"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Stewart "Dirk" Fischer, director of the jazz program at College of the Canyons. The interview was conducted Dec. 1. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Your jazz ensemble has been performing in the COC cafeteria all these years, and now that you're ready to retire, they've got a fabulous new performing arts center. What do you think about that?
Fischer: I've had my fingers crossed for 27 years and we've already had one performance (there) and it turned out very well. We're looking forward to the future.
Signal: This is your last semester running the COC jazz department, but you'll be here long enough to set up for the R.K. Downs event.
Fischer: I committed myself through Feb. 12, which is when the festival takes place. I couldn't leave before that was accomplished.
Signal: How many years have you been doing that?
Fischer: Bob Downs started it. It's been more than 27 years, and the only year that it didn't exist was the year that they cut the music department and the football (because of) Proposition 13.
Signal: Tell us about the festival.
Fischer: It has been a noncompetitive opportunity for the high school jazz ensembles to get together and perform in a single location and, over a period of years, with my band, with also some help from CalArts (which) usually sends us a Latin jazz group.
The high school bands have been more interested, I think, as a result of some of this early get-together every season. They don't start competing until probably late March or April, so this venue has already been "first time out" for the season. I think it has been useful to the high school band directors, and it also helps with some of the recruiting for the College of the Canyons. I can't say that that isn't part of the purpose.
Signal: There are a couple of new high school band directors this year; there's a new director at Golden Valley High School
Fischer: Amy Smith. I have not met that lady yet.
Signal: Randy Gilpin has moved on from Canyon High; they've got a new director
Fischer: John Freedman. Although I met him, I haven't had an opportunity to have a discussion with him or anything. This will be the first time out for a couple of them, I think.
Signal: How well do the high school bands prepare for the festival?
Fischer: I think the whole idea of being out and performing for the public is probably the best experience that the youngsters could possibly have. Some of the band leaders start a little earlier with their jazz program. One of the high schools namely Saugus with Bob Gibson they play once a month at one of the pizza parlors, so that the youngsters are out performing in front of the public. Because that still is the best practice. It beats rehearsal.
Signal: Tell us about Bob Downs, your predecessor at COC jazz.
Fischer: Bob is a result of the Army, as was I, and he had been a part of the William S. Hart High School music program. When COC opened, he went up there as director of the music program...
My first knowledge of him my brother bought me a bass trumpet circa 1975, something like that, and I practiced for a year. I told my wife I was looking for a place to play. She said, "Why don't you try COC?" She was going to school there, working on the prerequisites for the nursing program. I said, "I can't go over there and associate with those kiddies." And she said, "What are you talking about? Some of the people in my classrooms are 70 years of age." So I went over there and registered, and I first met Bob Downs by playing in both his improvisation class and on bass trumpet with his trombone section, with the larger band.
After I was there awhile, I began writing for the band because I've been writing for bands all my life, including the Army. Anyhow, he seemed to like what I was doing, and at some point in the course of a year or two time, he went into the administration and put me as a "student assistant" and then had me stick my nose into getting myself credentialed for the teaching.
He was my maestro, my mentor at the school. That sent me back to school, and I tried to cull some of the latent units left from school in Minneapolis from 35 years before.
Signal: Did you grow up in a musical household?
Fischer: My mother played piano constantly. She played for a dancing class. That meant she took all four of us two other brothers and my sister. We had to all have tap dancing classes because she was the pianist for the thing.
My father played banjo when they used banjos in the rhythm section in orchestras the Â20s. We just grew up that way, and singing in the church choir. We were singing parts when we were youngsters, so our first brush with formal harmony, for instance, was as youngsters and keyboard knowledge, and things like that.
Signal: At what point did you pick up the trumpet?
Fischer: Age 13.
Signal: And the saxophone?
Fischer: Within the next year. Because mostly, I inherited the saxophone from my uncle. (I) sat there and looked at that thing and wondered what made it work. I finally got hold of a fingering chart and decided to do that, as well.
Signal: How did that versatility help you? In some circles, brass and woodwinds are like oil and water
Fischer: There isn't a writer that I've heard of or know about who writes for jazz orchestras or combos who hasn't had some kind of multiple experience in music in order to get him interested in more than one instrument.
Signal: Who were some of your influences as a young student?
Fischer: One thing was very, very striking, and that was the old 78 records. We had a wind-up Victrola, so I could slow the recording down and hear what was going on, and I learned some of my initial arranging skills.
Signal: Where you transcribing what you were hearing?
Fischer: That's kind of how it started. Well, essentially, with the Count Basie Orchestra, the Jimmy Lunsford Orchestra Benny Goodman was too complicated at the time. But some of the things that came out of the Midwest that were essentially riff-type jazz were very attractive. And that's part of it.
Also, there was a music scene around Grand Rapids, Mich., where I went to high school. And not only that, but a WPA orchestra two of them. One was white, one was black, and they rehearsed every day. They had writers. A couple of times I'd play as a youngster in the trumpet sections of both of those bands, and we went down to the local induction center in Michigan and we played for GIs being inducted into the Army and things like that.
Signal: Tell us about Dirk Fischer and the Aristocats.
Fischer: That one was a small group and a club in Muskeegan, Mich. In that group was a pianist by the name of Hamilton Allen, who was the title of the initial tune of that CD that you're sporting. That came to an end as I was drafted; shipped to Texas in the medics.
Signal: Tell us about your Army experience. Where did you enter?
Fischer: At Camp Barkley, Texas, just outside of Abilene, Texas. The two schools that they had at that base that was a medical replacement training center were X-ray technician, and cooks-and-baker school. We had a choice, when we finished the first several weeks of basic training, to go to these schools.
The only other experience we had was some kitchen experience, where my mother constantly had me doing all the heavy work. So, I chose cooks-and-baker school and graduated from there. (I) was working for a company kitchen after that course, and started sitting in, both on saxophone and trumpet, with the local Medical Replacement Training Center Band.
I'm still in touch with one of the members after all these years. Anyhow, they had me transferred from the kitchen to the band, and although I was actually in a situation where at one point I was put on an overseas shipment to go to Camp Reynolds, Penn. They found out, because I was inducted into the medics, I had no rifle training, and they kept me off the overseas shipment.
By then, sitting in (with) the local band there the same thing I had done at Camp Barkley the warrant officer who headed the band and the general pulled me off the overseas shipment and had me sent to Camp Lee, Va., which had the band training unit for the Armed Service Forces. ... There were 250 musicians.
Signal: And not just American, but from other Allied nations, too? You were getting exposure to a wide variety of music.
Fischer: Even more than that. Gil Evans was there. Gil Evans was already a fairly well-known writer-arranger before he was drafted, and he was running the arranging class.
Although I was in his arranging class, the work they were being given to do were things that I'd already done for myself. The best part about it is, after "lights out" in the squad room, at the end of the barracks, we used to sit and gather around in a circle on the floor while Gil Evans played old Louis Armstrong records for us. Things that I heard there, and even with reissues and some of the classic recordings, I still haven't heard some of those things. He had a very unique collection.
Signal: What did you do after the war?
Fischer: By the time I got back to Grand Rapids after I was discharged in 1946, several of the local musicians had been working on what they called "territory" bands, working out of Omaha, Neb., and using sleeper buses at that time there must have been 20 or 30 bands working in sleep buses, traveling all over the Midwest and lower Canada and as far south as Oklahoma and Texas and so forth. But mostly the Midwest.
Signal: How big were the bands?
Fischer: Twelve to 15-piece bands, playing nothing but one-nighters. Week after week after week. Everything from the major ballrooms they would have us in the major ballrooms when they knew they had a crowd.
Signal: What were you doing with those bands?
Fischer: Playing lead trumpet, doing all the writing for the band, driving the bus it never paid enough to support a family, but I guess it was just the love of continued performance.
Signal: Did the cook-and-baker training come in handy later on?
Fischer: As I checked in with the GI Bill in Minneapolis to go to school, that was never enough to live on. So, the only other thing I knew was working in the kitchen. I had that prior training, and it turned out to be very useful over a period of a time. So I'd never been without work anywhere.
Signal: When did you and your wife, Rosalind, come out here?
Fischer: Roz was already out here, and I left the road. The last band I was on was the John Beecher Orchestra, and I left the road in 1959 after having been with that band for five years. We were traveling more extensively then, just the Midwest. We played Thule Air Force Base of Greenland and the Air Force Base in Reykjavik, Iceland. 1958 the last full year I was with the band we spent eight weeks in Bermuda at the NCO club.
Signal: Bet you weren't too worried about the pay.
Fischer: You know, yes and no. It was a matter of I found out later that it's necessary to do something to support your music habit, because the music doesn't necessarily support you.
Signal: Which brings us to the Owl Coffee Shop in Van Nuys.
Fischer: I had been out here six years, struggling to work in the recording ... studios, doing mostly ghost writing for other writers, so nothing had my name on it. And also some contracting for strings and other people in the orchestras; for my brother's recording sessions; and doing a lot of copy work as well.
Finally, after I had been separated from my first wife for some time, my present wife showed up at a coffee shop called Rams Restaurant in Los Angeles, and I put her to work in November and we were married within a year's time. Anyhow, when we got married we managed to pool our resources and (open) a little coffee shop in Van Nuys, and spent 14 years...
The restaurant sent both Roz and I back to school. Me for my credential, and her into nursing.
Signal: How long did it take you to get your credential?
Fischer: Just two years of only part time. I had to go to both Cal State Los Angeles and Cal State Northridge to finish it off, and a bunch of units that came from going to school in Minnesota. I was surprised that they were still there, after being gone for that long. But they were.
Signal: You've had a number of talented students at COC, but tell us about one in particular George Stone.
Fischer: I had had the band maybe a year or so at College of the Canyons, and we were used to having regular monthly concerts in the cafeteria. One night, this little, young boy comes up and requests "Four Brothers," which happened to be a very famous Woody Herman recording.
It pretty much took us all aback, to have a youngster at that age ask for something as hip as a Woody Herman recording. Anyhow, that just started the relationship, because by the time he got into (Hart) High School, we also saw to it that he was concurrently enrolled in my classes at College of the Canyons.
Signal: Like you, didn't he pick up different instruments and fill whatever gap needed filling?
Fischer: Exactly. And not only playing the various parts, but he also borrowed scores of my writing to study. He was writing while he was still in high school. And it was really welcomed over at Cal State Northridge by Joel Leach, who had the primary responsibility for the jazz program there at the time.
Signal: After college, George went on to become the music director at Hart High and then Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, where he got together his big band recorded a CD of your tunes, your compositions, your charts. The CD is "George Stone and Friends Perform the Music of Dirk Fischer." What did you think when you heard about it?
Fischer: The first I really heard about it was we went to visit during one of the final recording sessions up there. I walked into the recording booth there incidentally, which he had designed himself, a state-of-the-art digital recording studio at Cuesta College and he played me one of the takes of one of the arrangements. I had never heard a tenor saxophone player play the particular passage (that way). And whoever this man was I know who it was now, but at the time, I didn't know it then but I heard the sensitivity with which he tackled this particular thing, and I didn't think anybody but me would be able to understand that.
I broke down and cried like a baby. It was thrilling.
Signal: After the R.K. Downs festival, K.C. Manji will be stepping in to carry the torch for you with the COC Jazz Ensemble.
Fischer: She will. She's more than just gifted; she's learned. She's a bass player who also spent time on the road with the Woody Herman Orchestra, as well as symphony conductor very broad experience.
You've also got a couple of excellent composers there Bernardo Feldman, who had just recently got the ASCAP Award for some electronic music, and then also Daniel Catan, who is a modern opera composer. And of course, the kind of music he writes for a full orchestra is the beautiful stuff that a nice underscore for a gorgeous movie would be. Just marvelous.
The CD, "George Stone and Friends Perform the Music of Dirk Fischer," is available from Sea Breeze Jazz Records at (805) 489-2055 or seabreezejazz.com.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.