Students selected for New York gig
It was a learning experience they could never have gotten in a classroom.
Last month, members of the Kansas City Kansas Community College Jazz Combo traveled to New York City. Their group was one of only three college groups chosen to perform at this year's JVC Jazz Festival.
"It put fresh new musical ideas in my head and gave me more of an idea of what I want to do," said Michael Stephenson, a guitarist from Tonganoxie.
"Seeing the greats of jazz made me want to strive to be something better than what I am now," added Chris Hazelton, pianist from Olathe East.
"Very inspiring," agreed Justin Davidson, an alto saxophone player from Tonganoxie. "I'm going into music education and plan on teaching but I'd like to have a jazz career before I start teaching."
And jazz band director Jim Mair said the trip exceeded all of his expectations.
"It was the first trip to New York City for all the students and they experienced so much as far as culture and visiting some of the legendary places of jazz," he said.
Sean Phelps, a bass player who graduated from Sumner Academy, and drummer Jeff Davidson of Blue Valley, rounded out the five-member combo. Jazz pianist and accompanist Mike Ning also accompanied the students.
Sponsored by Downbeat Magazine, the Bible of jazz magazines, the combo performed in an afternoon concert June 15 on an outdoor stage at Citigroup Plaza at Saint Peter's Church, commonly referred to as the "Jazz Church" in mid-town Manhattan.
A graduate jazz combo from New Jersey City University and two quartets from the Milwaukee Youth Symphony also performed and, along with the KCKCC combo, were the only non-professionals to perform in the 13-day festival that featured such legends as Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Smokey Robinson and countless others.
"Just to be in the same program was huge," said Mair. "We played a 50-minute set to an audience of 400 to 500 people who were sitting in wrought iron chairs and on stairs. I was real proud of the way our students performed and handled all the pressure but I wasn't surprised."
Not ones to waste an opportunity of a lifetime, the students not only visited New York's most famous jazz clubs but also performed in one.
"We went to a jazz club called Smoke, and they invited our guys to set in; they were very generous," Mair said.
"I got to meet and jam with one of my guitar-playing idols, Peter Bernstein, and really enjoyed seeing a Broadway show," said Hazelton.
Stephenson also relished the chance to hear Bernstein.
"It was really awesome, one of the best times of my life," he said. "Getting to hear my hero, Peter Bernstein, was an honor beyond honors. Hearing all the jazz greats made everything a little more sense."
The biggest surprise of the trip came at the Iridium Club.
"One of our students from last spring, Tim Perryman, was playing with the Charles Mingus Big Band," said Mair. "We were really surprised to walk in and see Tim playing trombone."
"We played together in a couple of groups my first year so it was a real surprise to see Tim," said Justin Davidson. "He had quite a reaction, really surprised and excited to see us."
Both Davidson and Stephenson got their starts in jazz under the tutelage of Charles VanMiddlesworth at Tonganoxie High School.
"He was very encouraging and kept the excitement up," Stephenson said about his high school teacher.
Other stops were made at Birdland, named after Kansas City jazz legend Charlie Parker where Mair had performed in the past; the Village Vanguard Jazz Club; and Dizzy's Coca-Cola Jazz Club at Lincoln Center overlooking Central Park, where the students enjoyed dinner in a listening only, non-talking environment.
"The Village Vanguard Jazz Club has been in existence 60 years and is the most famous and prestigious jazz club to perform in," said Mair. "It was so packed that Mike Ning and I stood outside while the students went in."
Quartered in a hotel just across the street from Carnegie Hall where Mair has also performed, the group also visited some of New York's landmarks, the Statute of Liberty, Empire State Building and Ellis Island and got two tickets to the David Letterman Show. "I know one of the members of the Letterman band so he had us come up on stage after the show and take some pictures," said Mair.
The group also got to see one Broadway show, "The Producers." "It was incredible, a fabulous show," said Mair. "All in all, it was just a great trip and we didn't miss a minute. I arranged for an early check-in and we were on the go non-stop all four days. We got to eat at different restaurants and have different foods, rode the subway all over, got to hear some of the best musicians in the world, went to a play and even got to sit-in at a club. I'm sure it was an experience our students not only will never forget but learned so much."
-- Alan Hoskins is public information supervisor at Kansas City Kansas Community College.