Start a conversation about the jazz scene in South Florida and it will almost inevitably lead to Dr. Ronald B. Weber.
Dr. Weber, at six feet, seven inches tall, is a towering figure in the local jazz community, as well as one of its outspoken ambassadors a and enterprising organizers. A founding member of South Florida JAZZ in 1992, he has served as president and artistic director of the non-profit, all-volunteer organization for the past 26 years. Throughout that span, Ron has brought the jazz world’s most revered artists (e.g. Milt Jackson, Gerry Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Michael Brecker, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Gary Burton, and Ron Carter) to the region, first in conjunction with the Hollywood Jazz Festival and subsequently with the South Florida JAZZ concert series, which began in 1996 and has inhabited a number of venues as the organization has grown and prospered.
Under his leadership, the programming has been diverse with high-quality performances each season. In addition to luminaries and legends, Ron has kept an eye out for up-and-coming performers whose careers would benefit from greater exposure. This approach has been prescient, as Weber points to four artists in particular – vocalists Cecile McLorin Salvant and Kurt Elling, and pianists Brad Mehldau and Hiromi – who were featured in an SFJ performance before going on to popular and critical acclaim.
With Weber at the helm, SFJ has grown in scope and scale. In addition to its yearly performance season, it supports jazz education in southeast Florida at elementary, high school, and college levels, aiming to introduce young musicians to life under the bright lights through real-world performing experience. Local student ensembles often have served as opening acts for the top-billed professional performers at SFJ shows at various local venues.
That commitment to jazz education reflects Weber’s foundational interests. Born in Detroit to musically inclined parents, he began playing piano at age five, then added drums at age 11. By 13, when he’d discovered jazz, drumming had become an obsession. He recalls practicing for up to 12 hours a day during the summers and weekends when he was studying classical percussion and timpani with members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and teaching himself drum set techniques. He anchored the rhythm section in the Mumford High School jazz band that was good enough to play complex Stan Kenton Orchestra charts. During college he honed his craft as a timpanist in the University of Michigan Orchestra, and the principal percussionist in the UM Concert Band. During that same time he was drummer-leader of a jazz quintet that featured future star tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, who was attending nearby Wayne State University in Detroit. All the while, he was the understudy timpanist in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Paul Paret. He also played basketball.
Weber gigged throughout college, including some high-profile gigs with Phineas Newborn Jr, Kirk Lightsey, Candido Camera, Terry Gibbs, and guitarist Johnny Smith. But as graduation with a degree in chemistry neared, his faced a fork in the road. One path led to a career in jazz, with all its uncertainties and vicissitudes. His other option was medicine, a field that – no surprise – carried his parents’ blessing. Weber agonized over the choice. Ultimately, Dave Brubeck, his mentor and a frequent dinner guest at the Weber home, steered him to his future. “Dave counseled me that being a jazz musician was a very difficult and precarious life,” our Hero remembers, “except for a scarce few players. If given an opportunity to study a profession such as medicine, [Dave said] I should take it and I could always have music as a wonderful avocation without the anguish. Of course, he was right. That’s essentially what I did.”
After many years of medical training and service in the U.S. Navy and the National Institutes of Health, Weber became a respected neurologist–neuro-ophthalmologist, first as an academician at George Washington University and later in private practice in the Fort Lauderdale area (he has since retired). But his passion for jazz hadn’t waned a bit since his teenage years. It is largely because of his obsession with musical excellence and student and audience education that South Florida JAZZ is committed always to present superior jazz talent, featuring artists eager to share their experience, continually nurturing students seeking to learn the craft, and attracting aficionados who are enriched by it all. While Dr. Ronald B. Weber may view his endeavors as natural outcomes of his love for jazz and dedication to its preservation and growth, we see them for what they are: Heroic.