IN PERFORMANCE | EDUCATORS
A Student-Teacher Reunion
Actor Richard Thomas and composer/musician Howard Shore were recognizable among the Blue Note audience for the January 12 early show of "A Philly Reunion," with B3 organ superstar Joey DeFrancesco, bassist Christian McBride, drummer Lil John Roberts, and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkle.
However it was a half-dozen less recognizable individuals whom the band members were eager to recognize on this fourth and final night of the quartet's sold-out stand. They were deserving of special attention because, as each band member would say during stage announcements scattered through the set, these unsung Philadelphia educators and mentors who instructed and inspired all four players when they were in school in Philadelphia in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Among them were Dr. George Allen, Bill Whittacker, Lovett Hines, and Gerald Veasley.
These concerts marked the first time the four old friends, schoolmates and sometime bandmates had played as a unit since they were teenagers in various schools, according to drummer Roberts, primarily at The Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA). Following the second number in the six-song set, Roberts made the first announcement.
The educators had come up from Philly to surprise their star pupils. And in response, Roberts later posted, "of course we showed our butts off in front of them and thanked them for what they did for us growing up in Philadelphia and giving us opportunities that would later on help us to succeed in the music industry."
The setlist for the early show on that final night included "Monk’s Dream," "When Sunny Gets Blue," with DeFrancesco switching to tenor, and a sizzling finale on fellow Philadelphian Grover Washington Jr.’s "Mister Magic," the title track off his 1974 Motown release.
It was on the Monk tune that Rosenwinkle’s distinctive guitar sound, one of the night’s many marvels with its smooth sustain, brought to my mind the elegant legato of Stephane Grappelli. The guitarist was second to pay tribute to his teachers. But first he acknowledge who his peers had awakened his interest in jazz. Though he, recalling the days before he graduated in 1988 and thanking the other musicians for giving him the drive for excellence – albeit in a more progressive and fusion direction. He recalled how they play at night in local clubs like Slim Cooper’s, Bob and Barbara’s and Blue Note (no relation). In the mornings before school he’d find DeFrancesco and McBride "eating ‘Giant Steps’ for breakfast." He also thanked Dr. Allen for arranging master classes and/or performances for the students by luminaries including Grover Washington Jr. and Max Roach.
"We went to public school that cared about arts education," McBride said when his turn came after the fourth song. "These days you hear a lot about curricula needing to focus on STEM, wanting to create more Bill Gates’s. No disrespect to Mr. Gates, who’s a genius, but it needs to be STEAM – put the arts in there. There are geniuses out there to contribute that way: The arts need to be taken seriously."
He then introduced DeFrancesco as his very oldest friend, dating back to Junior High School, and someone who "continues to be the baddest cat I've ever known."
DeFrancesco was the last of the four to pay tribute to his mentors. He summed up their appreciation with his own brief review of the concert: "These people assured you’re getting high quality artistic expression tonight,” he said.
In 2018 article titled "School Days: Jazz All-Stars Remember CAPA," JazzTimes brought together comments by DeFrancesco, McBride and Rosenwinkle, along with teachers Hines, Allen and others for what writer Shaun Brady called "virtual reunion."
That we did.