, and musicians found jobs a scarce commodity.

"There were guys that really believed that this would never end," said Barry Ross, musical director of the Nevada Jazz Orchestra, who once traveled with Woody Herman's band and the Glen Miller Band. "When it did, they were living from paycheck to paycheck."

Over the past 40 years music programs have begun to take the study of jazz as a legitimate music form, something that was shunned in music education during the '60s. Since then programs have proliferated throughout the country with more than 65 colleges and universities offering such studies, according to DownBeat magazine, a jazz industry publication.

The revitalization of jazz in education circles is breeding a different brand of musician, Ross says. While many students are learning from experienced musicians, they aren't getting the same experience that jazz players got on the road.

"I learned things that none of these kids are going to experience, because there's no place to learn how to do it" Ross said. "That really worried me. Much of these nuances will die out."

Clinics and camps such as the one run by Ferguson make use of players such as Fontana to teach the tricks of the trade and bring some of that practical experience to the classroom.

Fontana is 72 and plans to go on for as long as he can.

"I feel like I'm passing the baton on (to the younger generation)," he said.

UNLV has had some successes. One of its alums backs "The Rat Pack is Back" at Sahara, Karlsson said.

But for the most part, that is the exception rather than the rule, Ross said.

"I don't know what they have to look forward to," he said, "but I can tell you what (jazz band leader) Stan Kenton said once. 'The ones that are really good and the ones that are really talented are going to find something.' It seems that way."