People & Places

Banding together: Friends unite to record with ailing jazz great Al Naylor

'Monumental project' honors Jazz Educators of Iowa Hall of Fame member

Jazz trumpeter Al Naylor, seen June 18 at his Palo home, is battling cognitive health issues. Twenty-nine of his friends, former students and colleagues got together with Naylor in January to record what likely will be his final CD, titled “Friends.” “It was a monumental project,” organizer Dennis Green said. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Jazz trumpeter Al Naylor, seen June 18 at his Palo home, is battling cognitive health issues. Twenty-nine of his friends, former students and colleagues got together with Naylor in January to record what likely will be his final CD, titled “Friends.” “It was a monumental project,” organizer Dennis Green said. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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PALO — “Summertime” ends with two faintly audible sobs.

It’s the final cut on what most likely will be Al Naylor’s final CD, aptly titled “Friends.” He was emotionally and physically exhausted after a two-day recording session in January, but so grateful for the experience.

A celebrated jazz trumpeter and music educator, Naylor, 69, is battling cognitive health issues that eventually will silence his horns. But on that CD, he’s in stellar form, surrounded by 29 friends, former students and colleagues playing some of his favorites — plus originals that hadn’t been recorded, and the new piece “Nubbs (for Al),” penned by James Dreier.

“A small group of us got together to make a recording session happen for him while he was still at the top of his game,” said Dennis Green, general manager of KCCK jazz station 88.3. He helped organize the recording sessions at the Opus Concert Cafe, adjacent to the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids.

“It was a monumental project,” Green said. “We had representatives from just about every facet of his career. Members of his legendary ensembles Orquesta Alto Maiz, The Moe Band, I-380 Express and The Blue Band all showed up.”

The lineup features a who’s who of Eastern Iowa’s professional musicians: Steve Shanley, Rod Pierson, Rich Medd, Bob Dorr, Jeff Peterson, Bob Washut, Peter Hart, Craig Erickson and so many more.

“I’m really, really proud of this album, because it all came together so fast,” Naylor said. “There was a snowstorm that day, and all those guys made it.”

“You remember this past January — there was a winter storm every other day,” his wife, Rochelle Naylor, added. “So this was one of those times where driving wasn’t recommended over that Friday and Saturday. But everybody who had said they were going to be here got here, and nobody ended up in the ditch or anything.”

They came from Waterloo, Cedar Falls, the Quad Cities, Iowa City and southern Iowa.

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“It was really, really amazing,” Rochelle Naylor said.

Recording captures varied aspects of Naylor’s career

Choosing the repertoire was no easy feat, but Naylor wanted to have works that would represent the various groups with which he’s played over the years. He said he always enjoyed playing “I Remember You” and “Jumpin’ the Blues” with the Rod Pierson Big Band, and those wound up as the first two cuts on the CD.

“Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” is one of his favorites from the Louis Armstrong era, and it’s featured near the end of the 13 tracks.

“It’s a really nice arrangement,” Naylor said, “and just hard as blazes. I wanted to challenge myself, and it came out pretty good.”

He also included “Angel Eyes,” the song he played on television at age 18 for the “Bill Riley Talent Show.”

“I’ve always liked that tune,” he said, and he moved right up the ranks in the statewide competition. “I got beat by the guy who won.”

The disc also showcases three of Naylor’s own tunes: “Cruisin’ for Home,” “Groove in the First Degree” and “It’s Da Blues.”

Along with “Summertime,” from George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess,” two other standards made the cut: “Take the A Train” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”

“Summertime” is his favorite track on the CD.

“It was just so from my heart, and it’s so soulful,” he said, “and I was holding back the tears.”

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It was supposed to be the final recording for the project, but since the song is so melancholy, the musicians headed back to their places to add in a rousing rendition of “A Train.”

“It was a spontaneous decision,” Rochelle Naylor said. “It’s one of the wonderful, really upbeat things on the recording, and so it was a wonderful way to end the recording session.”

True to the jazz tradition, the collection is full of improvisation — something Naylor still feels comfortable doing. Reading written ensemble parts is getting harder, so he’s thinking his July 2 Cedar Rapids Freedom Festival appearance with Pierson’s band on the NewBo City Market stage may be his last ensemble gig.

It’s not the end of his career, however. He still has students to teach — something he did for 28 years in public schools, his private studio and at Coe College, where he stepped away from teaching in December, but remained involved in bands and Coe activities through the spring term.

Love of Jazz STARTED in Jefferson, Iowa

The trumpet wasn’t his instrument of choice in fifth grade. He wanted to play the trombone, but the band director said his arms weren’t long enough.

“I wasn’t very good at first,” Naylor said, but by seventh grade, “something clicked for me ... and all of a sudden, I started getting really good. By eighth grade, I knew that I wanted to be a band director and wanted to play the trumpet the rest of my life.

“In high school, we had some really amazing jazz bands. There’s some really good jazz bands around now, but there’s none of them that have ever been as good as those jazz bands in that little town of Jefferson, Iowa. The band directors there just knew how to teach jazz.”

One of those trailblazing teachers was Jack Oatts, a Coe College graduate recognized as the “father of jazz education” in Iowa.

From Cedar Falls to New York to Linn-Mar

In the 1970s, Naylor hit the road with two rock bands from Michigan, playing all over the country for four years. When the bands broke up, he decided to go back to college.

“I had four years in, but I didn’t have four good years, because I was playing my horn all the time,” he said with a laugh.

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He buckled down, and after graduating from the University of Northern Iowa with bachelor’s and master’s degrees, was hired onto the faculty there. He served as interim band director for a year, then decided he wanted to “explore the trumpet more,” so he headed to New York to take lessons and play.

“I had a really good experience, but I knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be,” he said. “I wasn’t good enough to be a New York trumpet player at that point. I know the levels, and in New York, it’s a whole different ball of wax than here. ...

“My bag is here, and I’m comfortable with that and with myself being here.”

Moving back to Iowa in the 1980s, he began teaching in the Linn-Mar middle school program, eventually becoming director of jazz studies at the junior high and high schools there.

He kept performing on his own, as well, playing for touring musicals and musicians coming through the area, as well as for the local Follies. For 20 years, he directed the band for the local Variety Club Telethon.

Music helps bring Naylors together

He even met his wife, a violist, through music. Their paths crossed at Linn-Mar, where they both taught music, but it wasn’t until Al was part of a quintet hired to play for two services at Rochelle’s church in the fall of 1986 that they really talked to each other.

“During the coffee between services, I was being polite to these guests, because that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Rochelle said. “And so we had a conversation, and it led to going out on a date a few weeks later. So that was it.”

They married in August 1987, and have a son, David. Also a musician, he’s taught music in St. Louis and Johnston, but is leaning more toward elementary education. A graduate student at Drake University in Des Moines, he recently got married.

European Jazz festival among career highs

Naylor has had so many career highs that it’s hard to name them all, but performing twice at Switzerland’s Montreux Jazz Festival ranks near the top. He performed there during a European tour with Orquesta Alto Maiz, and also was the guest soloist with the UNI Jazz Band for a main stage concert there.

“Both were cool,” he said, but during the UNI gig, he received two standing ovations — one after his solo, and another when he walked into a nearby restaurant. A booking agent approached him about moving to Europe to perform, but their language barriers got in the way.

“And I just knew it wasn’t the right time,” he said. “I wasn’t ready. I mean, I knew how well I played, and I know how well those people play over there. I knew it wasn’t meant to be.”

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He’s had other chances to perform in Europe, most recently with Coe colleague Bill Carson’s band tour to Rome last summer.

He also treasures the memories of playing backup for Frank Sinatra Jr. in 2014 at Riverside Casino, where the lead trumpeter let him play lead on a few tunes, and with Aretha Franklin at Hancher in 2004, where he got to play a solo on one of her hits.

“They let me stretch with her rhythm section,” he said of the Hancher concert. “It was really, really fun.”

Some of his other high-profile gigs included performing with the Temptations and playing for a touring production of “South Pacific” at the Paramount Theatre in 1988. He’s played with numerous jazz giants, too, from Victor Mendoza to Wycliffe Gordon.

Among his many honors, Naylor was named to the Jazz Educators of Iowa Hall of Fame in 2013. And The Pages, an Oelwein band he joined in 1972, was inducted into the Iowa Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999.

“I’ve been blessed to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “People like to listen to me play I guess.”

• Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Details

• What: “Friends” CD, featuring Al Naylor

• Where: Available at Amazon.com and Cdbaby.com

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• Performance: Naylor is planning to play in the Rod Pierson Big Band’s Freedom Festival concert, 6 to 9 p.m. Tuesday (7/2), NewBo City Market stage, 1100 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids; $5 festival button required for entry; freedomfestival.com/events/rod-pierson-the-big-band/151/

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