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Young Cats

The plane wouldn’t arrive for hours. Jim Spadafore had plenty of time to reflect as he waited in the Los Angeles airport for the connecting flight home. Four of his junior and senior Liverpool High School students had just taken second place at the March 28 Monterey Jazz Festival. It was an awesome accomplishment for kids 2,000 miles away from their home turf, competing against big-name programs. (They lost to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, but narrowly.) Soon they’d come home to some local press and walk through the school hallways with heads held a little higher.

But what did it all mean? These four teens from an upstate New York public high school had just given big-city art school students a serious scare. Senior Collin DeJoseph, 17, organist for the Liverpool group that went to Monterey, says, “I heard many of the top bands from across the country; many were on the same level as local Syracuse groups.”

Spadafore observed this, too. Maybe it was the students’ talent and drive, or his own teaching methods, that were responsible. Regardless, he had more pressing thoughts on this March day—like how to occupy his restless high schoolers during the layover. He opted to rent a car and take them to some of LA’s coolest sights: Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the Hollywood and Vine district, the Santa Monica Pier.

“The kids had a great time,” says Spadafore. “They got to see some stuff they might not have otherwise have seen.”

The afternoon was a fitting metaphor for what Syracuse’s scholastic jazz scene has experienced lately. Not too long ago Central New York’s was just another scene in the wings, then suddenly—blammo!–it was cruising at full speed, windows down, under the blue skies of possibility.

Serious chops

It’s Friday night at the Coffee Pavilion. The friendly Hanover Square java spot feels like a cramped speakeasy from yesteryear, minus cigarette smoke and fedoras: Walk through the front door and you’re practically straddling DeJoseph’s keyboard rig. Fellow Liverpool high school student and Monterey band member Mike Lamardo, 18, is on the drums. Close your eyes and you’d swear the music you were hearing couldn’t possibly come from two kids who can’t legally drink. Their chops are serious.

Some of the best professional musicians in town have been known to sit in on this weekly jazz jam: Ronnie Leigh, Mark Copani, Marcia Rutledge. After jamming for a couple songs at this April 27 installment, Jesse Collins, a ‘Cuse native who has since gone on to rub elbows with the likes of Sam Rivers and Jimmy Cobb, put it this way: “What you see here, this isn’t normal. Nowhere else in the country do you see kids playing this good, in a venue like this.”

To be sure, even in big cities it’s not terribly common for downtown venues to pay high schoolers to play jazz music for a few hours every week. The setting couldn’t be better: The way those squished-together downtown buildings tower into the night sky in the shadows of the streetlights outside is a quintessential “jazz” sight. The audience isn’t just proud parents; you could imagine any of these folks seeing a jam band at the Bull & Bear, or a blues band at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. The fact that high school students are on stage seems secondary.

“The way I see it, we provide these kids a place they can call their own,” says Coffee Pavilion co-owner George Feltman. “It’s not about money (although they do get paid). It’s about the give and take on and off the stage, and giving them a venue to collaborate with, learn from and feed off each other.”

Guests don’t have to be professionals; the jam is an open door. “In a lot of ways, it’s better than a lot of nightclub jazz jams, where you might not even get in if you’re under age,” says pianist Noah Kellman, a Manlius Pebble Hill School sophomore and a veteran of the house band. “Here, we not only let guests sit in, but we let them stay up for a couple songs and might even invite them up again later in the night.”

Passing the torch

Elsewhere in the Salt City, opportunities for young jazz players abound. During the summer the M&T Syracuse Jazz Fest and Jazz in the Square both slate time for high school ensembles. The Oneida and Cultural Resources Council jazz festivals during the school year bring in big-name guest artists to mingle with and critique the participating groups. (This year’s CRC guest was saxophonist Chris Vadala, former sideman to Chuck Mangione, composer, flugelhorn player and Rochester native.)

The Central New York Jazz Arts Foundation, which runs Jazz in the Square, hosts its own scholastic jazz jams about a half-dozen times a year, not to mention a jazz summer camp at the State Fairgrounds. Meanwhile, funding from sources like state Sen. John DeFrancisco make possible the Young Lions of Central New York jazz ensemble, a conglomerate big band of area high school students.

“The world needs artists and audiences to hear, appreciate and support their art: That’s where our educational efforts come in,” says Larry Luttinger, Jazz Arts Foundation executive director. “Jazz needs to be passed from generation to generation. Giving exposure to and nurturing young artists is the only way to make it happen.”

The neat side effect of such community efforts, combined with the Coffee Pavilion jam, is chances for mentorship. “Most of my growth as a musician is owed to the cats a few years my senior who I looked up to,” says Spencer Murphy, a 2006 graduate of Jamesville-DeWitt High School. Coffee Pavilion sessions with an earlier house band of drummer Greg Evans and pianist Andrew Carroll (Liverpool and Manlius Pebble Hill classes of 2005, respectively), helped him sharpen his skills and his interest in jazz.

“I would be at a loss for a lot of the knowledge about jazz that I have if it weren’t for them,” Murphy says. "(Their) bugging me to listen to classic records, dealing with my playing when it was at its worst, and still kicking my ass when I was at my best, did more for me than I could have imagined.”

The next generation

Kellman remembers the answering machine message well. The voice at the other end was warm, approving: “We listened to your CD and you have a lot of great things going for you.” By that point, Noah’s mom had to sit down. She could hardly believe she was hearing the voice of Dave Brubeck, one of the most famous jazz pianists ever. The CD described was a few songs of Noah’s piano playing. After Brubeck performed in Syracuse in September 2005, Noah had gone backstage and given it to him in person. “He was really encouraging, really humble,” Kellman remembers.

Not every great young player has such a celebrity endorsement, but in general, jazz elders are paying plenty of attention to the music’s next generation. Those writing the charts that students read from to learn jazz standards are more sympathetic: Today’s versions are inviting, loose and, in general, less square.

he 1950s, all we had were Broadway show tunes and classical charts. We didn’t have great jazz arrangers and composers like Dave Barduhn and Jeff Tyzik writing charts,” says M&T Syracuse Jazz Fest executive director Frank Malfitano. “So the biggest differences I’ve seen are in the jazz charts, and in the dedication and commitment to jazz education made by teaching professionals who are also working jazz musicians.”

that bill well, including Spadafore, Steve Frank at West Genesee High School, Joe Colombo at Manlius Pebble Hill, and Carolyn Pardee and John Spillett at Solvay High School. Jazz programs at Skaneateles Senior High School under Angelo Candela and Jamesville-DeWitt under Ron Newsall are also strong.

Spillett’s jazz performance class at Solvay essentially produces a working professional-level group after a semester of intense ear training, improvisation and theory. “These kids are ready to go right now: They read, they play in all keys, they improvise,” Spillett says. “All this stuff took me years to learn. I wish I’d had this course in high school.”

“Some of these music programs rival those of private schools where music is a main focus, like Interlochen Arts Academy (in Michigan, and Massachusetts’) Walnut Hill,” says Liverpool alumnus Evans. “The teachers a lot of times are competent jazz musicians who have come up from the street, so to speak.”

Whatever the reasons, some combination of talent, community support and mentoring have led to several area success stories. National-level feats include Central New York’s three-year streak landing spots in Gibson/Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensembles. The uber-competitive group, which culminates in gigs at Grammy time, tapped Evans in 2005, Carroll in 2006 and Nick Frenay, a sophomore at Manlius Pebble Hill, this year. Meanwhile, DeJoseph, Lamardo and Kellman have won a half-dozen student music awards from Downbeat magazine among them.

What does all this jazz mean for young area musicians? For sure, the talent keeps coming. Kellman, DeJoseph and Frenay are succeeding big names like Evans, Carroll and Murphy. And there’s a lot of talent on deck, such as Fayetteville-Manlius’ August Cook and Solvay’s Leigh Presutto and Joe Frateschi. New faces regularly turn up at the Friday jams and the summer festivals, as well as in awards brackets.

All anyone knows for sure is something special is happening here and it isn’t a bad idea to nudge it along. “The community needs this music whether they know it or not,” says Evans. “It might be one person’s therapy, or another’s entertainment. Either way, the outcome of the future of these younger cats’ musical education is really up to the community. It’s an investment, but the eventual payoff is huge.”

Educators like Spadafore are more than up to the challenge. “When you see a picture in a magazine or turn on the TV and see one of your students, and you realize that maybe it was you who helped get them to the door—that’s the type of thing I’d trade for a thousand magazine covers,” he says. “It’s priceless.”  

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York