|On a black, late-September afternoon, a mist which threatens to become a monsoon is slapping against a large window of a music rehearsal room at the University of North Florida. Outside the window, a lone student trudges slowly, head down, shoulders hunched against the swirling rain.
In the rehearsal room, six young jazz musicians pay no attention to the lousy weather. They're poised to make music. The piano player flexes his fingers while the drummer twirls his sticks and the electric-guitar player adjusts his sheet music. The trumpet player and saxophonist raise their horns. The bass player massages his strings. Their eyes are riveted on their teacher, who's tapping his foot to kick off a tune written by a member of the group.
The teacher is Jazz Hall of Famer Rich Matteson, the University of North Florida's director of jazz studies and Koger Distinguished Professor of American Music. He started the jazz studies program in 1986. "This is what makes it fun, man. The kids are producing," Matteson chirps after each member of the group solos.
Matteson, 60, banters easily with the students. He gently scolds the guitarist, who wrote the composition, for not penciling in changes on a trumpet solo. He smiles, tells him it's a good work, and offers a suggestion to polish the piece. When the group launches into another song, Matteson grabs his euphonium and joins in. The euphonium looks like a small tuba. According to Matteson, he's the only musician in the world to play jazz on the euphonium as a full-time instrument.
"Let me play my horn. I love this tune," Matteson says as he fingers the valves of the euphonium and moistens his lips. His upper lip has thickened from years of blowing the horn. The two-hour class is a microcosm of Matteson's 40 years in jazz. He loves to teach the tunes and he loves to play them. Matteson has made his reputation as an educator and a player.
The walls of his tiny office are lined with photographs of professional jazz musicians he's played with. There's a photo of drummer Louis Bellson; the inscription to Matteson reads "They don't come any better." Another photo shows Matteson with Louis Armstrong. Cat Anderson, lead trumpet player for Duke Ellington, and Matteson are arm-in-arm in a photo. Above a shiny, black Yamaha piano, which takes up a good portion of the office, is a picture of Matteson and the Dukes of Dixieland.
These are the souvenirs of his playing days. Scattered over his desk are the tools of a teacher and administrator. They include a grade book, musical arrangements for his students, and forms to be signed. Students and faculty members constantly pop into his office. Sam Fricano, conductor of the St. Johns River City Band, stops by for a quick chat about an upcoming concert.
Matteson's first visit to Jacksonville was to play with the band in 1985. Ira Koger, local office park developer and arts patron, attended the concert and enjoyed Matteson's playing so much he asked him back for the Jacksonville Jazz Festival later that year. After the jazz festival, Koger invited Matteson and his wife, Michelle, to a party aboard his boat. "The first thing Ira said was, 'All right, Rich, what the heck is it going to take to get you here?'" says Matteson, who was a jazz professor at North Texas State University at the time. "I had no idea what he had in mind."
On the plane back to Texas, Michelle Matteson told her husband about a conversation she had with Koger. "Ira told my wife he couldn't find out what it would take to get me to move here," Matteson says. "He asked her what if he gave me my own school of music. Would that do it?" Matteson laughed when his wife related the conversation. It's not every day someone offers you a school of music as an incentive to move. He called it an incredible dream.
Dream or not, Matteson wasn't taking any chances. He sent his biography to Koger along with a letter. In the letter, he told Koger he wanted to stay in jazz education because he had to work with kids and play to be happy. That was his formula for happiness, but he still had no idea what Koger had in store. He found out a few weeks later, when he got a phone call from Curtis McCray, then the president of UNF. McCray and Koger wanted Matteson to set up a school of jazz studies.
Matteson showed a contract offer from McCray to his dean at North Texas State. The dean told him it was the opportunity of a lifetime. Matteson's incredible dream was becoming reality. He and his wife moved here in August of 1986 after 13 years at North Texas State. Lenard Bowie, chairman of the UNF department of music, says McCray's goal in 1985-86 was to get an endowment for the fine arts department because it's so visible. According to an August 17, 1986, article in The Florida Times-Union, Koger donated $600,000 to establish the school of American Music.
"It was the intent of the Koger endowment to develop a program focusing on America's legacy in music," Bowie says. "It's only appropriate it start with jazz. You can't talk about American music without talking about jazz."
How do you go about starting a jazz studies program? Matteson says the secret is assembling a good faculty. He likened his position to that of a football coach. When a new coach is hired, he brings in his own hand-picked assistants. Matteson gave the UNF official a list of professors he wanted to hire. No problem, coach. The professors has asked for are now teaching jazz at UNF.
The football theme continues when Matteson ticks off the credentials of his faculty. You expect them to race into his office and exchange high-fives when their names are called.
"Jack Petersen - taught at North Texas State. Known all over the world as a top guitar teacher. Bruce Silva - lead trumpet player with the Jazz Ambassadors, the official US Army touring jazz group. Bill Prince - taught at Florida Atlantic University. Played with the Buddy Rich Band. Bunky Green - world famous saxophone artist. Taught at Chicago State University." Word travels fast on the jazz grapevine. The day after the announcement of Petersen's hiring, six guitar students called to say they were coming to UNF.
Matteson has an accent, but it's difficult to pinpoint the region. He was born in Minnesota. His family moved to Illinois when he was 17. Over the years, Matteson has played in cities from Las Vegas to New York, with stops in towns all along the way. His accent is a mixture of everywhere he's played. Matteson's father was an elementary and high school band director known for his ability to take a small band and build it up. Matteson is doing the same thing with the jazz studies program. The program has grown from 32 students the first year to 70 students this year. They are from Florida as well as Washington, DC; Oregon; Nebraska; Ohio; Colorado; Georgia; and Kansas. There's even a student from Tokyo who came to UNF to study euphonium under Matteson. The program had its first graduate in December.
Matteson says the students are as good a group of musicians as you will find anywhere. A UNF Dixieland band won the Collegiate National Dixieland Championship. Mike Johnston, a trumpet student, won the International Trumpet Guild competition last August. "This is going to become the top jazz school in American, believe me," Matteson says. He has a habit of tacking phrases or single words onto sentences for emphasis. His conversation is laced with rhetorical attention grabbers like "you see what I'm saying," "got it," "right," "understand," and his favorite, "OK".
Matteson predicts that it will take less than five years for UNF to join North Texas State, the University of Indiana, and the University of Miami as the big four among jazz programs. Noel Freidline, who plays piano, attended Wichita State University for two years. He intended to transfer to North Texas State until he learned Matteson had left. Freidline transferred to UNF instead. "I heard Rich Matteson play when I was in high school," Freidline says. "He talked to me and I was impressed by him as a person and liked his ideas about jazz."
"UNF, right now, has the best jazz faculty you'll find anywhere. The school is also full of great players." Bowie, the music department chairman, is very happy with what Matteson has accomplished so far. When asked his opinion of Matteson, Bowie offered this modest comparison. "I call him the second coming of Moses. He's the finest thing that ever happened to this department. He is one tremendous musician and is great in terms of his interaction with people."
Bowie added that the success of the jazz studies program has had a spin-off effect on the classical music program at the school. "We are getting more classical students because they perceive UNF as a place where the action is and they want a piece of it," Bowie says.
Matteson says one of the main purposes of the jazz program is to train students to make a living playing music. Noel Freidline and two other students play every Sunday night at Grenamyer's, a local jazz club. Another group from UNF plays regularly at Richard's Jazz Restaurant in St Augustine. Last summer, several jazz students played aboard cruise ships out of Hawaii, Miami, and Seattle. "I get calls all the time about jobs," Matteson says.
St. Johns River City Band Director Sam Fricano met Matteson 20 years ago in San Antonio, Texas, when Fricano was touring with an Army band. He and Matteson got together for a jam session. "Rich is an exceptionally gifted performer," Fricano says. "He's one of the great jazz performers in the country and is known as a great educator also. His jazz studies program is certainly good for the music community because it brings good, young players to Jacksonville." Fricano says three or four UNF students play with the River City Band on a regular basis. Others are used as substitute players.
According to Matteson, his most difficult challenge in starting the jazz program was convincing people it could be done. He says people are still amazed by how well his students play. His future plans for the jazz program include an electronic music laboratory and the installation of computers for students to use when they write music.
"I just love it here," Matteson says, breaking into a large smile. "I've never wished I didn't come. I've been treated wonderfully." Matteson is out of town several weekends a year putting on teaching clinics at colleges and high schools across the country. Clinics are in the afternoon. The nights are left open so he can play concerts. The world's only full-time jazz euphonium player probably would describe his clinician work this way:
"Teaching kids and blowing your horn - got it? It's the ultimate gig - right? You see what I'm saying? OK."
Reprinted with permission from Folio Weekly, 8101 Philips Highway, Suite 14, Jacksonville, FL 32256
|RICH MATTESON: THE ULTIMATE GIG,
TEACHING AND BLOWING
by Tom Cain
Folio Weekly - March 20, 1990