‘Heart of Jazz in the Valley’ tribute to musician

  • Tom McClung

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Tom McClung was a local jazz legend — a busy pianist, arranger, composer and Valley mainstay from the ’70s until he moved to Paris in 1998. His passing this past May got the rest of the music community connecting and reminiscing, resulting in an upcoming special five-hour concert to pay tribute to McClung and numerous other departed players.

The memorial event is called “Heart of Jazz in the Valley” and will take place at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke on Sunday from 3 to 8 p.m.

More than 50 performers from the Pioneer Valley jazz scene will share songs and stories on two stages, with archival videos, photos and memorabilia on display.

The overflowing lineup includes vocalists Marion Groves, Lynne Meryl, Carol Smith and Patty Carpenter, Eshu Bumpus, Tony Vacca, Claire Arenius, Secondary Messengers, Jim Argiro Trio, Moonlight and Morning Star, pianists Ken Forfia and Dick Moulding, bassists Avery Sharpe, George Kaye and Joe Fonda, and many other musicians, most of whom worked alongside McClung at some point. NEPR “Jazz a la Mode” host Tom Reney is the emcee.

Pianist Paul Arslanian, longtime leader of the Green Street Trio, is the event’s music coordinator. He’s in charge of scheduling the musicians — of which there are now so many that Arslanian himself probably won’t have time to fit on the bill, as he said with a smile during an interview last week.

Arslanian moved to the Valley from Oakland, California back in 1984, and he met McClung soon after. It was an era with not a lot of jazz pianists in the area, so they started calling each other when they needed to substitute for gigs.

He laughed warmly while remembering the house on Conz Street where McClung once lived with bassist Whitney Cronin and other musicians. “Total squalor” was one descriptive phrase; “constant music 24/7” was another.

In the ’80s McClung, Arslanian and others often met and jammed at piano parties held at Hampshire Piano (then located in Florence, but currently in Chesterfield). 

Arslanian said of McClung, “He was pretty eclectic. He composed a lot. He was influenced by classical, traditional and Dixieland music, Monk and Bud Powell.”

Vocalist Marion Groves was one of the many who collaborated with McClung over the decades, playing as a duo, part of a trio, or together in the Valley Big Band or Paradise City Jazz Band, and she still remembers his supportive nature in her early days.

“I felt intimidated by my lack of knowledge of the genre, but Tom played so beautifully and never copped the attitude that many players put forth toward ‘singers.’ His generosity of spirit and time spent with a singer who was ‘green’ fills my gratitude bucket each time I reflect back on it,” she said.

Groves still marvels at McClung’s deep love of music and dedication to his art: “I wonder if he slept at all, and venture to guess that Tom’s hands were on the keys probably most of the time in between eating, listening to music and whatever sleep he experienced. Maybe his hands were playing air piano in his sleep!”

Asked to choose favorite songs she performed with McClung, Groves thought of ballads by Jimmy Van Heusen (“But Beautiful”) and Hoagy Carmichael (“Skylark”). 

“Tom’s capacity to listen, to align with the vocalist and yet stretch out musically and express his monstrous talent with sensitivity and tasteful pause, are qualities I admire and analyze as I re-listen to past recordings in preparation for his memorial.”

In addition to McClung, the gathering will pay tribute to other local jazz musicians who’ve passed on, including Max Roach, Yusef Lateef, Marion Brown, Attila Zoller, Dave Shapiro, Dave Wertman, Dave Pinardi, Whitney Cronin, Bob Laclair, Steve Neil, Charles Majid Greenlee, Rick Eckstein, WTCC-FM jazz deejay Brother Rick Grant, and many others.

The “Heart of Jazz In the Valley” event will raise funds for the Tom McClung Scholarship Fund as well as the completion of a Tom McClung double CD.

Vitek Kruta, co-owner and director of Gateway City Arts, met McClung 15 years ago when Kruta ran New City Arts in Easthampton, where McClung was a regular featured performer. Kruta donated use of his space and sound system for the memorial event, which he said he sees as “a great opportunity to recognize the vibrant and diverse jazz community in the Valley and beyond, and to reflect and perhaps form new connections, ideas and collaborations, and contemplate the future of the Valley jazz scene.”

Arslanian said there would be a table-length sheet of paper at the event, on which musicians and others can write their memories of McClung and sign it, something to be added to the local jazz archive. “It’s an opportunity to put all these things together and see how we all relate — the breadth of the community is pretty big. We’re trying to make a dent in that history, to put it on paper.”

For more on “Heart of Jazz in the Valley,” visit gatewaycityarts.com/heartofjazz.