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A Different Course

Despite Retirment, OCC Jazz

April 21, 1999|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The rumors of Charles "Doc" Rutherford's retirement from Orange Coast College are exaggerated.

Officially, Rutherford did retire after 31 years as a jazz instructor at the Costa Mesa community college. In fact, there was a big surprise retirement party for him last December with many of his former pupils, now professional musicians, in attendance.

Still, three days and some nights each week this semester, he can be found on campus directing bands.

"The original idea was to retire," Rutherford said. "I had four classes last semester. This semester I only have three."

You could say he's back by popular demand. Most of his students take his classes over and over each semester, often for years on end. Some, such as pianist Ron Levy, have postponed full-time professional careers just to continue working with the instructor.

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"After a couple years in his class, I'd really picked up a lot and thought I was ready to go out on my own," Levy said. "Doc said to me, 'No, no, you've just scratched the surface.' Now I'm in my sixth year with the band, and I still feel that I've only scratched the surface. He's a great master teacher and I intend to stay at the master's feet as long as I can."

A number of well-known professionals have studied with Rutherford over the years and gone on to visible positions in the jazz world. Among them: saxophonist Eric Marienthal, who played for years with Chick Corea and has a number of his own albums out on GRP and other labels; saxophonist and big-band leader Tom Kubis, now an instructor at Golden West College in Huntington Beach whose band arrangements are played by college and high school ensembles across the country; trumpeter Ron Stout, heard with the Horace Silver group and many of the area's best big bands, drummer Paul Kreibich a first-call percussionist who backs legions of singers and jazz bands. The list continues: saxophonist Doug Webb (Freddie Hubbard), valve trombonist Mike Fahn, smooth-jazz star Greg Vail, and drummer John Ferraro.

"I've been fortunate to work with some great musicians over the years," said Rutherford, known for talking up his students while saying little about himself.

Rutherford, who was reared in Hayden, Colo., and played quarterback for the University of Northern Colorado, was a high school band instructor in Greybull, Wyo., in 1967 when he was offered the job at Orange Coast. He originally turned it down for a position in Denver. But after seeing the facilities and support offered at OCC, he changed his mind.

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He began directing the school's marching and concert bands, while teaching one jazz class. "But so many people started signing up for jazz that pretty soon I had two classes, then three. At that point, the chairman decided that would be my job. I've had as many as five different jazz bands going there."

Rutherford's groups give concerts at OCC, often with notable alumni or other recognized jazz artists as guests. They also record. The most recent offering, "Bebop & Beyond" was cut in the spring of 1998 with Rutherford's "All Star Jazz Ensemble," a group made up of members of his twice-a-week jazz improvisation class. Veterans Marienthal and Stout make guest appearances.

The group celebrated the release of the CD with a performance recently at Restaurant Kikuya in Huntington Beach. Between sets, Rutherford told anyone and everyone that his ensemble was sounding much better at that night's performance than it did on the CD.

The group is a loose amalgamation of semiprofessionals, amateurs and students. Rutherford has changed his teaching methods in the last few years, forgoing written music entirely, requiring the band members to memorize every bit of the play list. The idea is to get them to forget about reading charts, conceptualize the music, and concentrate on communicating.

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Their performance seems to prove the idea is working. In a first set of some 17 numbers arranged or written by Rutherford, the band showed improvisational spark, spontaneity and a convincing group feel.

Most of the material--"Honeysuckle Rose," "Stella by Starlight," "Someone to Watch Over Me"--was familiar. The arrangements were not. Rutherford adds unexpected chord changes, surprise ensemble accents and the occasional witty mention of other tunes, all of which keeps the musicians on their toes.

When asked when he'll actually retire, Rutherford hedges. "I usually teach two courses in the summer, so maybe things will change in the fall. We've got 10 songs done for the next album, and I want to do four more, so I want to stay with it. But I imagine I'm going to have to let one or two of the bands go. We have an excellent instructor now, Keith Bishop, a saxophonist with Buddy Rich for several years."

The retirement of Doc Rutherford--a work in progress.

* For information on obtaining the All Star Jazz Ensemble's "Bebop & Beyond" or other recordings from Rutherford's Jazz Pacific Orchestra write Jazz Pacific, Charles Rutherford, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Road, 92626. Or call (714) 432-5819.

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