By Noah Hubbell
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He has an easier time recalling how he came to instruct so many future luminaries. In the late '70s, he was teaching at the Career Education Center, which traditionally sponsored a student big band. But in his view, participating in such a sprawling ensemble didn't adequately prepare players who wanted to make music for a living. "There weren't that many gigs for big bands at that time. So I said to Dick Culver, who was the director of music education for DPS at the time, 'Why don't we set up a high school jazz combo? Because that's where most of the gigs are.' And Dick went along with it fine."
In 1978, Bridge sent letters to all the band directors in the DPS system, asking them for lists of students who might be interested in trying out for the jazz combo. This was followed by a series of auditions at high schools throughout the area, with Bridge eventually selecting only the most promising or gifted instrumentalists. Getting past the selection process wasn't easy. Jackson, who attended Montbello, initially tried out on alto, but finished second to Leali, from George Washington. The next year, Jackson was selected after auditioning on tenor -- which has been his primary horn ever since.
During the various combos' practice sessions, Bridge emphasized the basics. "When I was first starting, the kids wanted to do all these far-out tunes, like that Brecker Brothers skunk-funk, and I wouldn't do that. I said, 'You guys have to learn standards.' You know: 'Green Dolphin Street,' 'Stella by Starlight,' 'Cherokee,' the good Gershwin tunes. They didn't like that very much. They said, 'We don't want to learn those crummy old standards.' But I told them, 'You wait and see. If you're in a new town and you go to a jam session and they're playing those tunes, I'll say I told you so.' And even now, they'll come back to me and say, 'You were right.'"
"He was right," Leali maintains. "He really emphasized learning those standards, and that's a big reason why I'm working so much today."
Other lessons included rigorous dedication to practicing and an emphasis on punctuality that, for Leali, was reinforced at the beginning of his combo membership. "It was the very first gig of my life," he points out. "The CEC combo was playing somewhere in downtown Denver, and before the gig, Melvin Bell, who was in the band, and my friend Charlie, who wasn't but was always with us, and I decided to get something to eat. We started walking around, and because there was a lot of construction, we forgot where we were and got lost. If the gig wasn't over by the time we got back, it was almost over, and Neil was mad. He had this look where he would just look at you with disgust. That look would say everything that needed to be said." Leali adds, "To this day, I always show up a half-hour or 45 minutes before I need to, just to make sure I'm not late."
Messages about responsibility came through clearly to Jackson, as well. "One thing about him from my perspective is that he always brought a very professional approach. And because he was a real musician, and he worked in Denver and throughout the area, when he came in and said, 'This is what the serious guys are doing,' that definitely held weight."
This insistence upon excellence paid dividends. Down Beat magazine held annual competitions to determine the best high school jazz combo in the country, and, Bridge says, "we won a couple of times. And we were picked to play this big jazz educators' convention in Chicago. So word started getting around."
Granted, such plaudits couldn't be used as calling cards in the jazz bastions of New York City. But Leali still thinks they made a difference for him. "In New York, cats really don't respect Denver. They think, 'You don't have any jazz in Denver, right?' So you have to prove yourself every time. But when you get up and play, and you do it at a high level, they're like, 'Oh, okay.' So that's why the CEC combo was such a great thing. It helped prepare me for that."
Today, those who Bridge tutored continue to pay him respect, often to a degree that amuses him. "A lot of them still call me 'Mr. Bridge,'" he allows. "I just did something with Ron Miles recently, and he was still calling me 'Mr. Bridge.' I said, 'Ron, you don't have to do that.' And he said, 'Yes, I do.'"
Press secretary Hudson, who plays bass in assorted settings during his free time, feels just as warmly toward Bridge. "What he taught us about things like responsibility don't just apply to music," he says. "They apply to the rest of your life, too."
Maybe so -- but as practiced by Jackson, Leali and their fellow CEC combo graduates, responsibility never sounded so good.