Timing is everything in music, especially if you’re the pianist leading a trio bearing your name. But the namesake of the Fred Hughes Trio found that timing is even more crucial when you try to establish a charitable foundation to preserve and promote the art form you love.
Jazz pianist Fred Hughes endeavored to launch Jazz Alive early last year, just in time for COVID to shut down everything from indoor dining to March Madness. So what chance did the debut of a jazz concert series stand? None, the music educator and resident of Royal Oak quickly realized. So, switching nimbly to “lemonade out of lemons” mode, Hughes created an online-only series called Jazz Tales, in which he interviewed and musically collaborated with fellow jazz musicians of note. While the 25 Jazz Tales videos, running an hour and a quarter each, was viewed by a virtual audience from anywhere the Internet is accessible, Hughes made a point of recruiting 130 music students from Easton High and Easton Middle School.
The live concert series had to wait until this year, with the third and final performance on Saturday night, Sept. 18, at the Waterfowl Building in Easton. “We also had plans for an autumn-to-spring series,” Hughes said. “But I’m worried about COVID and the Delta variant. We’ve already had some of our trio concert dates in the fall canceled.” So Hughes will wait and see about more live Jazz Alive.
The novel coronavirus has already put the kibosh, hopefully just temporarily, on Hughes’ goal of forming a peninsula-wide Delmarva Youth Jazz Orchestra. “We wanted to hold auditions last year, but music teachers weren’t even seeing their band students in person. We hope to get auditions started this year if schools can stay open.”
Hughes is eminently qualified for such a mission, having served as a consultant for 25 years to the Maryland All-State High School Jazz Band. “But in all that time, I noticed we had only one kid from the Eastern Shore audition,” he recalled. “With Jazz Alive, we can bring this original form of American music to kids who’ve probably never seen a live jazz concert.”
Although his Jazz Tales video series was aimed, in part, to reach music students who were learning exclusively online, Hughes also reached a broad adult audience. “As we got a lot of comments from jazz fans from all over, I started pitching a weekend in St. Michaels or Easton to people from as far away as upstate New York and southern Virginia. Some of them turned up at our concert series this season.”
The Waterfowl Building was transformed on each of the three nights into a cabaret nightclub with 45 tables seating up to 150 jazz fans. “We’ve drawn about 125,” Hughes says. The series finale featured harmonica virtuoso Hendrik Meurkins, best known for his samba swing style of Brazilian jazz. He was joined by master guitarist Paul Bollenback, described by legendary jazz-blues recording artist George Benson as a “dynamo whose approach to jazz and blues has a uniqueness unto itself.” Completing the trio, Paul Langosch’s all-star credentials include 20 years as bassist for Tony Bennett, performing on 10 of his albums and hundreds of concerts and TV appearances.
Hughes did not perform in his just-concluded concert series. “I want it to be about all the jazz masters I can present,” he says. “It’s not about me.”
Keep up with what’s next on its website, jazz-alive.org
Steve Parks is a retired arts editor and critic now living in Easton.