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New York's big jazz education confab is planned in... Kansas

Steve Paul
McClatchy Newspapers

MANHATTAN, Kan. - It's one month till show time, and Bill McFarlin has to deliver a blow.

He has four members of his management team around an oval table in his office and another on the speaker phone from Laguna Beach, Calif. They're planning the 34th conference of the International Association for Jazz Education, a global gathering of all things jazz that gets under way Wednesday in New York.

And now this.

"Steps Ahead has canceled," McFarlin says of a top jazz group, which had planned to mark its 30th anniversary with a concert and a clinic.

"Oh, no," says education director Greg Carroll, pounding the tabletop for emphasis.

Sandy Nelson grimaces, mock-clutches her chest. The conference program goes to press in a few days.

"How correct do you want it to be?" she asks.

It's another winter, another mad dash to the finish line for the folks who maintain the pulse of the jazz world, raising its profile on the cultural landscape and in the nation's classrooms.

You'd expect the biggest trade show in jazz to occur in New York, in jazzy, traffic-clogged midtown Manhattan.

But little known is how the heart of that world has beat for almost 40 years out here in the other Manhattan, the one in the land of purple K-State sweatshirts and Wildcat sports and winds blowing on the stark, treeless prairie.

Credit goes to the late Matt Betton. A debonair bandleader and local music store owner, Betton co-founded in 1968 what was then called the National Association for Jazz Education.

"He felt that we needed an organization that will represent the field," says McFarlin, the organization's executive director, "and insist it have a seat at the table and be respected as indigenous art form."

In the 1960s jazz was little appreciated in music schools, often dismissed as an undignified, undisciplined distraction from serious scholarship and performance.

Yet Betton was undeterred. A 1938 music graduate of Kansas State, he played clarinet and led a big band for some 40 years. In 1941 Billboard ranked it the best college dance band in the country.

"He was tall and charismatic, a Jimmy Dorsey type," says McFarlin, a goateed, upbeat trumpeter.

Betton ran summer jazz camps for Stan Kenton; he hired singers of the caliber of Marilyn Maye; he crossed paths with the likes of Jay McShann, Lester Young and Clark Terry; and he and his wife, Betty, ran the music store in Manhattan and spawned a family of musicians.

In 1968 Betton mailed a one-sheet newsletter to the fledgling organization's 100 members. He and his wife scraped to keep the organization afloat. Legend has it he put up a treasured 1916 Buick as collateral on a bank loan to help the association pay its bills. But soon it got traction, and within a few years Betton was publishing the Jazz Education Journal as a slick magazine and running an ever-growing group.

Carol Comer, a Kansas City singer and co-founder of the Women's Jazz Festival in Kansas City in the late 1970s, recalls getting organizational pointers from Betton at an IAJE conference in Dallas. She loved the way the conference gave students a chance to hang out with and learn from famous musicians.

"They did an incredible thing from that place," Comer says.

Betton handed the reins to McFarlin in 1986. By the time Betton died in 2002, he'd been able to see the IAJE become a powerhouse.

"We estimate that with our 10,000 members, they're in touch with a million students at any one time," McFarlin says.

He and his crew toot their jazz horn in a warren of offices behind a vacant taco restaurant on the northwest edge of Manhattan.

Just before his management meeting last month, McFarlin took a call from the producer of a new series of jazz DVDs - rare vintage recordings of Count Basie, Thelonious Monk and others performing for European television studios.

The "Jazz Icon" series will be rolled out at the IAJE conference, and the producer offered McFarlin 25 box sets to be sold as fund raisers for the organization. Quincy Jones, who's helping promote the series, will autograph them, and the IAJE can ask $1,000 for each set.

"Let's go for it," McFarlin says.

Last week a truck full of conference programs, 9 tons worth, left Manhattan bound for New York. Twenty grand pianos are on the way, too.

And McFarlin and staff have resettled in the bigger Apple for the preshow preparation. They've taken their color-coded spread sheets, their cell phones, their walkie-talkies and their jazz enthusiasm.

"This is a music that's very much alive and evolving," McFarlin says.

More than 7,000 musicians, teachers, students, promoters and record label representatives will descend on New York this week for what McFarlin calls the "super bowl of jazz."

"The IAJE convention is like Disneyland to a jazz lover," says Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "Everybody is there. The world's greatest jazz record store is created for a couple of days. You meet people in jazz - 100, 200 great musicians."

With its international cast and ever-evolving sound, the conference helps emphasize that jazz is a malleable music.

McFarlin likes it that way.

"One of the things we don't do is define what jazz is," he says. "The minute I hear someone start trying to do that, I can't help but roll my eyes a bit."

In coming years the organization will launch regional conferences in Scandinavia and Latin America and a summer institute in Park City, Utah. At the conference this week, there'll be 200 musicians and industry people from France alone, plus delegations of school jazz bands from Australia, Kazakhstan, Israel, Denmark and elsewhere.

"In many ways," McFarlin says, "it's like going to the U.N. General Assembly. Except it's hipper."

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IAJE HIGHLIGHTS

The organization's New York conference includes:

A celebration of jazz in France, hosted by the composer Michel Legrand, who helped open Europe's door to legions of American jazz players.

Induction of the latest NEA Jazz Masters, including such veteran stars as pianist Ramsey Lewis, bandleader Toshiko Akiyoshi and sax and flute player Frank Wess, a Kansas City native and Basie band alum.

Four days and nights of concerts, workshops, clinics and panel discussions on music, technology, teaching, jazz criticism and the tectonic shift in the economics of recording and distributing music.

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For more on the International Association for Jazz Education and its annual conference, see iaje.org.

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