A lesson in American musical history

A visit with the Harvard Westlake Jazz Explorers

Jazz went to college back in the heyday of Dave Brubeck, when block chords and 5/4 time were considered way rad. It was the 1950s, and the screaming guitar had yet to strike.

But now jazz is going to prep school, and when I heard that, I had to pay a visit to the home of the band in question. It proved to be a shocker: unplugged and believing in it.

I went out to Harvard Westlake in the San Fernando Valley, the prestigious school that is the alma mater of such folks as Steve Bing, Mark Harmon, Gray Davis, Candice Bergen, Tori Spelling and Sally Ride.

The Upper School also is the alma mater of the Harvard Westlake Jazz Explorers, a six-piece group that I came across when they played Catalina's in Hollywood on a night devoted to the Young Artist Jazz Series.

It was an evening of straight-ahead jazz played in a straightforward fashion. Reading the chords from a fake-book, Leland Cox ad-libbed a fine Lester Young-like tenor solo on "Just Friends," the Charlie Parker classic. Trumpeter Ian Sprague polished off the Dizzy Gillespie standard "Night in Tunisia" using the same book. Billy Goulston let loose from memory a vivid piano version of "Norwegian Wood."

When I called at the spotless school a few days later, the boys gathered politely in the music room to be interviewed.

First questions:

"How come you guys aren't playing electric guitar? How come you're not rockers like everybody else?"

The youngbloods looked at one another, grinning.

"To be honest," said one, "I think the girls like the jazz."

Everyone laughed affirmatively. "He's got a girlfriend," someone said.

"Several," said the honest man.

Then they all got serious about why they don't do rock.

Sprague spoke for the rest. "Well," he said, "for musicians, jazz is kind of like the foundation, the basis for what you need to build, and then go do whatever you want ... after jazz." The others agreed, though not all plan to take up the style in later life.

OK, the bottom line. How about the blues? Were they all blues fans?

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," came a chorus.

And who are the faves?

"Clapton!"

"Hendrix!"

"Buddy Guy!"

Curses! They all play electric.
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