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Jazz Man : Eagle Rock High Searches for Successor to Its Sultan of Swing

May 21, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

For 19 years, Eagle Rock High School has bounced to the beat of be-bop, do-wop and swing. The Eagle Rock High School Jazz Band regularly ranked in the top five nationwide. Its students played in the prestigious Monterey Jazz Festival All-Star Band and a number became professional musicians.

But the rhythm may slow June 19 when John T. Rinaldo, the man who made all this possible, retires. The school must find a qualified jazz teacher to replace him. So far, it has had no luck.

"We're really having an awful time. We've been all around the country," said Rinaldo, a robust man of 59 whose peculiar mix of syncopation and strictness put Eagle Rock on the musical map.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has asked the jazz teacher to look for a successor who will continue the tradition of what Rinaldo called "Big-Band swing jazz in the Duke Ellington style." A district spokesman said the position pays $20,300 to $35,400, depending on experience.

District May Make Selection

Unless Rinaldo rustles up a qualified jazz specialist within several months, the district will select its own music teacher, someone who may not have Rinaldo's extensive jazz credentials, said Frank Harris, performing arts music adviser for senior high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. And, if that happens, some educators fear that Eagle Rock High's days as a high-flying jazz band may end.

"When you get a program that has grown to national stature and spawned many fine players like this one has . . . it would be very unfortunate to just let that die and bring in perhaps someone who did not have the background to oversee it successfully," said Bill McFarlin, executive director of the National Assn. of Jazz Educators.

Added Eagle Rock High's Principal Gloria R. Webster: "John built this program. He devoted time on his own to work with students, to work with parents, to getting these kids to learn music. He's irreplaceable."

After almost two decades of teaching five classes a day, however, Eagle Rock's Sultan of Swing is determined to be replaced.

"I'm really getting sort of burnt out," Rinaldo said. He also wants to devote more time to his first love--playing professional jazz. Over the years, he has worked professionally with Louie Bellson, Woody Herman, Lawrence Welk and Bob Crosby. Today he often does session work and occasionally plays with jazz bands at the Beverly Wilshire and Beverly Hills hotels.

But, before he can pick up his trumpet again full-time, there's a week-long seminar in Chicago this summer where he will show other instructors how to teach jazz music.

By all accounts, it's a subject at which Rinaldo excels.

"He's improved my playing tremendously and made me aware of good jazz," said Pablo Monk, a 13-year-old trombone player in the Eagle Rock band.

Students Turn Professional

"He was really strict, but he got a lot of us really into it," recalled David Stone, who played in Eagle Rock's high school jazz band in the early 1970s and is now a professional musician.

Whether they're playing "Little Groovy One" or "Swing Now, Pay Later," Rinaldo has his students' tennis shoes tapping and eyes dancing.

One day this week, clad in a paisley shirt made by his wife (who sews most of his shirts), Rinaldo perched on his high-backed stool. He kept time with drumsticks as the senior high school jazz band launched into "Los Hermanos de Bop"--a Latin jazz number that Rinaldo jokingly referred to as "Herman."

From time to time, he hefted a trumpet into the air and blew a few notes to keep the class on tempo. More than once, he bellowed commands, noting with disdain that the class sounded like a "cantina band."

"I'm really tired of dumb playing back there. You clowns better get on it," he growled.

Reins In Show-Off

Later, he bawled out a showoff who was adding flourishes to his music. "You've got to get excited about your playing, but you've got to look to what everybody else is doing, too," he admonished.

What gets Rinaldo most riled, however, is his belief that music ranks low on the list of educational priorities and that jazz is virtually ignored.

"If they have another state cutback, it may wipe out the bands altogether," Rinaldo said. "Pretty soon, there won't be any music left. We'll all be walking around punching adding machines."

Another disappointment is that the band won't be taking a hoped-for tour of the Soviet Union. The Soviets invited the Eagle Rock band as part of a cross-cultural exchange through Educators for Social Responsibility, and the national nonprofit peace group hoped to make a documentary film of the excursion. But the $250,000 needed for travel and film expenses couldn't be raised.

Rates High in Competitions

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