By Johnny Griffith
For a genre of music that is often called “America’s Classical,” jazz is often seen as a genre not easily accessible. Typically, the further you get away from large cities, the fewer options for exposure you have. Here in East Texas, the musical landscape is largely taken up by variations of rock and country. In the midst of it all, a few intrepid missionaries spread gospel of the Jazz. One of the few bands that carry these musical disciples are The Jazz Connection (TJC) based out of Tyler. The quintet has come together and bonded over their love of all things Jazz and can be seen around East Texas bringing the joy of their music to the people.
Johnny: What is the current lineup of the band?
TJC: The full complement of musicians is a quintet comprised of:
George Faber on keyboard who is the retired Director of Fine Arts for the Tyler Independent School District. He is from East Texas and is a staple in the East Texas music scene. He has his own group called Faber and Friends that plays everywhere.
Phil Rumbley on bass is a long time East Texas resident and is in great demand as one of the area’s premier bass players. He is also the bass teacher at Dogan Middle School in Tyler.
J.T. Pundt on trumpet/flugelhorn was born and raised in San Antonio and has lived in East Texas for 38 years. He is a mechanical engineer by day for Eastman Chemical Company in Longview, but trumpet playing is his passion. He currently leads The Jazz Connection and also plays with other Big Bands in the area.
Dr. Sarah Roberts on sax hails from Iowa and is the Assistant Professor of Saxophone and Jazz Studies at UT Tyler. She is in great demand as both a performer and clinician. She has been instrumental in establishing The Jazz Academy in Tyler, teaching high school age students about playing jazz. She is a Vandoren Regional Artist.
Joey Monk on drums is a long time East Texas resident and is a professional drummer. He has toured the country with several different groups and is in great demand throughout East Texas. In addition to The Jazz Connection, Joey plays locally with Otis and the Metros and other groups.
Johnny: How did you guys meet and when did the idea of a band get kicked around for the first time?
TJC: We owe our beginnings to the vision of Dr. John Webb, who was the Professor of Jazz Studies at UT Tyler. Although we have all known each other for many years and played together in different groups, John was able to pull us all together in 2010 with a common vision of playing America’s Original Art Form – Jazz. John was a professional musician long before he was a professor at UT Tyler, and his knowledge of the musical repertoire is astounding. He constantly challenged us to play at a very high level with music from great jazz artists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. But more than just the technical aspects of jazz, John saw playing jazz music as “a lively conversation between friends.” Those friends include not only members of the band but also the audience. That conversation creates a connection between people that transcends the spoken word and touches your soul. John relocated to California in 2017, and we honor his legacy with every performance.
Johnny: How is the Jazz Scene in East Texas?
TJC: There are a surprising number of really good jazz musicians in East Texas! And the Jazz scene seems to be expanding, thanks to many local venues that support live music. I think once people get a chance to hear good live jazz, they get hooked, and they want more. We have a pretty loyal following of fans that attend our performances and ask us where we are playing next. Those fans tend to spend money at the establishments that host us, so jazz music creates a win-win for the community.
Johnny: About how many gigs on average do you play a month?
TJC: We are currently playing three to five times per month.
Johnny: What’s the farthest you guys have traveled for a gig so far?
TJC: We’ve gone as far as Mount Vernon, Texas, though we play regularly at Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards in Pittsburg, Texas.
Johnny: In a musical landscape dominated by rock and country, how has the reception been to a Jazz band?
TJC: The people that hear us generally respond very positively. For those new to jazz, I think they are surprised that the music is so accessible. There are many tunes with beautiful chord progressions that add depth and texture to the music; there are a variety of tempos and styles that add musical interest to a performance. Even people who are primarily rock and country fans are surprised that the standard blues chord progression, which they may be more familiar with, is a foundation for many jazz tunes. Musical roots transcend different musical styles.
Johnny: What’s been your best memory as a band to this point?
TJC: There are so many rewarding times when we see that we made that connection with our audience. It’s hard to pick just one! We did have a really fun gig at ETX Brewing Company on Halloween. The band dressed up in costumes and everybody had a good time.
Johnny: Is there one particular style of Jazz you focus more on or is it a pretty good cross-section of the genre?
TJC: We play a pretty good cross-section of styles. In any given show, you might hear Jazz Standards, Bebop, Hard Bop, Dixieland, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Latin Jazz, and Modal Jazz. We like to mix it up.
Johnny: What would you say your most requested song is from your crowds?
TJC: That’s a hard question since our music is so diverse. It really depends on the mood of the crowd. Sometimes they are in the mood for something up-tempo like “A Night in Tunisia,” or “There Will Never Be Another You,” or if they are feeling romantic, something like “My Romance” or “My Funny Valentine.”
Johnny: What do you hope first-time listeners will take from a Jazz Connection show?
TJC: We always hope they sense the joy we feel when playing this music and that they feel the connection that the music creates between people. We also hope they gain an appreciation for the artistry of so many that came before us and contributed to this uniquely American art form.
Johnny: Any can’t miss shows coming up in the next couple of months?
TJC: One show I would definitely recommend is FRESH by Brookshire’s on April 7th. It is an outdoor venue (they have a great patio), very laid back, great food and drinks, and we get a chance to stretch out a little bit. Come, relax, bring the kids, and have a great time! We keep our calendar current on our Facebook page at www.facebook.com/tylerjazzconnection so you can check out our schedule.
Johnny: Thanks again for your time.
TJC: Thank you for helping us spread the gospel of Jazz in East Texas!