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Jazz Musicians Get Hometown Welcome

by Paul Auger

Sanford Springvale Historical Society

Three of the best jazz musicians Maine has ever produced—Mike McGinnis, Barry Saunders, and Norm Bergeron—returned to their hometown of Sanford for a historic, sold-out performance at the Sanford-Springvale Historical Museum. Barry and Norm were bandmates at Sanford High School, graduating in 1989. Mike McGinnis was also in the SHS band, graduating in 1991. He has performed all over the New York City music scene, from studio recordings to Broadway. Playing the clarinet and nearly all woodwind instruments, Mike is widely recognized as a jazz innovator and is currently the director of the jazz program at Brooklyn Conservatory.

Barry Saunders, a saxophonist, clarinetist, and composer, has played in clubs, festivals, and concerts throughout the United States and Europe. Barry’s work has appeared on numerous recordings, on Maine Things Considered, The Portland Symphony Orchestra, and in countless ensembles. He is currently a faculty instructor at USM, teaching saxophone, clarinet, improvisation, and composition.

Rounding out the Sanford High reunion was Norm Bergeron, Class of ’91. Norm graduated from the University of North Texas Jazz Studies program. His wide-ranging expertise led to a Teaching Fellowship, facilitating Afro-Cuban, Afro-Brazilian, West African, and Gamelan ensembles. Norm is now the Director of Percussion Studies at Temple College in Temple, Texas.

Accompanying the SHS trio were two noted artists who met the trio in high school. Internationally acclaimed bassist Joshua Davis has performed in many of the world’s greatest concert halls, including the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, the National Concert Hall in Taiwan, Lincoln Center, Meyerhoff, the Blue Note Jakarta, Bimhuis Amsterdam, and Strathmore Hall. Joshua was most recently appointed as the Director of Jazz Studies at Penn State. Before his appointment, he was the Director of Jazz Studies at Susquehanna University and Towson University, and he was an awarded leader of curriculum development at Berklee College of Music where, as one of the youngest faculty members, he taught for six years.

Mark Shilansky, playing the museum’s 1886 Bechstein piano, is a professor at Berklee College of Music and the University of New Hampshire. He is featured on over 60 recordings as a keyboardist, vocalist, composer/arranger, or producer, and has performed as a band member for countless artists. His works have been recorded by Robin McKelle, Kim Nazarian, and by Jazz All-State and College ensembles around the world.

The concert opened with an acknowledgment of all the music educators present, including the trio’s former band and chorus directors at SHS, Angela Hendricks Johnson and Judie Shain. Barry’s composition “Jimmy” opened the concert, a piece written for his father Jim. Jazz compositions typically have a main melodic theme with each musician taking turns improvising on each piece. Improvisation is historically a difficult talent for most musicians to learn. It can get even more complex with jazz pieces that have numerous tempo and key changes. What each musician plays during their solos is made up on the spot and never the same twice. Having five jazz masters led to a very enthusiastic audience.

The concert consisted of works composed and/or arranged by the performers. Barry’s ode to his father, “Jimmy,” opened the performance, followed by “And So Am I” by pianist Mark Shilansky and “Walking on the Moon” by Sting, arranged by Shilansky. The quintet ended the first half with Duke Ellington’s “In A Sentimental Mood.”

It was difficult for the group to get back on stage for the second half as there were more than a dozen band and choral directors in the house who had taught the members at some point in their careers. Bassist Joshua Davis’ third-grade music teacher surprised him and sat on the stage behind him. Angela Hendricks Johnson, who directed all three boys in the Sanford High Band, sat with her former choral colleague, Judie Shain, all clearly amazed at the level of talent they were now seeing.

A piece written in honor of Joshua’s daughter opened the second half. “Bella 6.5” was an upbeat number that again displayed the talents of each musician. “Roots” by Mike McGinnis was a reference to musical roots in jazz composition and also his evolutionary roots as a jazz musician. The last composition by the Sanford trio was drummer Norm Bergeron’s Latin-infused piece, “Miguelito,” named for his friend Mike McGinnis.

It was not a complete surprise that a Charlie Parker composition came next. The great jazz pioneer was introduced to Mike by his high school band director, Angela Hendricks Johnson. Mike is now an authority on the works of Parker and chose Parker’s notoriously difficult piece, “Scrapple From the Apple.” The piece’s tempo and syncopated melody left no room for error and was performed with great effect by the group. The audience demanded an encore, leading to another Parker composition, “Billy’s Bounce.”

It is so rare to see someone who has mastered the art of jazz playing in this area and unprecedented to see five, all from Sanford and the immediate vicinity, playing here. For Mike, Barry, and Norm, it was a remarkable journey from the Sanford High School Band to sharing a stage once again.

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