Frank Gagliardi - The Daddy of UNLV Jazz Ensemble

by PATRICK GAFFEY

It could have been Rio; it could have been Tokyo; it was probably Milan.  A furtive, middle-aged American couple in an empty street are tugging, yanking, struggling to peel a poster from a foreign wall.  "Is that a policeman?" asks the man, looking over his shoulder past his straining arm.

 

The woman puffs, "Just keep pulling, Frank."

Frank Gagliardi is a quiet man, anonymous on the streets of Milan or las Vegas.  Despite the fact that he has made the UNLV Jazz Ensemble into one of the finest university jazz bands in the world, his name is not well known.  Anyway, most of those who do know his name mispronounce it.  (The second "g" is silent.)

 

In the community of musicians though, Gagliardi is not only known, but respected and admired.  Jazz legends go out of their way to work with Gagliardi and the Jazz Ensemble.  Jazz stars like reedmen Don Menza and Bud Shank, drummer Louis Bellson, trumpeters Bobby Shew, Jack Sheldon, Doc Severinsen, Chuck Findley and Freddie Hubbard, multi-instrumentalist Gus Man­ cuso, trombone legend Carl Fontana and singer Marlena Shaw not only perform with the band, but work with the students.  "One of the best supporters and fans," he says, "is Joe Williams.  Some­ times he'll just come in to listen to a rehearsal." Williams, one of the greatest singers of jazz or blues, known for his extensive work with Count Basie, has performed with the Ensemble again and again.  He was also instrumental in placing one Ensemble alumnus, Dennis Mackrell, behind the drum set in the Count Basie Orchestra.

These jazz godfathers, or mothers in the case of Shaw, are part of a network of musical relationships Gagliardi built during his career.

The most varied part of that career was spent, surprisingly, in Gagliardi's native Denver.  Inspired by watching an older brother's band rehearsals, he was immediately captivated by drummers and started on drums at eight.  He stud­ ied all of drumming, and then the other percussion instruments.

"Having started so early," he says, "by the time I was fifteen or sixteen, I was already playing some pretty nice jobs," working at shows and dances.  Just as he entered the University of Denver out of high school, he was offered the second percussionist's chair with the Denver Symphony.  He recalls, "It was almost overwhelming, because it was al­ most a major orchestra.  I sort of grew up in that orchestra." And he performed with it for fifteen years, becoming its first percussionist and then tympanist.  "I was fortunate not only to play with an excellent orchestra with a fine con­ ductor, but also under Leopold Stokowski, Igor Stravinski, Andre Kostelanetz, and with soloists like Heifetz, Stern...."

Through college, he continued to play "jazz jobs and shows," including such prestigious jobs as the Denver appearances of the Hi-Lo's and the Modern-Aires and an entire summer with the Woody Herman Sextet.  "At an early age, I was earning a great living at music." Every summer the Metropolitan Opera would come to Central City near Denver.  "I was asked to play tympani with key men from their symphony," which gave Gagliardi extensive experience with the opera world.

With such an extensive classical past, and a present position as tympanist for the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra, It is interesting to hear Gagliardi compare the worlds of classical music and Jazz: "I have seen, through the years, the development of a top symphonic musician and a top jazz artist.  They both travel the same path of technique, sensitivity, repertoire, and intonation, but the jazz musician, in addition to this, is either born with or develops the art of improvising, of being able to reproduce on the instrument what he feels inside or hears in his mind, on the spur of the moment.

"A few years back the New York Philharmonic was here.  We were at a party and someone asked the famous flutist Julius Baker who his favorite musician was, and he said Charlie Parker.

"I don't want it to sound like one is better than the other, but when I see the true jazz artist, it's incredible.  People don't seem to realize.  Last year, we had scheduled at one of our Jazz concerts, as soloist, [the late) Lockjaw Davis.  And Lockjaw was getting sick.  He was pretty sick with cancer.  He reluctantly took our job, because he was worried.  A month before the concert, he called me and bowed out.  What he said was monumental.  He said, 'I'm getting so that I can't play what I'm hearing.' Boyl That's a dynamite line.  That's the thing about jazz.  They play on the spot what they hear."

Still a member of the Denver Symphony, his education finished, Gagliardi walked into the University of Denver mu­ sic department one day to find, "some of the students were trying to do a jazz band rehearsal." They asked him for "some pointers."

Under Gagliardi's direction, the ragged group quickly became the University of Denver Stage Band.  Four years later Gagliardi took the band to the only na­ tional competition then existing, at Notre Dame, and encountered for the first time Miami, North Texas State and the other heavyweights of collegiate jazz.  Denver came in fifth.

A quick study, Gagliardi brought his band back the following year and took first place against the nation's best.  In the audience were representatives of the State Department, which was then using jazz extensively to represent the U.S.  overseas.  Gagliardi's band was picked for a two-month tour of the Far East.

"Boyl" he says, "That stirred up a lot of things in Denver.  When we came back, everybody in the band was a hero." The band did tour the Far East, but without Gagliardi; he had already moved on.

"After 15 years in the Symphony, which I dearly loved, teaching both percussion and jazz at the University-and I was so grateful because my back­ ground covered everything-I felt I had to think about a change.  How many times can you play Tchalkovsky's 4th and Beethoven's 'Erolca'1"

While he had spent so much time playing classical music and jazz, he says, "One of my first loves was playing great shows.  I loved being In the pit."

Gagliardi had married early, "but everything worked." He met Charleen, now a respected Southern Nevada artist, "walking through the park one day." Now she accompanies Frank and the band on international tours.  Charleen's small works, wall hangings and even free standing work is all made .ot paper, and her sharp eye picks out interesting paper wherever she goes.  She has collected a myriad of oriental papers from Japan, and has conscripted Frank as an assistant in obtaining the paper of many countries in whatever way necessary, including ripping down posters in public places.  But the blue-clad arm they've been expecting still hasn't clapped them on the shoulders.

In the early sixties, when the Sands was the home of Sinatra and the rest of the day's biggest names, Frank and Charleen went to Las Vegas once a year.  "I used to love the shows," he says.  "I used to love seeing the 15-piece bands with big string sections.

"As luck would have it, one day I was at the musicians' union in Denver, and in walked Antonio Morelli, music director for the Sands, looking for a drummer who could also play all of the percussion instruments." With Charleen's enthusiastic backing, Gagliardi accepted a month's tryout at the Sands.  At the end of the month, Morelli offered him the job, and he took it.  "A lot of my friends said, 'You must be crazy.'

"I thought Charleen and I would stay six months and have some fun, but we never went back.  While I was In Denver, I was working all the time and I never saw my kids, who were seven and nine.  Then I came out here and discovered I could make more money playing two shows a night.  And I could spend time with my family.  Of course, our friends said, 'Oh, my goodness, you'd raise your kids there?' I'm happy to say, 'You bet I did.'

One of Gagliardi's dreams, to play with Frank Sinatra, came true at the Sands.  "It was the heyday of the Sands, and his.  The thrill of [playing with a great artist) makes every hardship, every disappointment, worth It.  And I think every professional musician knows exactly what I'm talking about.  On a certain night, a certain show, a given night when everything is right: The band, the audience, the performer; it's a feeling that's unexplainable." That feeling Is the ultimate reward Gagliardi has received again and again in his career, not only with Sinatra, but "in the symphonic world, the Jazz shows ...that happened so much to me that I feel very lucky about it all."

In 1971 or '72, UNLV music department Chairman Ken Hanlon asked Gagliardi if he would take over the UNLV jazz band.  He agreed to do it part time.  Just as in Denver.  "It caught on a little bit, kept growing; we built courses, the jazz faculty grew, and all of a sudden, this was going full blast."

In 1976, the biggest stage for collegiate jazz was the international competi tion at Montreux.  Despite just having started the UNLV program.  Gagliardi wanted to compete.  But to get to Switzerland, the band needed money.  Gagliardi went up and down the Strip, pulling the coats of all of his star friends, but, "only Wayne Newton responded." New ton donated $5,000.  Gagliardi and the students went to work on the community.  "We needed about $28,000, and two weeks before leaving, we were about $5,000 short."  Gagliardi went up and down the Strip again.  "No luck.  One night I bumped into Wayne at the Sands.  He asked me how things were going.  I told him we were still $5,000 short.  He said, 'Well, you've got it now."

At Montreux, Gagliardi was once again leading a young David to compete with the giants.  Miami, an established Goliath, won, but Gagliardi and a new program took second in International competition.

When the band returned from Montreux, Newton wanted to meet.  "He had come up with a brainchild," says Gagliardi.  Newton saw that the UNLV musicians were good enough to play on the Strip, despite the exceptional reading abilities required.  Newton envisioned a program that would allow a UNLV student to rehearse In the daytime with a Strip orchestra and play In the show that night.  The regular musician replaced would still be paid, and the student's pay would go Into the Wayne Newton UNLV Intern Program, to benefit the Jazz Ensemble.  Newton worked out the de­ tails with the union and secured Its approval.  "Between Shows says Gagliardi, "he would drive around to hotels and convince owners to participate."

Through the next several years, the program raised money for travel, sheet music and scholarships.  Thanks to the program, the Ensemble has made seven trips overseas and issued seven albums.  It has participated in jazz festivals across the country, like the Pacific Coast Jazz Festival and the Orange Coast Jazz Festival, and along the way has won virtually everything there was to win.  The young program is now one of the Goliaths.

As Las Vegas has changed, however, the Intern Program has suffered.  The change to penny-wise corporate ownership of large hotels, while improving the city's image, brought cutbacks In such amenities as lounge entertainment and also impacted the Intern Program.  "Now," says Gagliardi, "we're down to one hotel, as opposed to seven or eight." But in the last few weeks, he saw Newton again, "always a supporter, always interested," and discussed setting up a meeting.  Gagliardi now feels that Las Vegas has settled down and that It Is now time to re-establish the program.

Meanwhile, the Ensemble keeps producing pros.  Gagliardi observes that, "there isn't a hotel In Las Vegas without an alumnus in its orchestra." And many graduates are working with stars: Keith Nelson and Jeff Lams are with Donna Summer; Randy Mattson and Adam Shendal with Wayne Shorter.  Walfredo Reyes has been working with Ben Vereen and Tania Marla, and Scott Tibbs Is in Los Angeles in association with Chick Corea.  Loran McClung is now the lead alto saxophonist with the prestigious #1 Army Band in Washington, D.C., and tenor sax player Philip Wigfall, whom

Gagliardi calls "a jazz giant of the future," just made the Dean's List at the Berklee School of Music.  Gagliardi also notes that Matt Carr, "probably the most outstanding jazz player to go through the program," is playing locally.

The Ensemble left for Japan In April for five months' work for the Mitsui Corporation, at two island resorts, on Kyushu and Hokkaido.  Gagliardi went for the first few weeks, but will return to Las Vegas for a UNLV Jazz Ensemble alumni concert and to lead the Frank Gagliardi Big Band at May's Jazz Picnic, In Jaycee Park May 7.

"I'm 56 now," he says.  "I've been playing professionally for 40 years.  I can still see Stravinski conducting in the front of my head there.  I'm pretty proud of what I've done."

Far from living for the past, he spends much of his time writing arrangements for the Ensemble and for other college bands.  In his and Charleen's condo In Manzanillo, Mexico, he uses the traditional piano, but at home he has more sophisticated equipment.  "I can work out a chart on synthesizer, put it Into the computer, bring it up on the screen and print out parts In transposed keys.  I used to hate copying parts." Composing electronically "is kind of my hobby now.  My Macintosh SE Is all midi'd up to my synthesizer, and I have samplers, a drum machine....  The generation below me is so good at this and so fast-I'm a lot slower, but it's a new world."

 As for the future of jazz, "the prognosis is great; jazz education deserves a lot of credit for the health of jazz.  It used to be a bad word.  It almost died.  But now the yuppies are getting out of rock and beginning to hook onto jazz.

 "For a while, today's music had gone too far into rock-not to say there isn't good rock.  The fusion of rock and jazz is really super to me.  Jazz is my big love, but fusion is the best of both worlds; I like it, and some of today's singers-I love Whitney Houston and Anita Baker-these people are really doin' it."

 "Just evaluating my own viewpoint of everything I've done, I'd have to say that whatever aspect of music you take, why, as long as it was good, it wouldn't matter what it was.  If I hear a great performance of a symphony-man, there's nothing better than that.  If I hear a great performance by a rock group....  It just has to be good.

 

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