Jazzman's keys to Kansas

Frank Mantooth's travels with his orchestra will continue, but he calls Garden City home.

By Mike Berry
The Wichita Eagle

January 12, 1997, Pages 1D-2D

GARDEN CITY- As this year's field of Grammy contenders was narrowed to the final five in each of more than 70 categories this week, jazz pianist/composer Frank Mantooth was philosophical about his chances of making the cut.

"Well, I won't hold my breath... I've never made it to the top five... it's tough," he said, sitting at the keyboard of a concert-style piano in a music laboratory at Garden City Community College.

Mantooth moved to Garden City about a year ago from Chicago and finds his new hometown a welcome respite from the urban scramble. He met his wife, Carrie, a middle school art teacher, while he was serving a four-month music residency at the community college, and he is now a Garden City homeowner.

"I've never experienced anything like this," said Mantooth, who occasionally performs with a local jazz group at Tom's Tavern, a Garden City watering hole, when he's not jetting off to New York, Los Angeles or Kansas City to play with his orchestra.

His versions of "Heart and Soul" and "Taking a Chance on Love" flowed seamlessly out of the instrument before he performed a smooth rendition of "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire" followed by a couple of bars of "Jingle Bells."

"I just can't get that Christmas stuff out of my head," laughed Mantooth, his round, almost cherubic, face beaming from behind a pair of tortoise-frame glasses. Wearing a lavender Yamaha Music sweatshirt, blue jeans and sneakers, Frank Mantooth did not look the part of what he calls a "jazzer."

But counting his three preliminary-round nominations this year, Mantooth has had nine preliminary Grammy nominations during his jazz career.

"Branford Marsalis didn't get one (a Grammy) till his 10th nomination," said Mantooth, who now splits his time between teaching Big Band-style jazz in Garden City and performing all over the country with the Frank Mantooth Jazz Orchestra, his 21-piece band.

Mantooth's "Sophisticated Lady" album on the Sea Breeze label, which hit the Top 10 jazz list in 1996, was initially nominated for this year's Best Performance by a Large Jazz Ensemble, Best Instrumental Arrangement with Accompanying Vocal, and Best Engineered Album.

But his work didn't make it to the final Grammy nominations for next month's voting by the 9,000 members of the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences. Mantooth, 49, would love to be recognized by his peers with a Grammy, noting it would also be "sort of a negotiating chip for better jobs, better recompense."

But he's clearly not the kind to be crushed by only coming close to such an honor.

He loves teaching jazz to other musicians and one of his favorite courses is "Jazz Band Made Simple," for students between ages 9 and 14. "I really like that because you see the kids improve so fast," he said.

Mantooth will teach a course entitled "Community Big Band" beginning next week, with the resulting band performing at the Garden City Jazz Festival on Feb. 24 and the Wichita Jazz Festival on April 26. He will also offer a series of short-term improvisation and jazz seminars at Garden City Community College.

"This is just phenomenal," said the college's instrumental music director, Bruce Spiller, who said few students get to hone their skills with a nationally known jazz artist of Mantooth's stature. Mantooth, who has more than 120 published works since 1978, says he will continue to work primarily as a jazz composer.

He plans to spend Mondays through Wednesdays enjoying the relative serenity of teaching at the community college and then diving back into the national jazz scene on weekends. "It's cool," he said of his new lifestyle, which allows him to enjoy the best of both worlds.

Reprinted with permission of The Wichita Eagle-Beacon Publishing Co., Inc.