By DEBORA SHAULIS
Arranging a musical tribute to the late Tony Leonardi was easy. Leonardi was a founder and first director of the nationally acclaimed jazz studies program at Youngstown State University Dana School of Music.
As for what the Leonardi Legacy Concert should consist of, well, that's the stuff of improvisation.
"We're trying to make sure everybody gets to say what they need to say musically," says Kent Engelhardt, who has succeeded his former teacher as coordinator of jazz studies.
At least 27 distinguished alumni of YSU's Jazz Studies Program will perform at 8 p.m. Monday in the Kilcawley Center Chestnut Room. Admission is $5 at the door. Profits will go to the Tony Leonardi Jazz Scholarship Fund.
Three participants have composed or arranged music for the event. So have three other alums who aren't able to attend.
"Even though Tony himself was not an arranger, he was always giving composers and arrangers in the program an opportunity to get music played," Engelhardt said.
Delayed tribute: The all-star alumni band was supposed to perform before Leonardi retired in 2001, but Leonardi became ill. The concert was put on hold until Leonardi could be there to enjoy it. "That day didn't come," Engelhardt said.
Leonardi died of pancreatic cancer last July.
At Leonardi's funeral, musicians spoke again of honoring their mentor with a performance.
Last semester, Engelhardt and Dana faculty member Mike Crist made a list of Leonardi's former students who are working, professional musicians; who recorded or traveled with recognized organizations and renowned artists; or who are teaching jazz or commercial music in higher education. They sent out invitations.
Nearly everyone responded affirmatively, including Eddie Allen. A jazz percussionist, composer and educator, Allen has lived in Paris for the past decade. He hasn't been in United States since 1996, Engelhardt said.
Playing by ear: Engelhardt has been loosely planning the program for this one-of-a-kind concert. He anticipates big band numbers, smaller ensembles, perhaps even some duos.
"I told people, whatever contribution you'd like to make to this concert, I'd like to try to accommodate you," he said.
Co-master of ceremonies Bill Bodine does not want it to be a somber occasion.
"I'm getting in a mood for the celebration," Bodine said, calling from his office in California. "All of my interactions with Tony were fun. He was a fun guy, a great guy. ... It was always a positive hang when I hung with Tony."
"No one has to make much of an effort for it to be a tribute to Tony because these people are living tributes to Tony's gift as a teacher and as an inspirational leading musician," Bodine said.
If one of Leonardi's philosophies still sticks with Bodine, it's that "he didn't find it acceptable to settle for less than great."
James Weidman thinks a Thad Jones composition would be a nice touch. Leonardi performed and traveled with many top-name musicians before he enrolled at YSU in the late 1960s. His friends and peers served as guest artists at YSU at his request.
Jones, the famous trumpeter, was a guest clinician several times while Weidman was a student in the 1970s. "What an experience that was for we the students," said Weidman, now teaching jazz at colleges in New York and New Jersey. "To see music played on that high level ... Every time he would come there our musicianship would go up a notch."
These days, "I draw on Tony for what an educator should be," Weidman added. "He really cared. ... It inspired us to do better."
Favorite tune: Saxophonist Ralph Lalama wants to play in the big band, but he hopes to perform in a quartet as well. He remembers when, while still a student, Leonardi invited him to play in his quartet around town. One of their frequent gigs was at Cherry's Top of the Mall, formerly inside Eastwood Mall in Niles.
Lalama wants to play one of Leonardi's favorite tunes from those days, "Just In Time."
"The chord changes were nice to play on," said Lalama, who's a hot commodity in New York and as a session musician. "Tony loved to improvise on that song." Leonardi played string bass.
Many people have asked if the all stars will play a song Leonardi liked. "He liked so many it's hard to pick one," Engelhardt said.
It's the spirit of the evening, not the set list, that will be the ultimate testimonial.
"The thing that's vintage Tony about it is that we're all in the room, and we're all there because of him and no other reason," Engelhardt said.