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Keeping Up With Jones

Mentor-inspired trumpeter to become a big band leader himself.

June 25, 1998|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's nothing quite like having a grand mentor. And that's just what Jimmy McConnell got when Thad Jones encouraged him to start a big band.

Trumpeter-arranger-composer McConnell and his wife, Sue Ann, were living in Kansas City when the band led by Jones--a fine modern jazz orchestral composer--and his partner, drummer Mel Lewis, came to town. They played the Fabulous Mark IV, a posh jazz club that the McConnells owned.

"I told Thad how I wanted a band, and he's really the one that got me started, giving me insights, encouragement and some charts as well," said McConnell, who played the Fabulous Mark IV for seven years before moving to Los Angeles in 1984. A year later, he cranked up his L.A.-based unit. McConnell now lives in Chatsworth, and his band plays Sunday at Crazy Jack's in Burbank.

McConnell's band offers some of Jones' best tunes, including the wildly up-tempo yet decidedly swinging "Fingers," a feature for the saxophone section; the boisterous and moderately brisk "Cherry Juice," which has a nice blues tinge; and the lovely ballad, "A Child is Born," now a jazz standard.

Despite the Jones imprimatur, the leader says his ensemble is no clone of the jazz ace's. "We have our own sound, a full, dark sound with all the chords there," said McConnell.

To get this sound, the Roston, La., native blends the approaches of Jones and Lewis, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie, coming forth with a band that swings and can be downright bluesy but has an air of sophistication.

"We don't do any corny charts," said the leader, matter-of-fact. Some other numbers McConnell has in the repertoire are Sammy Nestico's "Wind Machine," written for Basie, and "Cry Me a River," a ballad featuring singer LaDee Streeter.

McConnell's band gets its tight sound because it rehearses every week, said the trumpeter, who also works Sundays at the Casino at Hollywood Park in Inglewood. "We'll do a passage over and over until we've got it."

He makes a point, he said, of playing for the listener, or the dancers, not for himself. "I'm there to make the people happy," he said.

* Jimmy McConnell's big band plays Sunday, 12:30-3:30 p.m., at Crazy Jack's, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. No cover, no minimum. (818) 845-1121.

I Goofed: The wonderful bebop band led by altoists Lanny Morgan and Med Flory, two superb Charlie Parker devotees, didn't play Wednesday, as indicated in last week's column, but play tonight, from 7-11. Hopefully, your schedule still allows you the time to check out the delightfully hard-swinging unit, which offers such classic numbers as "Cherokee" and "Confirmation" with utter ebullience. Monteleone's West (19337 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana; no cover; without dinner, $9.95 food/drink minimum; [818] 996-0662).

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