By Scott MacClelland
It has come as something of a surprise to me that so many of our arts leaders are products of local origin and education. We may all be proud of those who grew up in the Monterey Bay area and have gone on to big careers in the nation’s major arts centers. But it’s just as true of the many who show us the light right here at home.
Paul Contos, who will be feted as a Champion of the Arts by the Arts Council for Monterey County this Saturday, is but one of many I have met who grew up here and, like previous Performing Arts People, learned his art and craft at the community colleges of the Monterey Bay, UC Santa Cruz and now CSU Monterey Bay.
Reading Contos’ resumé gives one the impression that the guy lives among the legends of jazz somewhere on Mount Gillespie. He has performed with a dizzying roster of renowned jazz artists, including Mundell Lowe, Clark Terry, Roy Hargrove, Jon Hendricks, Joe Williams, Dianne Reeves, Sheila Jordan, Ray Drummond, Eddie Marshall, Vince Lateano, Madeline Eastman, Bruce Forman, Dave Eshelman, Ray Brown, Dizzy Gillespie, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, Regina Carter, Gary Burton, Wayne Shorter, Terence Blanchard and… Well the list goes on and on and includes the many with whom he has also recorded. It might swell a mere mortal’s head. But it’s not for the art he makes or the jazz stars he knows by first names, but rather his work as a jazz educator that he is being honored.
A San Francisco native, with parents of Greek and Russian heritage, Contos felt the irresistible music bug bite starting in the 4th grade when he took up the flute. Later he attended Carlmont High School in Belmont, where, at the time, Chris Nelson ran “one of the best jazz programs.” He fondly remembers, “quality instruments and directors who knew how to play and teach music.” One day, Vince Gomez, who ran the orchestral program at Cabrillo College, showed up at Carlmont. “He was inspirational,” Contos recalls, “which is why I’m such a proponent of education.”
He credits an older brother, who played trumpet, with leading the way into music. “My parents were not musicians themselves, but super fans of music.” He remembers, as a small child, walking or crawling around a portable record player on the carpet, “playing Gershwin.” When he was eight or nine, “my brother got some Miles Davis records.” Their parents “took us to see Count Basie’s orchestra, with Tony Bennett.” He says he wasn’t sure “what this was, but it was really cool.”
Arriving in Santa Cruz in the early 1970s, Contos attended Cabrillo and studied with, among others, Lile Cruse and Ray Brown who, along with Gomez, made a powerful impression on generations of young musicians, both classical and jazz. By then, Contos was playing a great deal. “It was a smaller scene then,” he says, just before a jazz ‘collective’ that included Tim Jackson coalesced into the Kuumbwa Jazz Center. (See our PAP feature on Jackson, Nov 10, 2014.) At that time, Contos was also a member of the Santa Cruz Symphony, when its conductor was George Barati, and in a wind ensemble that included David Kaun (see our PAP feature of Aug 26, 2014).
Contos had worked with Jimmy Lyons of the Monterey Jazz Festival as a traveling clinician, when Jackson was hired in place of the retiring Lyons. The two have been closely-working colleagues ever since. (Contos makes a point of remembering the late board member Ruth Fenton as a tireless champion of music education who assertively promoted the development of the education program that is such a big part of the MJF today.) Right, Contos leads the MJF Next Generation Jazz Orchestra at Kennedy Center (Photo by Ronnie James.)
Contos “morphed” from Santa Cruz to Monterey about nine years ago. By then, he had established a network of educational connections and obligations, largely as a saxophonist, clinician and adjudicator. He continues as a lecturer in saxophone studies at UC Santa Cruz, and recently stepped down from teaching over a dozen years at CSU Monterey Bay, where “I was teaching predominantly music recording and technology,” in recording studios and with digital tools “early on.” While there, he wrote the subject pedagogy curriculum.
Today, the MJF’s demands on his time keep him extremely busy. “I’m not doing five nights a week in a club anymore.” He has traveled to Japan 18 times in support of the MJF’s festival at Noto. “I’m going to Sao Paolo (below left) in February; it’s the same kind of work we do here,” while he raves about the Brazilian professional musicians there. He does “the guest artist thing” a couple of times a year, including workshops and big band clinics, “which include a public concert.”
Answering a question on how his way of teaching jazz over the years has changed, he conjoins teaching and learning—“being open to new thinking, new forms, new ideas.” He says we teachers have to keep providing the information and techniques. “But” he continues, “my approach has shifted over the years.” In the past, “I was more concerned with the particulars, harmony, structure, this scale against that.” But in teaching improvisation, he now emphasizes melody. He advises his students to “immerse yourself in the jazz language. If you want to learn how to swing, you just have to assimilate it.”
To keep his saxophone chops up, “I practice the cello suite of Bach; it’s great discipline and some of the greatest music ever,” he says. “Inspiring and motivating the next generations of artists is constant work.” But, to make jazz, he quotes Charlie Parker, “Learn all this stuff and then forget about it.”