Tony Zamora says jazz is America’s gift to the world.
For many years, it’s been his gift to this community.
Zamora was raised in the bebop era, the era that produced the music "some folks (call) traditional jazz." He saw Miles Davis and John Coltrane perform, Duke Ellington and Count Basie. He’s played with some of the best modern jazz musicians; some say he’s one of them.
Over time, he’s seen the draw of jazz music dwindle among mass audiences, but in his own way, Zamora remains the link between the golden days of jazz and its future.
The Tony Zamora Jazz Ensemble will close out the Union summer concert series at 6:30 tonight in Academy Park.
As a boy in Chicago, Zamora encountered what has become perhaps the primary joy of his life in a nightclub near his home and through listening to his father’s records.
"I’d hear these," and he paused to note that "saxophonists" is pronounced with a stress on the second syllable — not the third, "I’d hear these saxophonists playing all of these notes and it just blew my mind.
"Boy, it’s just, that’s fantastic."
Although his love of jazz has been his primary passion, it was usually a secondary profession. Zamora once worked during the day at a publishing house, sold insurance in the evening and played nightclubs into the wee hours. He served as director of the Black Cultural Center at Purdue from 1973 to 1995.
But through it all, he’s stayed true to his music.
"I’ve always continued to try to maintain a jazz band. It’s sort of a devout love and devotion that I guess I’ve been touched by since an early age," he said.
Nick Vucas, owner of the Knickerbocker Saloon, where Zamora plays regularly, has known the saxophonist for 15 years.
"Tony’s been sort of a Lafayette legend," he said. "He really has a true passion for what he does … for the culture of jazz."
Like many art forms, jazz is handed down from old to young.
"In the jazz field in particular, there’s sort of this nightclub, nightlife style, so you’re in fast company," said Zamora, who actually met his wife of 45 years, Betty, in a club.
But there are dangers, and guidance from a wise band member is part of the tradition. "It’s just like having your mom and dad telling you don’t do this or watch out for this."
At both Purdue and the University of Illinois, Zamora has made a point to take promising jazz students into his tutelage.
"My band was kind of like a graduate program where they would come in and get practical experience playing in the club and make some money on the side," he said.
Mo Trout, director of Purdue’s jazz bands, has seen Zamora’s influence on many of his students.
In fact, the increasing number of jazz festivals and high school- and college-level jazz bands gives Zamora hope for the future, though he does have his worries.
"He’s talked to me about frustrations … the difficulty of bringing jazz to the community," Trout said.
Zamora’s philosophy is simple, though.
"In my opinion there are only two kinds of music," he said, followed by a thoughtful pause, "good and bad.
"And when it’s good it appeals to the inner spirit, to the inner soul. It touches you, moves you."
Zamora is approached after shows by people who have had their days turned around by the emotion of his craft. And it’s that feeling — a feeling one doesn’t receive from a Britney Spears song — he hopes to get across with his performances.
But it’s no longer the bebop era, and many young people, even music lovers, don’t understand what jazz means to history, to entertainment, to Zamora.
What jazz needs most, he said, is listeners.
That’s one reason he’s playing tonight.
"Anything new always has these possibilities to it," he said. "I think they’ll enjoy it."