Smithtown Township Arts Councils Tries to Keep Jazz Alive

By Diamond Bridges

Jazz filled the room of the First Universalist Church of Southold as a tall, lanky man with a beard paced the stage–his back toward the audience. The man’s focus was on the young kids with instruments, as he called on each child to improvise a four-count solo. Don Fisher remembers his first exposure to jazz music after attending Ranny Reeve’s jazz concert in 1990, and it changed his view on music completely.

“Jazz in the Living Room” is a program that was started by Long Island native jazz musician, Francis Reeve, who is better known as “Ranny.” Through this program, Reeve helped people of all ages, especially young kids, to learn and improve in performing jazz music and improvisation. He first started this program in his own living room in the 70s, but then later moved to different venues, such as the Mills Pond House in St. James, Long Island.

“He brought me out of my shell,” Fisher, a student of Reeve, said. In the 1970s, Fisher was a professional rock and roll bass guitar player, but after attending Reeve’s program, he learned how to play jazz music with his guitar. “I was able to give back to him by helping him create events where these kids can play during the course of the year.”

The Smithtown Township Arts Council upheld Reeve’s program on April 28 in the Mills Pond House, an art gallery located in St. James. The gallery is run by the council, where they showcase different kinds of historical and contemporary art.

“[Jazz improvisation] is something you can’t learn from a book, you don’t use sheet music, it’s just practice makes perfect,” Allison Cruz, Executive Director at the Mills Pond House, said. “In their lesson [the students] learned [how to] read music and sheet music, and then this was an added activity to actually get them to have that passion about jazz.”

Steven Witthoft stopped playing music for 40 years but after meeting Reeve, he found a passion for it again. He took his kids to Reeve for piano lessons but ended up joining Reeve’s jazz band at the program.

Reeve passed away on Nov. 4, 2015, but Witthoft refused to allow Reeve’s program to discontinue as he became the new director for the Jazz in the Living Room program in Reeve’s name. Witthoft states that the primary reason to continue the program is to get kids involved in jazz and give people, who already know how to play, an opportunity to perform jazz.

“It’s just something that’s done a lot of good for a lot of people,” Witthoft, who has gotten to know Reeve after taking his kids for piano lessons, said. “Everybody who comes here really enjoys it, and it’s an extremely supportive environment.”

“It was always about bringing young people into jazz and giving them the opportunity to learn improvisation through the support of professionals,” Patricia Snyder, Director of East End Arts, a multi-arts center where people can take classes or go to events relating to music, acting, or art in Riverhead, said. Snyder knew Reeve when he taught at the center for 21 years and had attended the Jazz in the Living Room program in 1995.

After Reeve had passed away, Witthoft and other older musicians found it difficult to attract a younger audience to the program. “It’s kind of a dying art form,” Glenn Baldwin, a jazz pianist at the Jazz in the Living Room program, said. Baldwin learned to play the piano from Reeve and had played in many concerts but is worried that the genre doesn’t grab enough attention from a younger audience. “It’s usually senior citizens who make up the majority of our audience, I wish more young people would come.”

“[Jazz is] the soundtrack to the story of our lives,” Thomas Manuel, President of Jazz Loft, an organization that offers jazz education, preservation, and performance in the Stony Brook Village. “In so many ways, whether people realize it or not, it’s so interwoven into the fabric of who we are that I think that when you’re exposed to jazz, either as a performer or a listener, you realize that in many ways it’s telling your story.”

A lot of music genres started in other countries but jazz is one of the genres that originated in America. Jazz started becoming popular between the time period of World War 1 and the Great Depression. Priscilla Owens, a professor at Adelphi University and a jazz performer, believes that jazz is the reflection of America’s timeline and people can learn more about America’s history through learning jazz traditions at programs.

“Learning any music teaches you discipline through theory, [and] about relationships [for example] how musicians interact during a jam session to create something that makes musical sense,” Owens said.

The Jazz in the Living Room program was able to help students play jazz professionally. Witthoft mentions a high school sophomore who plays the bass trombone and participated in the program. At first, he would only play the melody as a solo but through the program, he learned more about jazz improvisation and became the top bass trombone player in the nation of his age group.

“[The students] committed themselves to a career in music focusing on being a jazz performer,” David Schroeder, Jazz Studies professor at NYU, said. “New York City is particularly focused with jazz performers…so people are very fortunate here to have so many jazz concerts and jazz clubs, and people offering master classes to students in schools.”

“This was my first time at the gallery,” Jarrold Fuller, who attended the Jazz in the Living Room program on April 28, said. Fuller has been playing music for five years and participates in different performances at Gurwin Nursing Home in Commack. “I’ve done jazz before and I’m trying to see if I can do something professionally.”

The Jazz in the Living Room program continues to expand jazz education to the community in Reeve’s name, in hopes to gather more jazz fans in the future.

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