Write Now: Educator Opens Doors For Students
It’s simple, really.
He loves music, especially jazz.
Ralph Rassmusson is a musician’s musician.
I say this because I know this.
Talk with him, and you will learn about music not because he is trying to educate you about music, but rather he can connect music in some way to your life. In educator language it is that you can draw on your own experience to make a new experience.
“I never have harbored the illusion of inspiring students — I really think that my work has been more like ‘opening doors’ and doing anything to provide experiences in the music world.
On May 7, he will be conducting his last Concert Band concert at Jamestown Community College as he is set to retire.
Known to his colleagues and friends as Razz, he started as an educator in 1958 and has gone on to have four different careers in Jamestown and the Southwestern New York.
“I started by practice teaching with Walton Huestis in 1958, and later he chose me to teach with him in Falconer. He was a master teacher and a great mentor,” he said.
Razz said he learned to teach in Falconer, and developed a jazz program that lasted another 30 years. One highlight, he recalled, is when he played in a Berkelee Jazz Fest in Boston, Mass., with one of his jazz bands. Some time later, he said, he ran a few sessions teaching jazz improvisation for Chautauqua County Music Teachers, and was honored with being chosen to Lead Jazz groups for Zone 1 NYSSMA two time, in addition to leading two other All Area groups for Pennsylvania Music Educators Association.
“In the last 27 years, I have taught Jazz at JCC, along with concert band,” the educator said. Razz said former JCC Music Director Mike Kelly was responsible for Razz getting hired at JCC. “He was a great influence on my musical life.”
Razz has had the privilege of working with hundreds of talented students — many of whom have developed great careers — all of whom did all the work themselves. “It’s always fun to see where their efforts have taken them,” he said.
Since starting with a trio in 1962 at the Vikings Lodge, he continued working with various bands in Jamestown and Warren, Pa.
“I think I probably played every bar and dance hall in Jamestown the next 50-plus years,” Razz said. “I played with Joe Prince at the Moose club, and many years with Busty Muzzy at the Italian and Swedish clubs. This amounted to two and three nights a week for all this time. I had the privilege of playing with many bands of the area — it was the most fun way to unwind at the time — most bands played standards from the 30s 40s, so you could drop in on a gig and join the band,” he said.
Later, Razz noted, that he had a wonderful opportunity to play with a traditional Dixie band founded by Jim Beaty who later became a world-traveling jazz musician full-time. Beaty passed away recently, but his memoirs have been published.
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“The story is that he needed a sub for his place in the dixie band while he went to the West Coast to look into playing in that area. I had to memorize 30 or more tunes to cover his gig at the Town Hall Inn on South Main Street in old the Brooklyn Square. We played from 9-10:30 p.m., took a break and then played on until 1 a.m. or more. There were two different crowds — one early, one late,” he said.
That gig led Razz to playing with Andy Travis and Dixie on the Deck in Bemus Point at the Italian Fisherman. “That gig lasted 21 summers. Having had that experience with free wheeling improv was a great experience,” Razz added.
During that time Razz created his own Dixie Bands and has played with local musicians Frank Farina, Bill Winchester, Craig Ridgeway, Lloyd Howard, and Vince Miccheche.
In 1972, Razz got involved in public school politics and was elected to the Jamestown Public Schools Board of Education. He was re-elected four times and stayed on the board until 1985. “It was a great experience to work with budget and other issues for the public,” Razz stated.
Although he plays saxophone, clarinet and other reed instruments, Razz also has 30-plus years of vocal experience at Holy Trinity Church. “I worked with several marvelous directors in the vocal world — Dick lngraham, Brian Bogey,
Ann Mogenhan, Gail Espinoza — and learned a lot from each of them,” he said. “All of these experiences in Jamestown have resulted in an amazing number of contacts at JCC, church choirs, and politics and jazz music.”
In 2014, he won the Rob Buck award for supporting music. Buck was a former guitarist and founding member of 10,000 Maniacs who passed away in December 2000.
Currently Razz leads his own big band, Pearl City Jazz.
“When it is going well, it’s an uplifting experience,” Razz said of his love of jazz music. “It lifts you up and gives you a feeling like you have the freedom to fly. It lifts your spirits and it’s a great feeling. I love the exhilaration of it.” And a true jazz band, he said, will play the songs different at every performance because “That is jazz. I love the improv part of it. It’s such fun.”
Razz is a wealth of information when it comes to jazz history. And listening to him speak, you see the smile on his face, and you can tell he enjoys listening as well as researching current and older trends in music.
Whether it’s big band swing, smooth, dixieland, be-bop, or fusion, after talking with him, you will take away a whole new understanding of all that jazz.