FAC to Honor Torff During Jazzy Evening
By RITA PAPAZIAN
There is this familiar adage that people are judged by the company they keep. Jazz bassist Brian Torff, a composer and professor of music at Fairfield University, who has played with the best musicians in the business, keeps very good company.
On Oct. 25, the Fairfield Arts Council will honor Torff with its 2008 Artist of the Year award. He will be honored along with the council's first Patron of the Year recipient, Robert Scinto, a Shelton-based developer, who will be honored for his sustained support and love of the arts.
Ceremonies begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Fairfield Theatre Company, Sanford Street. The event will include a special concert performed by Torff and guest musicians, including his son, saxophonist Jarryd Torff; keyboardist Nick Bariluk; and drummer Adam Nussbaum.
Artist of the Year Committee Chairwoman Martha S. LoMonaco said Torff is a local musician who has attained national renown. She added he will be honored not only for his achievements as a musician, performer and composer but also for his generosity in sharing his time and talent in the community talking and performing before groups of citizens ranging from schoolchildren to senior citizens.
LoMonaco, professor of theater at Fairfield University and director of Theatre Fairfield, the university's resident production company, praised Torff for the numerous times he has been called upon to "help with theater pieces on the Fairfield University campus."
In describing Torff's community contributions, FAC Executive Director Billie Jean Sullivan said his involvement has been "six degrees of separation." In other words, it appears that whatever is going on musically in the community, Torff is involved in one way or another. "As a teacher and a performer, he has dedicated his life to the arts," Sullivan said.
John S. Wilson of the New York Times described Torff as "a virtuoso bassist, imaginative and distinctive in his solos, but more than that, a solid composer and arranger."
Torff said FAC's honor is "very gratifying, humbling and an acknowledgment of my body of work."
And Torff is no way lessening up on his productivity in the arts, whether it is teaching his courses at Fairfield University, performing or putting the finishing touches on his memoir scheduled for publication in a few months.
Next month Torff will be musical director and bassist at the Django Reinhardt New York Festival featuring "The Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz," a quintet of European jazz musicians who will perform Nov. 4 to 9 at the Birdland Jazz Club on 44th Street in Manhattan. The Hot Club of Detroit will perform Nov. 7, 8 and 9 at Birdland as part of the festival.
The festival carries on the legacy of the virtuoso gypsy guitarist Reinhardt and his "hot swing" style of playing that started a musical revolution in France and extended throughout the world in the '30s and '40s when he teamed with master jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli in the Hot Club Quintette. The festival was established to pay "homage" to Dijango's music," Torff said.
Torff's memoir, In Love With Voices: A Jazz Memoir, is expected to be published by iUniverse at the end of the year. The bassist spent three months in Paris this past spring, writing the book. His time in Paris, visiting museums and galleries and writing his memoir, proved very inspiring for him, not only as a musician but also as a writer. The memoir offers recollections of his career up until now, filled with memories working with "distinctive musicians with personal voices," he said in a recent interview in his office in the music department at Fairfield University.
In his office he has a framed photo of his playing the bass with a group of musicians performing for Frank Sinatra in 1986. "I'll never forget his presence," Torff said. "When he walked on stage, it was like the air had changed. It showed me how mesmerizing an artist can be."
Sinatra is just one of many distinguished musicians Torff has shared the stage with and whom he recalls in his book, which is divided into three sections. The first part focuses on the early years how he got started, along with his determination "to make it" as a musician. The second part focuses on the musicians he worked with and why they were great. These included Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner (who told him to make every night feel like a party), Grappelli, Mel Torme, George Shearing and Benny Goodman. The third section focuses on music today and how music has changed in his lifetime. Here, he offers a glimpse into what it was like to grow up with musicians in the late '60s and '70s.
"I try to illuminate the life of a musician. I wrote in a way that would be helpful," said the father of two adult children. Torff kept "a lot of mental notes" along with a scrapbook of reviews, photos and written notes which helped him write about his life.
What does Torff see as the book's message? He replied, "To live a life that comes from the deep well of the passion is important, valuable and inspiring. We all can come of this. That's what the arts are for."
He recalled in his early 20s when he was performing with Grappelli. Torff looked out into the audience and thought how old the audience looked. "They looked so old, yet I realized they were probably as old as Grappelli was. If you are lucky enough to do anything you love, it really keeps you young," Torff said.
Judging by the various aspects of his life and his youthful appearance (many say he strongly resembles Paul McCartney), Torff not only keeps a balance but also connections between his teaching, performing and composing.
"When I teach a class, I'm talking as a teacher and listening as a student," said Torff, who believes it is very important to keep focus. "The real genius comes from the ability to focus. 'Talent does what it can. Genius does what it must,'" said Torff, quoting Robert Edward, the 19th-century Earl of Lytton who went by the pen name Owen Meredith.
"We write from our experiences. If you aren't experiencing, it is difficult to produce the art," Torff said.
As he continues teaching such courses as the History of Jazz, World Music and History of Rock, Torff describes himself as a "caring, giving person who doesn't covet the talent but helps others find their talents."
Torff was born in Chicago and grew up in suburban Hinsdale. "My father was a lawyer with a great record collection." When Torff was in the seventh grade, he recalled, a teacher placed a group of instruments in the room. "I went over to the bass, plucked a few strings and that was it love at first sound."
He studied at the Berkeley School of Music in Boston and the Manhattan School of Music.
Torff's professional career began in 1974 when bassist Milt Hinton offered him the opportunity of touring with Cleo Laine. During the late '70s, Torff recorded and performed with pianists Williams and Marian McPartland, and toured Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong with violin virtuoso Grappelli. He played in pianist Erroll Garner's last group and worked in the big bands of Oliver Nelson and the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.
In 1979, Torff joined in a duo with pianist Shearing. In the course of their 3.5-year collaboration, they toured throughout the United States, Europe, Brazil and South Africa, and were featured on the NBC "Tonight Show," Merv Griffin and their own PBS special from New York's Cafe Carlyle. They received worldwide acclaim and were invited to perform at the White House in 1982 for President Reagan. Their third album won a Grammy for vocalist Torme.
Torff is a noted composer who has contributed works for records with Shearing, Larry Coryell and his own recordings "Hitchhiker of Karoo," "Manhattan Hoe-Down" and "Workin' On a Bassline." He has written scores that have been performed by the Boston Pops, Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony, and has appeared as conductor, composer and clinician for numerous high school and college jazz festivals.
He was named faculty member of the year by the AHANA students and the office of Multicultural Relations at Fairfield University. He has taught African drumming as part of the Upward Bound program for inner-city students and has recently published articles on Mary Lou Williams and Grappelli, is a regular columnist for Jazz Improv magazine and is listed in the Groves Dictionary of Jazz.
In addition to the bass, Torff also plays the piano, mostly to compose, and the blues harmonica. Also he'll perform some Delta blues on a slide guitar.
Discussing his children, Torff said his musician son, a sophomore at McGill University, "has great potential." While Torff acknowledges the life of a musician is not the easiest career, he believes his son must follow his dream. His daughter Hilary in an English teacher in China.
"Being in the arts makes you more of an improviser." He described improvising as "finding your way and being open to all possibilities. That's the appeal of the arts whether you're doing it or receiving it."
Reflecting upon his life today, Torff said, "As I get older, I have a clearer vision of what I want to do. You learn as you get older what to leave out too many notes; too many words. You are learning the wisdom that less is more."
Meanwhile, Torff is loving his experiences playing with other renowned musicians, including some great French musicians. He's even been taking French lessons the past four years.
"You have to grab the moment when it's there," said Torff, who likes to describe the experience of performing on stage as one of levitation.
The Artist of the Year Award is presented to an artist in the visual, performing or literary arts who has made a significant contribution to his or her field and has demonstrated artistic excellence at the highest level. Twenty-eight other artists have been honored since 1976. Tickets for the 2008 Artist of the Year event are $75 and $150 and may be purchased through the Fairfield Theatre Company box office, 70 Sanford St. or by calling 259-1036 or