Fred Hughes, founder and director of Jazz Alive based in Talbot County, has been a musician all his life growing up in Lancaster, Pa., and spending summers with his dad on and off his boat at Kent Island. He later moved to Washington and, for years, had a gig with a jazz club in National Harbor on the Maryland shore of the Potomac River along the D.C. Beltway.
“I remember looking out at the white-haired audience and thinking, these seats will be empty soon if we don’t do something to turn kids onto jazz,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home in Royal Oak.
Now he’s launching his second virtual season of concerts and interviews he calls “Jazz Tales” beginning Wednesday, January 13 with bassist Pepe Gonzalez. The shows are available online free to students with the support of a Talbot Arts Council grant and Mid-Shore jazz lovers who can livestream the program for a fee.
The idea had occurred to Hughes, a jazz pianist, for years. But the impetus to make it a reality was prompted in part by the demise of his regular gig when the National Harbor jazz club folded. Recalling fond memories of summers on the Shore, Hughes found a house on Bellevue Avenue and moved there in 2019, intending to start a jazz mentoring and concert series early the next year.
“My idea was to introduce middle and high school kids to professional jazz musicians,” he says. “I’d interview the artists and have them talk about getting into music as a living. And we’d play for the students and then have an evening concert for the community.”
Hughes had experience mentoring young people on tours he did as a solo musician or with his Community Concert Band as well as local academic connections he made through the Avalon Foundation. He had 15 concerts lined up for his inaugural season in 2020. But then came the pandemic. No chance of performing at Easton High or any other school where, for the most part, students weren’t even allowed to attend classes in person. Everything went virtual, as did Hughes’ Jazz Tales.
“I have a studio in my home,” he says. “It’s pretty small, but it can accommodate me and one other musician. So that became our format.”
Hughes takes a few minutes at the beginning of his hour-and-a-quarter show to introduce his guest artist to an online audience. They take a break from talking to play a dozen tunes or more and then resume chatting, sharing anecdotes and advice about a music career.
“The first question I always ask,” Hughes says, “is what was it in growing up that got you into music–and particularly into jazz.”
Hughes credits Jazz Alive board member Donna Ewing with encouraging Easton High students to get on board with his free (for them) program. There are now 35 Talbot County students enrolled, so to speak, along with others from outside the county. In a post-pandemic future, Hughes says he’d like to expand directly to Dorchester North- and South High and perhaps other secondary schools in the Mid-Shore region.
The first concert of the 2021 season features Gonzalez, who as a teen formed Zapata, one of the first integrated bands in D.C. (African-American and Hispanic). The band was successful enough to open for such greats as the late Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Sly, and the Family Stone, and the Isley Brothers. Later, sticking more exclusively to the jazz idiom, Gonzalez also performed for three presidents–Bill Clinton and both Bushes and at jazz festivals spanning the globe.
Next up, January 27, is D.C.-based saxophonist Bill Mulligan, who has collaborated with such diverse ensembles as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra as well as superstars ranging from the late great Ella Fitzgerald to Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga. He’s followed on February 10 by guitarist Steve Abshire, who has played with various Navy bands for decades, principally the Commodores, the U.S. Naval Academy’s premier jazz ensemble.
The only vocalist and female in the series, Imani Gonzalez, appears on February 24. She has performed and toured with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra for eight consecutive years, and her vocals were featured in the Emmy-winning National Geographic film “Jane Goodall: My Life With Chimpanzees.”
March sweeps in on the 10th with trumpeter Dave Ballou, a New England native mentored by, among others, jazz legend Clark Terry. Moving to New York, Ballou played in pit orchestras for many Broadway shows, including the Tony-winning revival of “42nd Street.” Joining the music faculty of Towson University in 2004, he’s become known as the foremost teacher of improvisation in the Baltimore area.
The finale in the series is the only one with Hughes absent from the keyboard. Instead, he’ll squeeze one more musician into his cozy studio, bassist Paul Langosch, who will accompany jazz pianist Bill Butta on March 24. A Baltimore native, Butta has played and recorded over the decades with legends Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Shaw, Sonny Stitt, Roy Haynes, and current jazz genius–both as performer and composer–Terrence Blanchard.
The instrumental diversity of the 2021 lineup is impressive from both an artistic and educational standpoint. There’s a little something for every student considering what he or she wants to play. Or what you may prefer to hear.
And if that’s not enough, all 15 programs from 2020 are still available to download–free for students. For us grownups, the price for each concert/interview is $35.
“I’ve got to pay the musicians,” Hughes says. “They’re professionals.”
Indeed, they are.
JAZZ ALIVE’S JAZZ TALES SERIES
Free to participating students, $35 for non-students, or $180 for all six 2021 concerts. Also, $35 each for Jazz Tales archive concerts from 2020. All available online at jazz-alive.org
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and editor now living in Easton.