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Published: Thursday, 4/16/2009

Music marks jazz milestone

BY DAVID YONKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Fritz Byers doesn't try to define jazz. As he celebrates his 20th anniversary as host of Jazz Spectrum, broadcast weekly on Toledo's WGTE-FM (91.3), Byers said he simply plays the music he likes and doesn't worry about the label.

"I don't have a definition of jazz. I think it's impossible to define. But I trust my taste and I play music that sounds or feels good to me," Byers said.

To mark his 20th anniversary on the show, which is broadcast at 9 p.m. Saturdays, a concert will be presented tonight at Murphy's Place featuring saxophonist Sonny Fortune backed by The Murphys Trio. The University of Toledo Jazz Ensemble will open.

Byers said he is "surprised, thrilled, baffled" to realize he's been hosting the radio program for two decades, and feels honored to have Fortune featured at the anniversary show.

"I am immensely honored because Sonny is one of the greatest living saxophonists. He is a wonderfully creative musician and he exemplifies the twin streams of jazz [tradition and spontaneity] that make it such a vital art form," Byers said.

Fortune, who turns 70 in May, plays alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone saxophone as well as flute, and has been a member of bands led by such jazz legends as drummers Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich, pianist McCoy Tyner, and trumpeter Miles Davis.

"As far as the saxophones go, they all have their kind of personality, their own approach," Fortune said in an interview this week.

A Philadelphia native, he moved to New York City in 1967 to test his skills against the world's best jazz musicians. He started with Elvin Jones, then joined Mongo Santamaria's band, playing the sax on the band's Latin jazz instrumental covers of pop hits.

"People were expecting me to continue in that direction, because things were looking promising, but that's not why I got into this music," Fortune said.

He got into music to play jazz, he said, a style of music that has been a lifelong challenge as well as a reward.

Fortune was with Tyner's band for 2 1/2 years and then joined Rich's band before being hired by Davis.

He had turned down an invitation by Davis in order to stay with Tyner, saying he had been extremely happy with the Tyner quartet, which also featured trumpeter Woody Shaw.

"I just felt, 'Wow, this is where I want to be.' When Miles came to me, I told him I just wanted to stay with McCoy," Fortune said.

The next time Davis came calling, however, Fortune took the job. He played on four landmark Miles Davis albums: "Big Fun," "Agartha," "Pangaea," and "Get Up With It."

Fortune said the highlight of his career was playing a show with his musical idol, John Coltrane, in Philadelphia a year before Coltrane's death in 1967.

Fortune's latest CD, "Continuum," was released in 2003. He said that lately he has been "concentrating on learning to play music, really."

He said jazz is "limited only by your imagination. If you can't go any further, then that's the limit for you. But it's been documented through the years that some cats will come along and elevate it to the next level."

The concert celebrating the 20th anniversary of Fritz Byers' "Jazz Spectrum" radio show will be tonight at Murphy's Place, 151 Water St., featuring Sonny Fortune accompanied by The Murphys Trio. Reserved tickets are $25, open seating is $10, and students are $5. Information: 419-241-7732 or 419-380-4604. Doors open at 5; music starts at 6:30.

Contact David Yonke at:

dyonke@theblade.com or

419-724-6154.



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