Moving Away from the Center of Jazz: Thomas Wirtel, a.k.a. Thomas Shabda Noor
Soon after Thomas Wirtel, a.k.a. Thomas Shabda Noor, met Morgan Powell at North Texas State University in 1957, experiments in group improvisation commenced on a weekly basis, experiments profoundly informed by music of the 20th-century avant garde.
Jazz trumpeter and jazz educator Thomas Shabda Noor—called in this article by his former name, Thomas Wirtel, which he still used during the period discussed—is a former head of the jazz division in the School of Music at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His doctorate in music composition is from Indiana University and he is an alumnus of North Texas State University in Denton, Texas. Wirtel was a member of the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Chicago’s Jazz Members Big Band, and the Dallas Jazz Orchestra. Since his retirement from the University of Illinois, he has directed the Heartland Jazz Orchestra in Bloomington, Illinois. He still plays with groups in Urbana, notably in the Boneyard Jazz Quintet, led by his old friend, trombonist Morgan Powell.
Wirtel is from Kirkwood, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. He loved jazz in high school, but in the early 1950s, there were no secondary jazz programs. His father heard the famous North Texas State University lab band on the radio and steered his son there. One of the first people Wirtel met when he arrived at NTSU in 1957 was Morgan Powell. They have remained close friends. In 1957 only three institutions in the United States offered a jazz degree: North Texas State in Denton was the first to do so; the Berklee College of Music in Boston and Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles were the other pioneers. In college, Wirtel studied jazz; Powell studied music education.
The following conversation with Wirtel was originally done as background for an article about the long-constituted Tone Road Ramblers sextet, for which Powell was the motive and continues to be a member. Wirtel offered this story about experiments with group improvisation that commenced on a weekly basis while he and Powell were students playing in and writing for the lab bands at North Texas. His approach to improvisation links directly to the ideas that Powell and their jazz student friends developed then to the Ramblers’ improvisations of today, far as they are from jazz idiom. Wirtel’s comments also offer a glimpse into how some musical thinkers of the late ’50s reconsidered the uses of improvisation and began to detach it from jazz under Powell’s leadership.
[Ed. Note: Last year, 90th Floor Records released The Road to Stan, a collection of tunes composed and/or played by the NTS lab band, with special reference to their relationship to Stan Kenton. The CD—featuring Wirtel and Powell, who are both featured soloists, as well as Marv Stamm, Dee Barton, Lanny Steele, and Toby Guynn—includes two original Powell compositions as well as an arrangement by Wirtel. Also worth tracking down is the Ramblers’ CD, The Ragdale Years, issued in 2000. All nine tracks are group improvisations/compositions, perfect examples of the things Wirtel talks about here.]
ANN STARR: I’m intrigued to hear you suggest that you and Morgan Powell were doing, as undergraduates at North Texas State in the ’60s, the kind of free improvisation the Tone Road Ramblers do today, with a tip of the hat to jazz but profoundly informed by music of the 20th-century avant-garde. I know you were both stars of the famous North Texas lab bands; you even went out yourself with Kenton. Can you help me connect the dots? From Stan Kenton to the Tone Road Ramblers seems not the most obvious road. Did your North Texas education move you this way?
THOMAS WIRTEL: In high school, I had a little dance band—a little jazz band—my best friend and I. We struggled. We didn’t get any direction. That was before any jazz education became available to us. It’s interesting. Our generation learned jazz techniques at North Texas, and when we graduated, we got jazz into all the colleges. When those people graduated, they got jazz into all the high schools. Middle schools are presently learning to play jazz music. We people who went to North Texas in the ’50s and early ’60s were really quite talented. It was a scary bunch of people. At the time, Dr. Eugene E. Hall—Gene Hall—was running the program. When he left, Leon Breeden came in.
You have to realize, in those days there were hardly any published charts at all. In fact the reason that the North Texas band was called a “lab band” was that it was supposed to be something that all the writers could use to hear what they wrote. That was the initial way they got it into the curriculum. Now, when Leon came in, he said, “Man! You guys are terrific! I’m going to get you guys out into the world,” and that’s what he did. He was a great promoter. Well, actually before Leon got there, we went to Chicago and played for a nation-wide musician’s union dance band contest and beat everybody: We were equal to the professionals!
We all wrote for the band, and it was quite a good band. We had these great people playing, and we wrote things with each other in mind. You knew who you were going to write for. And Morgan Powell’s stuff—you could just see it: Each piece was getting more and more evolved. Powell started writing, I believe, in high school. In fact, Gene Hall, the former director, taught him arranging when he was 16 or 17—something like that.
So, two things happened. When we were seniors and getting ready to do master’s degrees, there wasn’t a jazz master’s degree. So four of us decided we were going to go into music composition and we had a very, very good composition teacher, Samuel Adler, who ended up being the main composer at Eastman.
Sam Adler gave the shortest composition lessons I’ve ever seen. I would go there. He would come in—my lesson, I think, was at 6:30 in the morning—and I would bring him what I had just written and he would look at it. He was so inspiring. He was authentically interested in what I was writing. And I can remember rushing home after a lesson: I couldn’t wait to sit down at the piano and continue writing. He showed me a lot of things that would and wouldn’t work as far as technique was concerned. But mainly he allowed us our own styles. He didn’t give assignments at all. And he was very respectful of our jazz band. And so everybody in that little improv group studied with Sam, all four of us [Wirtel, Powell, Guynn, and Steele] plus Don Owens and Bob Morgan. Sam took us all under his wing and showed us the main techniques of Bartók and Schoenberg and Webern and Shostakovich and all the modern composers.
AS: Did the techniques and the music you studied with Adler have immediate effect on your jazz performance?
TW: All of that information immediately got translated into how we could use that stuff in a jazz setting. For instance, one of my biggest influences as a jazz soloist was Bartók’s string quartets and all the crazy scales he was using. I was listening to all this stuff with scores and under earphones every night for two or three hours not because it was an assignment, but because that was what I was wanting to do.
So that was the beginning of moving away from the center of jazz, widening everything. It was our experiences with new music in the classical mode, or orchestral mode (but I don’t call it “contemporary music”) that we started using all these techniques in the jazz thing.
AS: So Adler wasn’t directing you; he was teaching you what he knew and you were the ones going, “A-ha,” and making connections?
TW: Right. Look at this: So we have all these new techniques going into the jazz writing and that produced a dilemma: What do you do about old-fashioned improvisation when you’ve got all this new stuff in the writing? It’s not going to fit. It’s not going to be based on an old pop tune. So part of what we were doing developed—Well, there were a couple of things.
North Texas was in a dry town, Denton, so there were no bars. Because a Texas town that had a women’s college had to be dry. There was a women’s university on the other side of town [Texas Woman’s University, changed in 1957 from Texas State College for Women], so there was no place to play, other than just in rehearsal. So the way we dealt with it was that we just had jam sessions, usually at Dee Barton’s house. Dee was a wonderful trombone player. He ended up writing a lot of stuff for the Kenton band. Dee was one of the few people who had an entire house. At least once or twice a week we’d all go over there and play half the night and experiment on stuff. That’s one thing that we did.
The other thing that we did was—and it wasn’t organized, it was just happening over and over again—a bunch of us, especially once we all got into writing contemporary music, we would go over to Morgan’s house and either listen to stuff or, mostly, it was just to talk about life and what we were doing and what was happening in music and this and that. So part of it was a lot of hanging out. And serious—not serious, but sincere hanging out.
So. Back to our dilemma. What are we going to do about improv?
I was living with a piano player by the name of Lanny Steele, who was also a writer and also part of this group and he had a Steinway grand piano. Four or five of us had taken a house [Wirtel, Steele, Alan Solganic, Charlie Smith, and Don Ratterree] and it had an extra room that could have been somebody’s bedroom but we decided to put the piano in that room. And what we did was every Thursday for about a year, it was [Wirtel on trumpet,] Lanny Steele on piano, Toby Guynn on bass, and Morgan Powell on trombone.
It was a small room and that’s about all we could fit in there. We decided, “So here’s what we’re going to do: We are going to improvise freely,” just to see what would happen. The rule we made—and we kept to it—was that the only instruction that we were going to give to anybody in the whole group was, “So and so was going to start today.” We rotated around. And we recorded everything that we did. I still have all those recordings.
AS: Did you set a time limit, a minimum for the first player?
TW: No, he would just start playing and the others would join in. In other words, it was completely free improvisation. You would come in and out of the texture.
All of us played also in a small group; it was called the Jazztet. It was three saxophones [Jerry Keys, alto; Alan Solganic, tenor; Claude Johnson, baritone (sometimes Ray Kireilis was in the sax section)], one trumpet [Wirtel], one trombone [Powell], and piano [Steele], bass [Guynn] and drums [John Von Ohlen, followed by Gary Peyton]. Morgan started writing what I would call set-ups—written stuff for the horns, ‘set-ups’ for free improvisation. In other words, he would start an idea and then kind of leave it hanging. Out of that the players would improvise the rest either individually or, usually, as a group.
He tried that out first of all with the Jazztet and very soon after that he started doing it with big band. And we were doing back in the ’60s some very far out music that still sounds far out. Now this is something that can go very wrong if you don’t have the right people. It’s a give-and-take thing that can become self-indulgent, where you try to play everything that you’ve ever played in your whole life (“Look at me!”) and that doesn’t make it. People get very tired of that. Or it can be an interactive group thing, which was what we were trying to do. By the time we were doing that, we had been playing with one another for four years continuously. We knew each other well. We knew each other’s styles and had an idea of where things would go and everybody would jump on it.
AS: So there are conditions for free improvisation in a group?
TW: As far as the written stuff, yes. It just gets you started in a direction, and the direction that you go from there is up to you. Every time is different.
Toward the end of our years at North Texas, before everybody left for other things, Morgan gave a concert, his master’s degree performance in composition. We had been doing our improvisation group in the privacy of Lanny Steele’s piano room. Nobody had ever heard us. Nobody knew what was going on except us. We had been performing the things Morgan was writing for other people, but this actual improvisational group never performed anywhere. Only once. And that was at Morgan’s recital.
We thought, “Well, now. How are we going to do this?” and Morgan said, “We should invite Sam Adler to come. We should invite Sam in and ask him to start,” with the idea that he was not going to tell any of us what he was going to do. So we walked out on the stage having absolutely no idea what was going to go on. Sam played this motif and we all just jumped on it, and this big piece happened that had two or three different sections and moods and it was incredible!
Lukas Foss was on campus when Morgan’s recital was going on—there was a composition festival happening and he was the guest artist and clinician. He was at that master’s concert and heard the piece. The next day after we had a clinic with him and he said, “Now that piece that you guys improvised was really marvelous. I want to see your sketches, just to see how you did this.”
I looked at Morgan and he looked at me and he looked back at Lukas Foss and said, “We didn’t have any sketches; we were improvising.” And Foss, he couldn’t believe it. He was just dumbfounded. Because he was doing the same thing, but with sketches and a lot of stuff figured out ahead of time. And they were reading from instructions about where things should go. If you’re playing with people who don’t play with each other every day, you have to keep control and some semblance of order, because maybe it will work out and maybe it won’t.
So, that’s the background. That’s the nest egg.
Now, we all had families. We all went off and learned to teach and to play commercial gigs. Several of us kept writing for a while, but you don’t have the daily input of people with the same vibe. When I first started teaching, I was at a little Texas town and there was nothing, nobody—nobody—to interact with. I did electronic music, in the early days of electronic music.
Powell was at University of Illinois, which was a much richer place for creativity and he was able to continue the idea of free improvisation. Little by little he made friends and found people of like minds—mostly he and Ray Sasaki, the trumpet player, just started putting feelers out and eventually, the Tone Road Ramblers came together.
But my point is that that could not have happened without all that background. And Morgan was able to communicate that to the other players. I mean, it’s not like we were the only players who were doing this. Other people were doing similar things in the ’60s. The whole idea was that we had to go beyond the traditional barriers of jazz in order to play the newer sounds; you just can’t play blues licks anymore. I didn’t fit.
Essentially, the way I see it, the Tone Road Ramblers [Steve Butters, percussion; John Fonville, flute; Eric Mandat, clarinet; Ray Sasaki, trumpet; Jim Staley and Morgan Powell, trombones] is the fruit of that improv group that we had at North Texas—on a much higher level of performance. The players are incredible—very creative, very spontaneous, very sensitive, very intelligent. And mature musicians. I have not heard anything that even approaches the level of what’s going on in that group—anything.
It’s Powell’s influence. He is a superb organizer. He gets people committed to this or that project and then he follows through. For everyone in that group, the time they spend with the Ramblers is their escape from the mediocrity of daily life.
AS: In the Ramblers’ music and in Powell’s, what influence there is of other composers is so deeply embedded as to be undetectable. The music is original in a basic sense.
TW: People ask Morgan how he arrived at what he wrote down. Whenever anybody would ask him that, he would say, “I dunno, I just use my ears.” That’s it. That’s not to say that he doesn’t know all the structures. He knows all the stuff and when he gets to a place in the piece when that kind of technique will solve a problem, he’ll use it momentarily. Each piece is a completely new situation.
Morgan’s music is usually written for specific people who enter into the composition act during the performance—for instance, Morgan and Ray Sasaki; they are a unit. And I’ve heard other people try to play Morgan’s pieces that he has written for Ray. Good…Good, but not spectacular. Powell and Sasaki are in a space most musicians can’t understand.
It’s not just about being able to follow what’s going on musically. If you hadn’t grown up listening to the progression of things, I can see how—when you’re just hearing what’s normal…and then someone suddenly slaps something like a Ramblers CD on the radio, it’s like, ‘Whaaaaaat…?’
Ann Starr is a writer and visual artist living in Columbus, Ohio.