Keeping the Flame Alive

November 19, 2010

Dr. Lou Fischer - Keeping the Flame AliveDr. Lou Fischer has been an active musician for nearly half a century, with much of that time spent establishing himself as a versatile, in-demand jazz artist and educator, and respected music publisher. As a performer, he’s worked with the likes of Airto, The Crusaders, Red Rodney, Charlie Byrd, Andy Williams, Bill Watrous, Tony Bennett, Andy Williams, and Emmy Lou Harris, among many others.

Fischer known affectionately as “Dr. Lou” has appeared as a clinician, director, or performing artist at jazz festivals all over the world, and at over three hundred high schools and universities in the United States. Dr. Lou is currently jazz division head for the Music For All/Bands of America Summer Symposium and professor of music/jazz ensemble director/jazz studies division coordinator at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. Additionally, Fischer was co-founder, and is currently president of, the Jazz Education Network (JEN).

JAZZed recently spoke with Fischer to get the details on his life as a performing musician, educator, and advocate for jazz culture.

JAZZed: Let’s discuss your early involvement in music. What first hooked you?

Dr. Lou Fischer: I remember seeing Elvis Presley on “The Ed Sullivan Show” when I was really young and just being knocked out! I was maybe three years old? After that, I apparently went all over the house with my Dad’s guitar acting like Elvis.

JAZZed: A shared experience for many. Between appearances by Elvis and The Beatles, Sullivan seemingly got an entire generation of musicians up and running. How did you transition from pretending to be Elvis to actually playing guitar?

LF: Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, my Dad used to have the family play music in the living room after dinner. There wasn’t much television going on in those days, and he taught my brothers and I how to play about seven chords on the guitar. He knew every Country Western song there was the most memorable being pieces by Ernest Tubbs, Roy Acuff, Hank Williams Sr., and Bob Wills. Dad was a radio television repairman and had a disc recorder, which I learned later in life was a disc mastering system, and he used to record us every night. The discs were only good for about seven or eight plays afterwards and then they were loaded with scratches. I used to really dislike those evenings because we were somewhat forced to participate, but I have grown to learn how valuable those experiences were to my musical interest and development.

JAZZed: Can you talk about playing in your brother’s band, your time as a drummer, and how you eventually wound up playing bass?

Dr. Lou Fischer - Keeping the Flame AliveLF: When I was eight years old, my brother Jim had a rock band called the Whirlybirds. They performed at a lot of local school dances and on a weekly radio show in Pleasanton, Texas. By this time, I had begun listening to pop music heavily on the radio and television, as there were many variety shows on at night. I took an interest in lead guitar as I had seen a few soloists like Chet Atkins and the guy in Lawrence Welk’s band man those two could play the guitar! And don’t forget 1960 featured the premiere of the Beatles on The “Sullivan Show,” too!

I learned by ear, the lead melody to “North to Alaska,” “In The Mood,” and “Sleepwalk” all three very popular tunes at the time. I was featured each week on the radio show on one of those three tunes. My brothers Billy and Jim were nine and 10 years older than I, respectively, and they soon left for the service shortly thereafter.

By the age of 10, I had become interested in the drum set and remember my parents scraping up enough money, with my Sister Chris pitching in, to buy me a set of drums… a swirly purple finish Deville drum set, for about $110, brand spanking new! Shortly after that, when I was about 11, the guys that had been in the Whirlybirds formed another band called J.V. the Velvatones, which played not only pop music, but RB and Tejano music, and they asked me to play drums in the band. Note, I grew up in a predominantly Hispanic culture in South San Antonio and spoke what we called Tex-Mex before I spoke English, so adding Tejano music to our repertoire was a matter of survival in order to get some gigs.

About the time I turned 12, the bassist up and quit the band. As the electric bass was new to the scene then (invented by Leo Fender in 1959), it was difficult for us to find a replacement. Since I had played some guitar, I volunteered to play bass on the guitar until we could find a bassist and suggested we hire a good friend of mine that played drums in the meantime, as I was interested in the new Fender bass. Well… I have been at the bass since that day, 46 years and counting, and it was the instrument that chose me. Looking back, the really cool thing is that by 1962, I had played as a professional, (making some good money at times), CW, RB (I had seen James Brown in concert four times by now!), Tejano, and Pop music (I saw the Beatles in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas), and had been exposed to Big Band music via the television variety shows of Andy Williams, Jackie Gleason, Welk, and several others of the day. I did not know then how lucky I was, as the environment and culture I grew up in had a rich musical component, which taught me to love all music.

JAZZed: Were there some early educators who had significant impact on your development as a musician?

Dr. Lou Fischer - Keeping the Flame AliveLF: Two people immediately come to mind as educators: Dale Schultz and Paul Elizondo. Dale was my high school band director. I played tuba in the band. He was fresh out of college, so not much older than I was. He also had heard me play electric bass in various groups and apparently saw some type of leadership quality in me and helped me to nurture that aspect of my life. He asked me to run a pop group for the school variety show each year and so I did.

When I was 15, he told me he was playing in a Latino orchestra led by Paul Elizondo, and asked me if I would be interested in auditioning for the bass chair. I said, “Yes,” not knowing what I was getting into, but always intrigued by a new challenge. I auditioned for this 10-piece orchestra, played mostly cumbia, mambo, cha-cha, merenque, rhumba, et cetera and had to read. We even got into pop stuff later as we had a guitarist who could sing the tunes by Chicago, B.S. T. et cetera, and I honed some lame skills at trying to arrange them. [laughs]

JAZZed: So you were already able to read music by that point.

LF: I could not read anything on the bass then, but did read bass clef when playing the tuba. Therefore I knew the notes on the music, just did not know where they were on my bass yet, so I allowed my instincts and my ears to work for me and somehow managed to get through the music and land the gig. That band was the only real working pro group in town. We worked Fiesta Noche Del Rio down on the River six nights a week from April through September in addition to every major dance or show in the city! They had been together about five years before I joined them, and they are still together now. Some of those guys have been playing together 45 years and counting! That’s a real gig man.

They were all educators, if I am remembering correctly, except for the initial drummer, Ruben Portillo. Ruben had just come off the road after a long stint with Perez Prado’s Band. He was not only our drummer, but played like we had a congetto player, a timbale player, a cowbell player with a rack of five different cowbells on his set and was the lead singer in the band! Man, he was on my butt every night about the groove. To this day I think of him all the time and thank him. I’ve been quite fortunate in my life to have had many great drummers stay on my butt and help me learn to develop the groove… and I would be remiss if I did not speak to Paul’s acceptance of my flaws and allowing me to develop my talent at his expense in his band and he paid me for it! Looking back I sure did not deserve it.

Both of those guys were instrumental in convincing me to apply to North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas), so I auditioned on the tuba and received a small scholarship, not knowing anything of the jazz program I was about to step into. My family, being of simple means, did not have any money to get me to school, so they also guided me to apply for some State aid and a writing scholarship at my High School. Between all of them, I pulled together enough money to get me to college that first year and keep myself out of Vietnam. Paul paid for the gas for me to get to school that first weekend, as I was broke. Not only that, he allowed me to continue working in his band while in college, commuting home every weekend from Dallas, and also working the following summer after my freshman year in college. I remember asking him if I could come back to S.A. after I graduated from NTSU and stay in the band. He told me then something I have never forgotten and I owe him deeply for saying this to me: “Lou, if you ever come back to S.A. I will personally kick your butt all the way to the city border! You need to keep moving forward! Continue to grow your talent and strive to do great things in life.” To this day, without people to push me in those early stages like these two guys, I just do not know where I might have ended up. I guess they saw a diamond in the rough or something like that. I trust they are proud of some of my accomplishments.

JAZZed: What was it that first drew you to jazz? What was the initial appeal?

LF: It was the time at UNT that I feel in love with jazz and have committed much of my life to it since. I remember the third day of the first semester walking down the hall and hearing the One O’Clock Lab Band rehearsing, actually auditioning students at the time. Wow! I had never in my life heard such sounds. The beauty of the music, the complexity of it, the rhythm of it, the quality of it…all was above my head and I wanted in. Yet another new challenge in life!

JAZZed: Your college education was interrupted by a number of performing gigs. Can you talk about your time between University of North Texas and your eventual degree and graduate work? How do the learning experiences of actually performing and recording compare to those provided by a classroom setting?

Dr. Lou Fischer - Keeping the Flame AliveLF: That’s a really good question. I am a firm believer that teaching is supported by performing, and performing is supported by teaching. They work in tandem in support of each other.

I mentioned earlier that I have been very fortunate to continue to be in the right place at the right time all of my life. I left school in ’74 because I was fortunate enough to be hired as a staff jingle writer in Dallas and was performing on many shows and sessions and making a good living. In 1976 I got the call from Steve Houghton to join Woody Herman’s Band. I took a huge pay cut to do it, but loved every minute of it. I returned to the Dallas Ft Worth area after that and fell back into the jingle business, but longed for the opportunity to travel again and play real music beyond 30 and 60 seconds long.

I heard about an opportunity to audition for the Crusaders and flew myself to L.A. in June of ’79, and out of about 200 guys in line that day, I got the job. Man, I was in heaven! Being a fellow Texas-grown musician, I thought I had found a home. I did two long tours during which we played all over Europe and Japan. The guys in the group were Wilton Felder, Joe Sample, Stix Hooper, Michael O’Neill (Bob Mann second tour) and Airto. While I was in L.A. and when I was off, I played in Toshiko Akiyoshi’s Band, Louis Bellson’s Band, and Les Hooper’s Band just to keep my Big Band and acoustic bass chops up. We used to rehearse religiously once a week for free at the union hall and a few gigs here and there. Those were Fantastic ensembles. The connection with Airto through the Crusaders lead to a brief tour with him and Flora for a couple of weeks up the California Coast when their bassist got sick and couldn’t make the gig.

After that I returned to DFW again as I had married by that time and neither I nor my wife enjoyed the fast-paced city environment and we were contemplating having a family. Upon our return to Dallas, we found the jingle business had somewhat dried up, and the jazz clubs had disappeared, so I turned to the networking I had in place, as that has always been the key to finding a gig, as most musicians will attest to. Soon I was getting calls to do road trips with several people. I spent three years traveling with Andy Williams, who I grew up watching on television, and who was one of the greatest singers and gentlemen I have ever known. My wife and I also owned and managed a jazz showcase for a brief year and a half in there as well, investing some of the money I had made on the road along with some heavier cash from outside investors. It became quite a money-pit. In 1982, my son Patrick was born and I stepped off the road from longer road trips for a few years to enjoy his early development. I also started my own sheet music publishing company then, which I owned for thirteen years before selling it off.

Dr. Lou Fischer - Keeping the Flame AliveDuring this time I had also begun to develop my solo voice and the early stages of my career as an educator and clinician. We found we did not enjoy the city-pace of Dallas either, as it continued to grow in size, and so we decided to move to the Denver area in 1986 for quality of life. After all, as long as there is an airport nearby, one can travel as frequently as one desires or needs to so if needed to, I could travel again. Immediately upon deciding to move and finally selling the house, I received a timely call to tour with Charlie Byrd. As a result of that tour, I landed a house gig at the Fairmont Hotel in Denver before we moved there, as the current bassist was leaving to go out East to college. Talk about being in the right place at the right time again in order to network. I did a brief stint with country/folk singer Emmy Lou Harris when she was doing orchestral dates.

In 1989 my daughter Emily was born and soon thereafter I landed the Artistic Director position at a local club called JazzWorks. I did that for the entire time it was open, which was about a year and a half. I hired all of my friends to come perform at some point, in addition to all those people that I had always wanted to play with, just as I did back at the club in Dallas when it was open. Many road gigs were the result of all of the various connections made at both clubs, and that list would have included Red Rodney, Jon Faddis, Bobby Shew, Sunny Wilkinson, Bill Watrous, and so many others to numerous to name. This thing called jazz is a real brotherhood and family you know, and we all enjoy being part of it.

As I mentioned earlier, I had begun to develop doing clinics and teaching at summer camps all over the country, at one point teaching in seven jazz camps per summer, and I was beginning to feel a tug towards teaching fulltime. I have always known I wanted to be a teacher, but I was just very fortunate to enjoy a performance career, which literally interrupted the move towards teaching. But with Emily’s birth and a bit of a scare with a health issue myself, in ’90 I decided to slow down the road work and go back to school while at JazzWorks. I spent three years at the University of Denver, where I was already teaching bass adjunct. I had the dubious honor of being an adjunct music professor, an undergraduate student, and a graduate student all at the same time for the first year quite confusing at times for many people. In ’91 I finished the undergrad I had started 21 years before, and in ’92 completed the Masters degree.

By now I had the teaching bug and knew this was to be a new path for me. After completing the Masters degree, I applied for something like 44 teaching positions that year, and not one of them even looked at me as a candidate, so as destiny was having it, we sold the house, packed up and moved to Muncie, IN where I became a Doctoral Teaching Assistant under Larry McWilliams at Ball State University. In ’93 I applied for 8 gigs and was a finalist for all of them. Talk about the power of the doctorate in academia! I turned them all down and decided to finish what I started this time.

In ’94 I heard about my present gig at Capital University as one of my Capital colleagues, Michael Cox, used to play in my band in Denver when he was at UNT working on his doctorate. I was interested in the position, which was as Jazz Ensemble Director, and applied. I was also a finalist for a position at UNF in Orlando and Alabama in Tuscaloosa that same year. I was in a very unique position of being offered three great jazz studies positions. I choose the little school, as they had so much going on already. This was a great opportunity here at Capital. This program, started by Ray Eubanks, was one of the oldest programs already in the country and firmly established. That was attractive to me. I finished my coursework in May of ’94 at BSU and started at Capital in ’94 come August. Like most people that take a small school teaching gig, one feels it will be a stepping-stone to something bigger and better.

Dr. Lou Fischer - Keeping the Flame AliveI have to say I have found a home. I love my job here at Capital. The program is outstanding. I teach with a bunch of visionary guys and we have the support of the university, and Columbus is a great place to live with four seasons during the year. It’s been 17 years and counting! I’ve now lived here as long as anywhere in my life, both of my children are in town, I met my current wife, Mary Ann, who I’ve know for ten years now, here, so I truly have found a home.

JAZZed: Of the many big-name talents you’ve worked with, who was the most intimidating?

LF: The most intimidating? Hmmm… probably Wilton Felder. He was always trying to tell me what I should have played. He was quite a well-known session bassist, you know, and he did play well. I told him after about six months of the intimidation that if he wanted to play bass he should do it and hire a sax player, but then he’d probably tell the saxophonist what to do as well. So we decided it best to part ways. We managed to remain cordial and friendly I think because I spoke directly to him and said what I was thinking. He knew then I was confident in my own right.

JAZZed: Any funny anecdotes from your collaborations?

LF: Two funny stories that come to mind right now can both be attributed to jazz euphonist Rich Matteson, another one of my mentors, for certain. We were playing a clinic session and he started talking about his first year at UNT as a teacher and how he felt sorry for those students in his class then, as he didn’t really know what he was doing and was winging it. Then he realized I was in his first class… He turned around, his bald head and face totally dark red and apologized to me! I guess the moral is to prepare for what you do. The second story is we were playing a concert in Sapporo, Japan with the Tubajazz Consort and he turned around to me after playing one of the most burning solos I had ever heard him play on Oleo, wiping his sweaty head off with a large white towel, and he said, “Do you realize if it wasn’t for airplanes, we wouldn’t be able to be doing this s*^!” And he laughed really loud! He had a fantastic sense of humor, was a great orator, and one hell of a jazz musician and educator.

JAZZed: Two-part question: Who was the individual you learned most from A) instructor, B) performer?

LF: That’s a real tough one! I have learned so much from so many. Again, I always seem to be in the right place at the right time. Answering the “B” part of the question first, Red was a walking jazz history book. Watrous was a master artist with a dedication beyond reproach. Woody Herman was a great leader in that he allowed everyone to be themselves in fact, demanded your voice and that you push yourself. Answering the question from the perspective of A B combined, I would say Shelly Berg is a master educator and amazing performer. If I had to credit any one person as an influence to me as an instructor/performer combined, it would be Shelly Berg. I have been in awe of his amazing innate ability to not only communicate his emotion through the piano, but to articulate his feelings and thoughts to students so clearly. He teaches technique, style, idiomatic nuance all through emotion. I steal from only the best! (laughs) Looking at the question from a different angle, I have to say the one individual I have learned the most from is still the person I continue to learn from daily, and that is my wife Mary Ann. She is the most stable factor in my life and I am quite fortunate to have found her when I needed her the most. Once again, in the right place at the right time! And I can thank jazz for that as well, as I was over at a local bistro having dinner between teaching and a student jazz recital that evening when I met her.

JAZZed: Talk about your experiences as an author. What do you find most rewarding?

LF: I would answer this one as if you asked the question about being a teacher, author, composer, businessman and performer, if I may. As a teacher I hope I can give back what has been given to me throughout my musical career. That is why I teach. I write textbooks to give back in yet another way and perhaps to reach more people beyond the classroom I am currently in. I make recordings to document where I am in my career and to experience the enjoyment of making music with my fellow musicians. I compose generally only because I feel something. I have always thrown away anything I forced myself to write as it had proven to be contrived sounding. I hope that through my compositions, that my loved ones feel that they are loved, and that others might experience some emotion and perhaps enjoyment from the music as well. I market all of those things because I am also a businessman. I realize that to be comfortable in life, one must be able to pay the bills.

Over the years, being an entrepreneur, I’ve actually owned a few businesses, i.e. a production company in Dallas, the publishing company for thirteen years mentioned earlier, and a nightclub for a couple of years. Those experiences were extensions of my musical career. All together, all of these experiences add up to the whole. As a result, I believe I bring to academia a unique perspective in that I bring life lessons to the classroom coupled with pedagogical training, which helps me deliver those life lessons to the students a bit more easily.

JAZZed: In most basic terms, what’s your philosophy as an educator? What’s your goal, your approach?

Dr. Lou Fischer - Keeping the Flame AliveLF: To teach students how to be successful in life, regardless of the chosen career path. Their involvement in music will prove to play a huge part in their success, as music develops so many critical thinking skills, discipline, attention to detail, et cetera.

JAZZed: Let’s talk a little about the formation of JEN, its mission, your place in the organization when it first began and how you wound up at your current position.

LF: JEN was formed on June 1, 2008. Shortly after the demise of IAJE earlier that year, I spoke with one of my lifelong friends, Mary Jo Papich, and discussed the idea of JEN. We agreed that we would co-found the organization as the void was being felt greatly in the industry and across the world in jazz and education circles. We scheduled a steering committee meeting in Chicago to which we invited 92 or so people to attend. Thirty-seven showed up at their own expense for the weekend and we all crammed into this ballroom that was designed to hold about 30. We met for two days and at the end of it we had agreed on a name, which my wife Mary Ann actually had came up with a few weeks before back home through having listened to the conversation for several years now about all the networking in my life. We also had a mission statement, a set of By-Laws and a direction. We operated with a volunteer Board for the first year until we could build a membership base and have an election. The name and mission statement was culled through a word-smith process we endured for more than a day. The three words that kept coming up on each marker board were all in the name Mary Ann had given to me a few weeks before, so I spoke up and said how about the Jazz Education Network, and we all agreed right then.

The other items that were clear on at least two boards were building the jazz arts community, advancing jazz education, promoting performance, and developing new audiences. A former student of mine from my first year at Capital, Steve Crissinger, who attended the meetings, became an instant believer and volunteered thousands of hours to build JEN a Web site, which has proven to be our life-blood. Up until the time we held the Inaugural Conference, we were really just a virtual organization and often still are perceived as such. However, through the site, we have managed to grow from 37 to over 1,200 and we continue to grow daily. We are about to host the Second Annual JEN Conference in New Orleans and the lineup is spectacular. The first conference we expected about 500 people and had upwards of 1,300 in attendance back in St. Louis.

Mary Jo was a great voice for us as our first president. Her vision and creative approach has worked well with my more organizational and business-like viewpoint of things. We have managed to work very well together, as we knew we could. With the help of many folks, we have developed an outstanding skill set within the Board, on which we have people with background in finance, marketing, law, music industry, jazz education at several levels, entrepreneurs, non-profit and professional people from across the map. One-third of the Board has the potential for change each year, providing much needed stability to the organization while bringing in fresh ideas at the same time.

The present Board is the strongest group of individuals I have ever been associated with in my entire life. An enormously dedicated group of individuals, some of which work countless hours towards fulfilling the mission, all of which share the passion and emotion of the music and the goals of the organization and give of their time and energy as they can. The JEN Bylaws provide for the membership to elect the Board members, while officers are elected from within the Board, after having served at least one year on the Board.

JAZZed: Any words of advice to your fellow jazz educators?

LF: Four things: 1) Jazz has been good to me. As a result of my involvement in the music, I’ve been privileged to see most of the world and to have performed on all of the major jazz festival venues throughout the world. As I have lived the jazz life, I have developed my extended jazz family, which is huge and is an incredible network of individuals. It is important to keep that flame alive, as it is our obligation to the music and to each other; 2) Prepare or your students will know it; 3) Never stop being a student, yourself. We teach by example; 4) Realize you have the honor and privilege to do something that you love to do every day of your life, which helps us remain humble.

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