Tag Archives: upbeat

fred hersch

Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch Deals Creatively with Isolation

fred hersch

If you’re looking for Fred Hersch right now, you won’t find him in New York City, despite his being one of the most prominent jazz pianists and educators in the city and a longtime member of Local 802. Like most other musicians, Hersch’s gigs are on ice for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These days, he is quarantining in Pennsylvania with his partner. “We’ve been hiding in the woods since it began,” he laughs.

Which isn’t to say that Hersch has stopped playing. Far from it. For the first six weeks of isolation, Hersch streamed what he called “Tune of the Day” on Facebook Live, performing a single, unaccompanied tune. Having upwards of 8,000 people logging on daily to hear one tune is an indicator of the reach and popularity of this largely self-taught pianist from Cincinnati.

Hersch started playing at the age of four. “Like most kids, I began with classical training,” he recalls. “But I always liked to improvise.” Hersch was fortunate to study theory and composition in elementary school. “At a young age I learned score reading, counterpoint, and music history,” he says. He didn’t actually intend to go into music, starting out college as a liberal arts major. “In 1973 on a school break I stumbled into a jazz club in Cincinnati. And that sealed the deal.”

Hersch began to focus on learning through experience from live jazz players. “I got some tough love,” he says, acknowledging that’s often the best kind. “My first time in a jazz club, I played Autumn Leaves not well,” he laughs. “The sax player took me into the back room, put on Duke Ellington, and told me to shut up and listen. He told me I had to learn time, and how to swing like that.”

Hungry for more, Hersch enrolled at the New England Conservatory, then landed in New York at the age of 21. Hersch recalls he was something of a novelty on the New York jazz scene, which helped him make connections and improve his skills. “I knew a lot of tunes, I could swing, accompany, and I was ambitious,” he says. “There was almost no technology for distraction back then. People went out every night, so I got great exposure and more gigs.”

Hersch tried making his first recordings at 30, which, he points out, is old by today’s standards. He now has nearly 20 albums over three decades to his credit, including solo work, albums with trio, live concert recordings, and his own compositions. But he still gets the most satisfaction from live performance. He employs the analogy of acting: “Recording is like making a film as opposed to a stage play,” he explains. “Some film or stage actors like Meryl Streep can do both. But I’m the opposite of, say, Glenn Gould, who did retakes and constantly edited. He didn’t think of a recording as a live performance.” Hersch accordingly feels some of his best albums are ‘found objects’: someone for instance recorded a concert of his, and that became an album. “In the studio there’s a drive for perfection, along with headphones and other distractions to make you self-conscious. I prefer documenting live performances even if there are flaws.”

Live or otherwise, Hersch has earned a reputation as a unique voice in jazz, something he also tries to impart in his teaching: “I get each student to be true to their own voice. It’s closer to a psychotherapy session. That’s how style develops: you keep coming back to things that interest you.” Hersch balks at the word ‘unique.’ “Leave that for the critics,” he demurs. “But I do think a performance needs emotional content. It’s not just about shredding chord changes. I try to be a storyteller.” The critics have in fact had their say: The New Yorker commented that Hersch plays with “high lyricism and high danger.” Hersch likes that. “There has to be an element of danger,” he agrees. “The trick is to play it like you’re hearing it for the first time. I still get new things from old tunes even after 40 years.”

High danger might also apply to Hersch’s formative years in New York. “I led a double life then,” he admits. “I didn’t want my personal life—specifically my sexuality—to interfere with opportunities to make music with everyone.” Hersch finally came out in the early 90s, and also revealed that he was HIV positive. He says the honesty was an enormous relief. “I don’t think you can be the artist you want to be without confronting all aspects of who you are. And it’s affirming to know that what you do as a musician is more important than your personal life.”

Hersch’s HIV advocacy grew in importance alongside his music. He has done house concerts and benefit albums for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. He has also talked to high school-aged LGBTQ groups, gay/straight alliances, and college campus organizations about HIV/AIDS education. Like so many other musicians right now, he shares concerns over the long-term effects of the current pandemic. “AIDS numbers worldwide are in the tens of millions. COVID-19 numbers are smaller, but the economic repercussions for the arts are devastating. Tours and gigs may not happen again till there’s a vaccine. Many independent music presenters will go under if the government does not step up support. And this needs to happen, because losing the arts translates to huge financial losses for communities.”

With nobody performing, Hersch has had to fundamentally rethink how he presents music. One strategy involves rethinking his initial Facebook Live offering, offering a “gently monetized” mini concert each Monday. He shares program notes and discusses aspects of the music like interpretation. “Streaming is what we could likely have for the foreseeable future,” he predicts. “Clubs and other venues will livestream to survive, and also to honor the great musicians who have played there.” One possible stumbling block he sees is saturation. “There may be so many offerings that it will be hard to decide. When people are already spending much of their day on screens for work, will they want to sit for even more screen time?” It’s uncharted territory, he says, and there are no easy answers.

Hersch is appreciative of what the AFM is doing for so many musicians, especially in this present crisis. “I’m a card-carrying union member, have been since my early days, and I’m proud of it.” He turns 65 in October, and reluctantly acknowledges that COVID-19 could mean an early forced retirement for him. “But if I had to stop today, I have zero regrets,” he says. “My career has been amazing.”

orchestra librarians

Karen Schnackenberg: Orchestra Librarians Are Also Essential Workers

Karen Schnackenberg

Social distancing to halt the spread of COVID-19 infection means that AFM orchestras are prevented from being on stage for at least several months. But it doesn’t mean that all work at our orchestras has ceased. For one AFM member who typically works behind the scenes, the coronavirus means work just needs to function a little differently.

Karen Schnackenberg of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth) is principal librarian of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO), a post she has held for nearly 30 years. It’s one of the many behind-the-scenes jobs at an orchestra—and one the average concertgoer might not be aware of. Indeed, many might be surprised to hear that an orchestra even has a librarian on staff. But Schnackenberg’s work is essential, and she says it continues unabated, despite logistical challenges. “While we don’t yet know what the next few months hold, the DSO’s three librarians are pushing ahead with rolling out orchestra parts to players for the end of this current season,” she says. “We typically get music out a month in advance, and we’re still trying to do that.”

Schnackenberg explains that preparing parts involves tasks like marking in bowings for string players, or indicating cuts requested by a conductor. “Right now,” she says, “I’m also taking apart folders from concerts that were canceled.” While a certain amount of this work can be done from home, the COVID-19 complications have added some unforeseen roadblocks. “I’m set up to scan parts from home,” she continues, “but I don’t have the equipment to make physical parts or photocopies for page turns.”

With canceled concerts, the librarians need to update their database and performance history. There’s also canceled music rental orders, with cancelation fees leading to related budgeting tasks. And with so many orchestras (including the DSO) exploring livestreaming options, Schnackenberg and her team are now also dealing with licensing issues like contacting publishers for permission to stream earlier concerts on the orchestra’s website.

The mountain of work seems daunting, but Schnackenberg brings decades of experience to the job. She laughs when asked how she got interested in the field. “My husband is a percussionist, and he asks me the same thing.” Schnackenberg recalls that she started volunteering to organize music way back in junior high school. After earning a music education degree on violin, she moved on to a master’s in performance. “I was going to teach theory for my grad work,” she says, “but they threw me in the library instead to organize it.” One of her first orchestra jobs was as a violinist in the Oklahoma Symphony, where—no surprise—they needed help in the library.

“The majority of librarians my age came to library work through playing. There was no curriculum for it, because you needed to be a musician first. An orchestra librarian must be able to read a score, figure out transpositions, etc.” For many years Schnackenberg also played as an extra violinist in the DSO, but her library responsibilities don’t allow for that these days. “Most orchestra librarians are professional musicians,” she states. “They often just happen to be non-performing musicians.”

This is why orchestra librarians are normally part of an orchestra’s collective bargaining unit. “It’s an old tradition because in earlier years orchestra librarians were players as well as librarians,” she says. “Over time, that morphed into librarians being included in the CBA as a matter of course.”

In the 1990s, orchestra managements began to push back, and many mid-level orchestras halted this practice. “It has been a challenge to maintain the status quo,” says Schnackenberg. She knows this firsthand, having also spent several years working in the field of orchestra negotiations alongside Lew Waldeck, the first director of the AFM Symphonic Services Department. “When negotiating musician contracts, Lew always focused on getting librarians included in the bargaining unit. Managements would state that librarians are clerks. But Lew would counter that librarians are musicians, because all the work is musical work.”

In Dallas, the librarian had been taken out of the musicians’ contract right before Schnackenberg started. “It took us 19 years to gain that back,” she recalls. “We got it through the leadership and work of AFM President Ray Hair [then president of the Dallas local] and our committee Chair Matt Good, a DSO tubist and Local 72-147 executive board member.”

Several decades in the DSO’s library, on top of library work in the New Orleans Symphony, Oklahoma Symphony, and Santa Fe Opera, prepared Schnackenberg well for a leading role in MOLA, the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association, of which she is a three-time past president. MOLA holds an annual conference where librarians from orchestras around the world gather to discuss topics common to the field.

“The conference is a wild time, I tell you,” laughs Schnackenberg. “We talk about copyright, conductors, parts, and scores.” She points out that librarians can feel like they’re working alone. “The amount of stuff you can’t know is overwhelming. MOLA started out as a way for us to help each other. The conferences are an extension of that.” A typical conference brings in composers, editors, and experts in copyright law, licensing, software, and other technologies for cataloguing, cleaning up parts, and making excerpts.

The 2020 conference, to be held in Vancouver, was canceled due to COVID-19. “This is the first time in MOLA’s history that we won’t have a conference. And that’s unfortunate, because younger librarians increasingly come to the career field through MOLA. There is no way to postpone it because a conference takes two years of organization.” Schnackenberg says online content will be created to try to take the place of meeting in person. “We are the only organization in the world like this. MOLA started 40 years ago, and we are still the umbrella entity for this career field.”

Irving “Andy” Andrusia

Irving “Andy” Andrusia — A Union Man for 76 Years

Irving “Andy” Andrusia
Irving “Andy” Andrusia (right) and Local 161-710 President Ed Malaga at a Life Member Lunch back in 2016.

Irving “Andy” Andrusia of Local 161-710 (Washington, D.C.) may be a centenarian, but his life remains busy and filled with song. “I still work, I still drive—day and night—and I’m still connected to music,” he says. Hearing loss has made it a challenge to continue playing his string bass (“My fingers are fine, my mind is all here, but you have to understand, I stood next to drummers and ear-splitting amps for 70 years!”), but Andrusia stays on in the industry working in the front of the house at the 2,000-seat Music Center at Strathmore, just outside the Beltway in Bethesda, MD. As his 101st birthday approaches, Andrusia’s commitment to the union remains as strong as ever. He has been a union member since 1944.

“I like the benefits; I get vacation days and health benefits. My kids even get a $1,500 death benefit when I die, though that’ll be awhile” he says with a wry chuckle. “I’m a union man. I’ve always been a union man. My father was a union man, and I’m a union man,” affirms Andrusia, whose immigrant father was a skilled cabinetmaker and a member of his local carpenters’ union. Andrusia was the youngest of seven children and the only one born in the United States, after the Russian Jewish family made their new home in Washington, D.C.

Andrusia’s first brush with the music business came in kindergarten, where he was selected as conductor of his kindergarten band, he explains with a laugh, but things got more serious a few years later. After false starts on the violin and the tuba in elementary and junior high, he joined the high school Cadet Band. “They didn’t need a tuba, but the teacher said, ‘Hey, we have a string bass in the closet, want to give it a try?’ So I did!” Andrusia says. “And I went every day and I took string bass lessons with the teacher right there in that closet.”

Finally, Andrusia had found his instrument; and from there, it was off to the races. He formed bands with his friends and started booking gigs while they were still in high school. New York bandleader and composer/arranger Bob Sylvester saw them live in D.C. one night. “He said, ‘As soon as you graduate, I’ll take you on tour!’ So we graduated, joined the union, and went on a tour of the whole south: Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, the whole thing.” Six months later, homesickness brought Andrusia back to D.C., where he played night gigs while working as a machinist in the Navy Yard. “And then December 7th, [1941] happened,” he says. Andrusia, because he was a skilled machinist making necessary equipment, avoided the draft and continued to work (and play music) throughout World War II at home in the nation’s capital.

After the war, things heated up professionally for Andrusia, whose flexibility and love for all genres of music kept him performing nearly every night of the week. He considers himself a proud journeyman, happy to take work as it came. “I played weddings, bar mitzvahs, but also theaters and vaudeville,” he says. He eventually landed longer-standing gigs with jazz pianist and songwriter Dardanelle Hadley and, later, big band leader Horace Heidt. Heidt brought Andrusia to Los Angeles, where he spent half a decade working the show business band circuit. He played the openings of both the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel and “if you can believe it, a little place called Disneyland!” before eventually marrying and returning to D.C. Back home, he took a day job as a mechanical engineer at a defense contracting firm, still playing music several nights a week.

Living in the nation’s capital has its advantages for a musician, especially a high-demand bass player in the big band and pops scene. “I played every inauguration from FDR through Reagan,” he says. “I played at the White House, oh, five or six times.” But he also played every small club in town, and credits his union membership with making that possible. “They saved and recovered a lot of money for me over the years,” he says. “Whenever we’d have a contract and the owner would try to tilt the scale a little, [our union] would make sure we’d get what we were owed.”

Having watched (and participated in) the arc of organizing over the past 85 years as a union member has given Andrusia unique insight into the labor movement. “A lot of it has died down over the years. But I always look and I say to myself, all these complaints, all these grievances that workers have these days, why aren’t they organizing?” he says. But he has hope because he sees interest rising again. “Historically, unions are the only way that the middle class and the lower class get any leverage against the bosses, and I think young people are beginning to realize that again,” Andrusia says. “Unions are important!”

ford musicians awards

Community Outreach Is a Measure of Success for Principal Trombonist Donna Parkes

donna parkes
Donna Parkes of Local 11-637 (Louisville, KY) is one of five musicians who have received the Ford Musician Awards for Excellence in Community Service from the League of American Orchestras.

Donna Parkes has enjoyed a prodigious career, from performing at the Sydney Opera House at just 20 to competing around the world and playing in major orchestras across the US. Since 2008, the Local 11-637 (Louisville, KY) member, who hails from Canberra, Australia, has been principal trombone of the Louisville Orchestra. A strong advocate for music education, she is passionate about community engagement and outreach. For her work with hearing- and speech-impaired children at the Heuser Hearing and Language Academy, Parkes recently received a 2019 Ford Musician Award for Excellence in Community Service.

Parkes vividly recalls her first day at the Heuser school, saying, “It was a sense of fulfillment that resonated on a very emotional level. It really had an impact on me. I remember just thinking what a privilege it is that I get to do this.”

The academy focuses on children from birth to kindergarten with hearing and/or vision impairment. Parkes says, “These children have a very different relationship with sound. Some of them have just received cochlear implants. They’re just starting to understand what sound is and what it means to them in their world.”

In her sessions with the students, Parkes makes the experience as tactile as possible—and the low brass instruments are powerful enough to deliver a palpable sound through touch. “They can hold onto the bell and feel the vibration. They can put their hands inside the bell and feel the airstream moving,” she says. “For me, it is without question, the most rewarding outreach work I’ve ever gotten to do because you’re sharing this journey with these kids. It’s all so new and so exciting. It just gives them a much fuller grasp of what sound is and how they can appreciate it.” 

In the Making Music series Louisville Orchestra chamber groups visit fourth and fifth grade classes in Jefferson County to give students one-on-one time with musicians. She and other orchestra members also play at homeless shelters, juvenile detention centers, and memory care facilities.

“We owe it to our community to play a larger role,” she says. “Those performances are some of the most meaningful. Some kids have never seen a live musician. It’s all digital. Music is not a given here for kids.”

Parkes tells the story of going into a public school and meeting a child who remembered her from a previous event at an outreach at a shelter. “I met this little guy and he came up to me when we played in his elementary school and said, ‘I know you. You played “Star Wars.” It was awesome.’ He was so excited, and on so many levels it was meaningful because he [not only] remembered, which was great, but the fact that he was in a regular school indicated that he was in a stable home environment. Just that sense of ‘He can see me in a different place’ and we’re part of the same community. Those are the things that matter to me.”

For this reason, she is passionate about exposing music to children. She recalls her own vastly different experience back home in Canberra, which was more immersive. Parkes had access to a unique program at a completely brass-focused school and took up the trombone at age nine. By 12, she was enrolled in the Canberra School of Music on a scholarship studying with award-winning trombonist Michael Mulcahy of Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL), who now heads the trombone studio at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music in Chicago. Other teachers she studied under include world-class players Simone de Haan, Ian Perry, and Ron Prussing.

Parkes went on to win the Australian National Trombone Competition, the Brisbane International Brass Competition, and was a finalist in the Jeju Brass Competition in Korea. Parkes has performed with the London Symphony, the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Singapore Symphony.

Though Australia’s music scene is rich, known particularly for its indie and alternative scene, it’s also isolated from most major markets. Like many Aussie brass players, Parkes decided to test the waters in the States. At DePaul University, she pursued a master’s degree under Charles Vernon of the Chicago Symphony. She even managed to get a lesson with tuba great Arnold Jacobs. “Sitting outside his office and just looking at the name on the door was surreal,” she says.

When she secured her first orchestra job with the Virginia Symphony, in 2000, Parkes joined the union. For an orchestral musician, she says that working conditions and safety are paramount, and the union has played a crucial role. “We have all the conditions that allow us to do our jobs to the best of our ability, in terms of just the simplest things, like rehearsal times and temperatures—which we take for granted. These policies would not exist if it wasn’t for the fact that we have a union contract.” She adds, “Agreements regarding pay and pension are certainly things that are fundamental to being a union member.”

At home, in the Louisville Orchestra, Parkes has found a sense of kinship. “The low brass section here is a great group of guys, and we are all very good friends. For me, part of the joy is how do we keep building musically on what we already have and how do we keep improving it and how do we challenge ourselves? You can do that with people you’ve known for a long time. You know how they’re going to play and how they’re going to respond. That’s a different level of satisfaction, I think—when you can really start to build on the history you have with the musicians around you.”

Abbie Conant, the doyenne of the brass world, who has paved the way for a new generation of musicians, has had a major impact on Parkes’ career. “She’s had many trials and tribulations,” says Parkes, referring to Conant’s epic battle in 1980 against gender discrimination in the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. “She’s been a huge inspiration for me just in terms of having a female role model who’s been extremely successful. She has been a wonderful, positive influence, not only as a musician but as a person—in terms of her ethics and her integrity.”

There is, in fact, a generation of young women playing brass that did not exist when Parkes was a young player. Carol Jantsch of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA), principal tuba of the Philadelphia Orchestra, is the first female tuba player of a major symphony orchestra. The versatile English trombonist Carol Jarvis is a mainstay on the freelance scene. “Now, we have models and we have players who can be there for younger musicians. It’s not out of the norm anymore, which is a great improvement.”

When their schedules permit, Parkes and her chamber music group Brass Hoppers play at venues around the country. The trio, which draws on an eclectic mix of classical music and jazz-inspired arrangements, includes trumpeter Mary Elizabeth Bowden and pianist Milana Strezeva.

Overall, Parkes aims for the lyrical artistry of old-school jazz greats Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey. “They had this beautiful singing style of playing the instrument. Tommy Dorsey had the ability to just sing through the instrument. My goal on the instrument is for it to be very easy and very effortless. Then, of course, there are many orchestral greats—certainly, Michael [Mulcahy] is high on my list of greats who’ve inspired me.”

Twice a year, Parkes goes to Sitka, Alaska. In December, it’s a holiday concert which she’s taken part in for 10 years. Parkes returns in the summer, when she teaches at a fine arts camp. “It’s a very arts-focused community and they’re just the nicest, most genuine people—and they embrace you. I feel like I have a whole sense of community there.”

This summer, Parkes has taken the opportunity to return home to Australia, at the Queensland Conservatory to perform and teach. In December, she returns to Sitka for the annual holiday ensemble.

jesse kinch

Jesse Kinch: Bringing Rock Back to Its Glory Days

jesse kinch
Jesse Kinch of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) has performed and participated in charity events to support organizations such as the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, American Cancer Society, and Long Island Cares. He was also a headliner for the “Rock for Haiti” benefit concert. He recently participated in the GRAMMY U program, through which he visited college campuses and spoke to aspiring young musicians.

Guitarist/singer/songwriter Jesse Kinch of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) may only be 25 years old, but he is already a seasoned musician. He started playing guitar at age six and began singing at 11. Throughout his teens, while still in school, he was also sharpening his skills and playing the clubs in New York City and on Long Island. “I discovered I had a real powerful, passionate voice that was influenced by all the great artists that came before me, all the classic rock that I grew up listening to,” he says. He was striving to break out of his hometown and find a bigger stage.

His chance arrived in 2014, at age 20, when he scored a spot as a contestant on the television show Rising Star—and won. He spent that entire summer performing live on stage every week—to a television audience of 5 million people—singing songs by artists who influenced him, such as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Credence Clearwater Revival, and The Who. His slow-tempo cover of Michael Jackson’s hit song “Billie Jean” in the semi-finals became the talk of social media. “The show just opened up so many doors for me, so many opportunities,” he says. He was finally able to expand beyond New York and perform in the rich music scenes of Nashville and Los Angeles.

Appearing on Rising Star had another major impact on Kinch’s life and career—it was there that he learned about and decided to join the AFM. “I had gotten the advice from many of the musicians I was meeting that were actually playing in the background on the show, behind the singers. They were all union members, and Ray Chew, the musical director, was a union member [of Local 802 (New York City)], and I began to understand what it actually meant to be part of the union,” Kinch says. “The union gives support to all musicians, whether they are struggling or whether they are more successful. It just gives everyone a voice and everybody a chance to be fairly paid and fairly treated by the music industry. And I began to understand their struggles—people who are a part of the union and trying to work paycheck by paycheck, with every show or every performance. … I’ve seen the struggles of so many older, talented musicians who have dedicated their life to music and many things the union provides is a godsend for them; it gives them some sense of security in their life.”

Not long after the show ended, Kinch saw one of the benefits of being a union member when he performed on the show Dancing with the Stars. He was asked to perform a two-song medley and, because he was union, he received a rehearsal fee and a performance fee. “That was what showed me how it works,” he says.

Within two years of winning Rising Star, Kinch scored a contract with Curb Records and recorded his first album, I’m Not Like Everybody Else. The album, on which Kinch was given complete artistic control, has nine original songs and four covers—including his version of “Billie Jean.” “It was a great experience doing what I love and creating what I thought was a perfect album,” he says. “I am just overall very, very proud of the work that was done in the studio to create an album that I love.”

Kinch may be a millennial, but his influences are more old school—and his artistry reflects that. He grew up with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, was fascinated by artists like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and John Lennon, and fell in love with Curt Cobain and the ’90s grunge scene. “You had real singers back then, real musicians, real poetry; it was real, honest music. I feel that in this day and age … the quality of music has decayed,” he says. For Kinch, who is on a mission to revive rock’s glory days, it’s time to recover that honesty and poetry, that connection to the past. “I feel like I have it in me to bring something to the table that hasn’t been heard in many years,” he says.

As a songwriter, Kinch says he is finding new ideas and new inspirations as he gets older, travels more, faces ups and downs, and experiences life. He realizes that his outlook as a teenager was different than it is now as an adult.

“You just become more experienced musically— and I’m not just talking about writing the lyrics; I’m talking about music in terms of chord progressions and melodies. I think I’ve become more advanced, more mature in the way I approach writing,” he says. “I think I’ve become more open minded with my tastes. I listen to so many different things that span from the ’60s all the ways through the ’90s, from rock to beautiful ballads to classical crossover. There’s so much that I’m listening to now that I can infuse into my sounds. I guess it’s a different mentality both in terms of how I write music and how I approach it.”

This open-mindedness and devotion to meaningful artistry is how Kinch plans to continue his career as he moves forward. He already has his first overseas performances scheduled for the BlackThorn Music Festival in the UK in mid-July and potential bookings in South Africa, Japan, and Australia. He is scheduled to be part of the Woodstock Festival commemoration in Bethel, New York, this summer, and already has a second record deal signed. “I’m one of those people who thinks  more about the past and the future than about the present, and sometimes I don’t get to enjoy the present. So I’m really just going to enjoy what I have right now, while in the back of my head keeping in mind what I have to do for the future,” he says.

That’s really all any artist can do, he adds. To be successful, you have to be dedicated, avoid negativity and distractions, make the right connections, work hard, and be professional. “Whatever you do, you have to stay true to yourself … and stay focused on your craft,” he says. As he writes in his song “Preaching like the Pope”:

“No you’ll never own me I told you
I’m only gonna be true to myself
But you told me I don’t belong
Told me five million people
got it all wrong”

Kinch also believes that young musicians should join the union. “The industry is multilayered; it’s complicated and it’s not for the timid or the weak. You have to make sure when you’re a musician that you’re not getting screwed over and you’re not being taken advantage of because there are a lot of people out there who don’t care about your struggles,” he says. “So it’s important to join the union because it’s going to give you a voice; it’s going to give you power; it’s going to give you security; it’s going to make sure that you’re treated more fairly by the industry. It’s going to protect you from the vultures.”

To learn more about Jesse Kinch, visit his website at jessekinch.com.

Atlanta Pops Orchestra

A New Pops Culture: Atlanta Orchestra Sets the Bar

Atlanta Pops Orchestra

Atlanta Pops Orchestra, members of Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA)

More than just a hometown favorite, the Atlanta Pops Orchestra has become a touring ensemble that regularly performs with an array of artists, like Chloë Agnew, formerly of Celtic Woman, John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band, Broadway’s Craig Schulman, and hard-bop trumpeter Joe Gransden. This year, the Pops album with the bluegrass quintet Balsam Range (Mountain Overture) went to number six on the Billboard Classical chart and number five on the Billboard Bluegrass chart, in the same week.

President of the Pops Leonard Altieri of 148-462 (Atlanta, GA) says, “We’re not afraid to try anything new, stretching the boundaries of pops music. As long as it fits our ensemble, we can do big stuff, mainstream.” He adds, “We’re making a name for ourselves with the different types of concerts we do and also as a traveling orchestra.”
The orchestra uses union contracts exclusively, creating individual contracts for each concert and for each pops musician, members of Local 148-462. “We’re hired to play each time, every time for union rates. We’re doing 18 concerts this year, just the Pops. That doesn’t include backing up other musicians, singers, and bands.” Altieri adds, “If an act requires a backup group, we’re it.”

The Pops was founded by Albert Coleman in 1945, who served as music director for more than 50 years. In the early years, it consisted of 60 to 65 members. Today, the orchestra is half that size—but not because it’s having trouble surviving. On the contrary, Altieri, a 60-year union member and veteran violist of the Atlanta Symphony, says, “By shrinking our numbers, we could play more dates on smaller stages, take one bus instead of two—and it’s worked out perfectly.”

They have been doing it that way for 15 years. Currently, with Leonard’s son, Jason Altieri, as conductor and music director, the orchestra does as many as 16 pieces in one program and performs 15 to 20 shows per season. Low overhead allows them to take advantage of opportunities that may be cost prohibitive for larger organizations. In the last 10 years, the Pops has traveled to Taiwan, China, and Japan, performing more than 60 concerts overseas.
With an annual budget of approximately $100,000, Leonard says, “We’re surviving quite nicely.” He explains that they don’t have to pay a huge amount for board members or administration. Musicians’ jobs tend to cross over into administration and marketing. “They get union scale, plus travel. We pay bonuses for the stage manager, librarian, and personnel manager.”

The Pops is a close-knit group of professionals who give more than talent. Concertmaster Mary Burndrett’s husband is a violinist in the orchestra, who also manages a violin shop where most of the Atlanta Symphony and Pops go for repairs. Kevin Leahy plays drums with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra and also works in the digital marketing industry. “Since many of us have played together for so long, and we love what we do, it doesn’t feel like extra work when we contribute in ways outside of playing our instruments,” he says.

Leahy adds, “With a smaller group, 30 players, we’re a bit nimbler, able and willing to jump from style to style, or make changes on the fly. Since many of our players also perform with big bands, rock bands, Latin jazz groups, indie quartets, and other nonorchestral setups, we’re able to tap into that energy.”

Atlanta Pops Orchestra

Atlanta Pops Orchestra in concert at the Ritz-Carlton in Reynolds Plantation, Georgia.

Musicians extend services to publicity, social media, and website updates. “Instead of being solely a nostalgia act, performing music from the heyday of pops and light classical music, we are taking on new creative ventures, working to push our boundaries and stand out from other music groups,” which, Leahy admits can be something of a challenge, but easier to do with a smaller orchestra. “It’s inspired some of the musicians to take on additional roles and tasks in adding to the orchestra’s success.”

In 2014, when Leahy joined the board of directors of the Atlanta Pops, he was tasked with programming their 70th anniversary celebration. He says that he knew little about the history of the orchestra so he did his homework. He scoured libraries in the Atlanta area, sifted through old files at the music union office, accessed newspaper archives, and reached out to people who could share recollections.

Leahy discovered a direct correlation between what the Atlanta Pops did in the past and what they could do today. The orchestra collaborated with Janey Miller (Miss Georgia 1946); Isaac Hayes and James Brown in the 1970s; Ray Charles, Chet Atkins, and Floyd Cramer in the 1980s; and Emile Pandolfi in the late 1990s. Leahy says, “I thought ‘what would this look like in 2015 and beyond?’”
He reached out to pop artists and musicians of different genres to collaborate with the orchestra. “For our 70th anniversary concert we performed with a variety of contemporary artists, some of whom had worked with us in the past and some of whom had little or no experience working with an orchestra. This included trumpeter Cecil Welch of Local 148-462, Grammy-winning hip-hop group Arrested Development, blues singer Michelle Malone, folk singer and Zac Brown Band songwriting collaborator Levi Lowrey, jazz trumpeter and singer Joe Gransden, and Riverdance alum Scott Porter,” many of them with Atlanta origins.

Occasionally, Pops members perform as the 14-piece Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble to take advantage of additional opportunities. In that configuration, they performed with The Joe Gransden Big Band (2017), with Balsam Range at the Art of Music Festival (2016 and 2017), and at MerleFest (2018).

The 2015 Christmas album In the Spirit: A Celebration of the Holidays, with John Driskell Hopkins, led to a long-standing partnership. Hopkins brought on a number of contributors to the album, including singer and Broadway star Laura Bell Bundy and the bluegrass quintet Balsam Range. Leahy adds that Mountain Overture was also the result of this collaboration. “The music was arranged specifically for our orchestra,” he says.

“These collaborations, mixed in with more traditional pops material that we have always performed, helped us find our voice in today’s musical landscape.” Leahy says, “We don’t want to abandon the sound, style, and material we’re known for, but we also don’t want to avoid taking risks in looking for new ways for this orchestra to stand out.”

Leahy notes that Atlanta is such a mix of styles and genres, people are very supportive of collaborations within the music community, which also builds audience and taps into new opportunities. “By growing our list of collaborators we now have the opportunity to perform more often, which has strengthened our chemistry, as well as our marketability.”

For a digital history of the orchestra, go to www.atlantapops.com/timeline.

David Perrico

Band Leader David Perrico Conducts Winning Performances in Las Vegas

David Perrico

Local 369 (Las Vegas, NV) member David Perrico’s Pop Strings Orchestra plays contemporary and classic hits.

In a town where entrée can tax the most driven of performers, award-winning “Best of Las Vegas” trumpeter and producer David Perrico of Local 369 (Las Vegas, NV) has not only succeeded, but a few years ago he expanded his shows to include the Pop Strings Orchestra, his third band that actively plays along the Strip.

The show’s set list is filled with contemporary and classic hits, arranged by Perrico and performed by a 14-piece band featuring an all-female, seven-piece acoustic string section. The highly stylized ensemble mixes Perrico’s unique arrangements of pop and club rock, Latin, jazz, and R&B. “I tend not to go with formulas; I love writing for strings. The power of the strings—they can play nonstop. Strings have such major endurance; they can read anything,” he says.

The key, Perrico says, is finding the best players. Through years of performing he has gained plenty of access. Perrico was one of the original members of Donny and Marie’s band when they set up at the Flamingo in 2008. He’s backed Natalie Cole, Gladys Knight, and Toni Braxton. His pops band is filled with all-stars who play in the headlining shows of Andrea Bocelli, Carlos Santana of Local 6 (San Francisco, CA), Rod Stewart, Martina McBride, and Céline Dion.

His other band, The Rat Pack Is Back, plays six nights at Tuscany Suites’ Copa Room and on the weekend, he’s at Caesars with the Pops Strings. It can be a grueling schedule, but Perrico thrives on it. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “I never intended to do it all. It happened by accident.”

The entertainment director at Red Rock Hotel saw Rat Pack when it debuted at Tuscany. It was a side project with some originals, jazz strings, and chamber music. She had an opening for a lounge act at Red Rock on Saturday nights. Though he didn’t have lounge music, Perrico quickly came up with 12 to 13 arrangements. From there, it took off.

After seeing a series of clips from Pop Strings shows at Caesars, Paul Shaffer of Local 802 (New York City) hired Perrico to build a band. Earlier this year, he performed with and served as music director for Paul Shaffer & The Shaf-Shifters shows at Cleopatra’s Barge.

“You must have something unique to offer because the city is always changing. It can be fickle. One minute something is working, the next minute, it’ll change. For me, it meant creating a niche that’s unique,” says Perrico.

Pop Strings is essentially a dance band, but Perrico says they treat it like an old style show, hearkening back to Louie Prima and Keely Smith. “I take music that DJs play here that’s popular and I’ll do medleys—for instance, a Bruno Mars medley. Snippets of songs that people know. I arrange them—Eagles, AC/DC, or Bon Jovi—and I’ll open it up in a jazz tradition where the strings players play improvised solos.”

Where Pop Strings is the club/lounge show, Perrico’s Pop Evolution, formed in 2012, is a big band that plays the Stratosphere, the Palms, and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts. “I’ve always liked the esthetic of the big band—and the impact,” he says.

Perrico began playing trumpet when he was nine years old. “My mom and dad always had music playing in the house, whether it was Chuck Mangione [of Local 66 (Rochester, NY) and 802] or Al Jarreau, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, David Sanborn—and a lot of rock,” says Perrico. “My grandmother, Carmella, always made me cassette tapes of albums she had of Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. So, I was listening to big band music at an early age.”

Perrico attended Youngstown State University in Ohio and was offered a graduate assistantship in jazz studies at UNLV by David Loeb of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 369, which led to a six-year teaching stint and a master’s in composition and film scoring. His days as a member of the touring Tommy Dorsey Orchestra from 1994-2001, rising to lead trumpet player and road manager, helped him prepare for industry challenges. “I spent 10 years on the road with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, doing 45 weeks a year. Road experience is real-world experience. It’s what you need to learn,” he says.

As a music director who is hired for a variety of shows, Perrico has become somewhat of an expert at managing contracts, which he negotiates through the union. Whenever he receives a contract for events, for instance, he hands it over to the union, he says he knows “everything will be taken care of. The pay is right—everything is going to be right.”

In the Jazz Club and Classroom, Percussionist Nasar Abadey Inspires

Just after this photo was taken in 2010, Nasar Abadey of Local 161-710 embarked on a month-long Supernova tour to East Africa sponsored by the US State Department. (Photo credit: Jos A. Beasley.)

This month, Nasar Abadey, drummer, bandleader, and educator will receive the DC Jazz Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, alongside Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés.

Abadey, of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), has played with masters of the jazz world, among them fellow DC union members Andrew White and Lennie Cuje. Abadey was tapped by Sun Ra in the early 1970s in New York City. “I was sitting in with McCoy Tyner’s band at a club called Slugs’ on the Lower East Side. When I left the bandstand, Sun Ra’s manager he asked if I was interested in playing with Sun Ra. I said, ‘Well, sure.’ He said, ‘Meet me at Penn Station tomorrow at noon.’”

Named Best Drummer in Jazz in 2011 by the Washington City Paper, Abadey went on to play with other greats, like Stanley Turrentine, David Sanchez, Charlie Rouse, Gary Bartz, Cyrus Chestnut, Gregory Porter, Frank Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie, Hank Jones, and Bobby Hutcherson.

Back in 1976, Abadey was playing gigs in his hometown of Buffalo, New York, when he got a call out of the blue to play with Ella Fitzgerald. Throughout his long career, he’s built a solid reputation as a sideman with many groups. He has recorded and performed with innovators Malachi Thompson and Joe Ford (saxophonist in Abadey’s group Supernova).

With Supernova, Abadey performs jazz steeped in hard bop, modal, and avant-garde, often incorporating traditional African rhythms, bebop, fusion, Afro-Cuban, and Afro-Brazilian influences. He is also founder and artistic director of the 16-piece band Washington Renaissance Orchestra (WRO).

For a time the family lived in Buffalo with his mother’s cousins, the Dunlops. Frankie Dunlop was the prodigious drummer who famously played with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, among others. He says that Frankie practiced every day in the attic and became one of his main influences. Abadey was just six years old when Frankie put a set of sticks in his hands and showed him how to start playing.

“I didn’t know who he was. He left Buffalo when I was seven years old and I didn’t see him again until I was 13. I had a transistor radio and I heard the song ‘Monk’s Dream’ on a jazz program and I said, ‘Wow, the drummer sounds like my cousin Frankie.’ When they announced the group members, the drummer was Frankie. I remembered his sound.” They reconnected when Abadey moved to New York City. He’d often visit Dunlop in his Harlem home where Dunlop would tell him stories about his years playing with jazz legends. 

Abadey who has lived in Washington, DC, since 1977, embarked on his own career in jazz that placed him in a class all his own. Drawing on influences from powerhouse drummers such as Tony Williams, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, and Elvin Jones, he built a solid career as an artist and teacher. Now, he is one of the mid-Atlantic region’s premier jazz drummers.

In 2006, Abadey was asked to join the faculty of the Peabody Institute. “The process of education has been an organic kind of thing. Each semester, each year, I find myself incorporating more into what I teach and how I teach. As a result, I become a better musician and drummer,” he says.

“I like to think of music as going in many directions simultaneously—poly-directional.” Which he calls “multi-D”: multi-dimensional and multi-directional, a term that is also easy to pronounce and remember in any language. “It helps the listener understand that they are experiencing various dimensional realms while listening to music. I like to think the music is more complex than traditional forms of jazz.”

Abadey invokes plenty of John Coltrane’s automatic technique, which he says allows the music to lift off into a spiritual zone. “The unknown can always render something new because it is the unknown. How your spirit interacts with the creative endeavor,” he says.

He encourages his students to go to his gigs to hear him play so they know that what he’s teaching is not abstract. He adds, “It’s also important to articulate the source of a particular rhythm when I play it and understand it when I hear it played. I look at Africa as the source and different rhythms from Cuba, Brazil, Puerto Rico.”

Throughout his career, the union, which he joined at 18, has provided support. He says, “With the union, you’re associated with an organization that has what every musician needs to indulge their art and the backing to make sure we’re getting proper wages, benefits, and pension. When you get gigs, you will not be paid below a certain amount. All those things are in place. Plus, you have legal representation.”

In addition to Supernova and the Washington Renaissance Orchestra, Abadey leads the Renaissance Trio (rhythm section) and the Washington Renaissance Orchestra Octet. In between gigs this summer, he is working on a project writing for strings for his 11-piece Supernova Chamber Orchestra.

Big News from Big Easy Local 171-496

This is a big year for New Orleans, which is celebrating the tricentennial of its founding in 1718. It’s also turning out to be an important year for the city’s AFM local. Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its merger in 1968, as well as the grand opening of its new home, coined Tricentennial Hall. To top it all off, in April, Local 174-496 President “Deacon” John Moore was honored before the New Orleans City Council in recognition of his more than 60 years in the music business.

New Union Hall

Tricentennial Hall, the new home of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA), has an equipped studio-quality, sound-proof room that its members can reserve and use for free. (photo credit: Cindy Mayes.)

Members in good standing can use the local’s new rehearsal, meeting, and recording hall for free during business hours. Simply contact the local to make a reservation. The studio-quality 30-foot by 21-foot space is sound-proof and equipped with a Kawai acoustic piano, Kurzweil PC88 electric piano, amplifier, full Mapex drum kit, PA system, mixing board, and more. A waiting area features historic photos of musicians, including those who have been featured in the International Musician.

Honoring One of Their Own

It was standing room only in the New Orleans City Council Chambers when City Councilmember Susan Guidry introduced “Deacon” John Moore at an April meeting. The council recognized Moore’s many years of influence on the New Orleans music scene. True to form, Moore wowed the room when he sang Nat King Cole’s “For All We Know.”

In April, New Orleans City Council recognized Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) President “Deacon” John Moore for his 60-plus years of service to the New Orleans music scene. (L to R) are: Jared Brossett, LaToya Cantrell (now Mayor of New Orleans), Susan Guidry, Moore, Nadine Ramsey, Jason Rogers Williams, James Gray, and Timothy David Ray.

“I have had a blessed career in show business, despite the fact that I’ve never toured on the road, never played in foreign countries, didn’t write or record any hit songs, no Grammy’s, never played any international festivals—beside the New Orleans Jazz Festival,” says Moore, remarking that he’s never had to take a “day job” and thanking all those who supported him over the years.

Moore has performed at the White House, for the inaugurations of governors and mayors, and at many private events marking family and community celebrations. He’s performed at every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since it was founded 49 years ago. He has been an AFM member since 1958 and president of his local for 12 years.

New Orleans Mayor-Elect and then-Councilmember LaToya Cantrell thanked Moore for his advocacy. “You were very instrumental in ensuring the protection of our musicians was top priority as related to second-hand smoke and making sure New Orleans was a smoke-free environment,” she said. Councilman Jared Brossett thanked Moore for his decades of service and mentorship in the music industry.

Tommy Banks

Music Lost a Champion – Tommy Banks

The following excerpts are from a longer tribute written by E. Eddy Bayens, President of Local 390 (Edmonton, AB)

Tommy Banks

Photo credit: Fred Katz

On January 25 we suffered the great loss of Tommy Banks at 81 years old. He was a close friend and I find it difficult to sufficiently honour him.

We had at least one thing in common, at age 14, we each chose music as our careers, ignoring wise advice to the contrary. He quit high school so “his playing would not be contaminated by the ravages of higher learning,” as he explained. Few people are as gifted as Tommy. He had an insatiably curious mind that appeared to absorb, process, and instantaneously retain information. That allowed him to productively participate in discussions about an astonishingly wide range of subjects. He was an extremely perceptive listener and made every person feel comfortable and important.

Born in Calgary, his parents moved to Edmonton in his early teens. Word quickly got around about this piano playing kid who seemed to know all the tunes ever written. Too restless to be a sideman, he formed his own band, Tommy Banks and The Banknotes. He got involved in all aspects of the music business: arranger, composer, record producer, promoter, philanthropist, and more. Through it all, he remained a decent, humble guy, who would always make time to listen, especially to musicians who needed help, providing constructive musical leadership.

Many of Tommy’s activities could potentially have put him “on the other side of the table” from the AFM, as an engager of musicians, but his mantra was: “If it is in the interest of the musicians, that is the right thing to do.” All his engagements went by the book. No membership card? No gig.

He and his band spent enough time on the road and in the “big places” to appreciate making a living at home in Edmonton. Alberta and Canada reaped the benefits.

Edmonton had an active jazz scene thanks to Tommy’s Yardbird Suite Jazz Club. In spite of various invitations to relocate, he stayed in Edmonton, playing in his own club, The Embers. As a result, many outstanding musicians remained in town and others moved to Edmonton to work with him. 

When the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation needed a host for a nightly talk show, they asked Tommy. He insisted the show be produced in Edmonton and that he lead his own band. The Tommy Banks Show lasted 13 years. Later, Tommy convinced the owner of the Edmonton ITV station to produce the In Concert Series, backed up by various ensembles and recorded before a live audience at Jubilee Auditorium. The 36 shows presented an awesome array of soloists.

Tommy could play and write in any style. He fixed the music for Gretzky’s wedding, the Pope’s visit, the Universiade, Commonwealth Games, royal visits, and the Winter Olympics. There appeared to be no limit to his creativity, stamina, and focus.

As head of the music department at MacEwan University, he insisted that, to be successful in music, you must consider yourself a tradesman. He would say, “You have to have plan A, the artistic side, and plan B, the business side, and be able to satisfy the demands of the marketplace.”

Tom was instrumental in building the Winspear Centre for Music, home of the Edmonton Symphony. He also created the Alberta Foundation for the Arts in conjunction with the Alberta government and looked after the musical requirements of the Citadel Theatre for many years. In recognition of his many contributions to music and to society, he received a number of awards, Gemini, Juno, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, University of Alberta Dr. of Law, and Officer of the Order of Canada status.

In 2000, he was appointed a senator, quite a remarkable achievement for a piano playing, high school dropout. As a senator, he served on prominent committees for 11 years. He influenced government decisions regarding arts funding, taxation, and transport issues until mandatory retirement at 75. As a senator, he eloquently addressed an AFM Convention some years ago. He left us a better world; it is now up to us.

On behalf of musicians everywhere, we offer our respectful condolences to Tommy Banks’ family. Wherever musicians go after they die, we may take comfort from the assurance that this gentle genius is now busy writing great charts, and looking after player interests. First, take a well-deserved rest, my friend.