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GUEST COLUMN: Rome is a home to all that jazz

Harry Musselwhite

Harry Musselwhite is the author of “Martin the Guitar” and is an award-winning filmmaker.

The great Wynton Marsalis once questioned the audience at an Atlanta concert: “How many jazz lovers are out there? How many jazz likers? I would suggest that there are quite a number of jazz lovers in Rome.

I taught for five years at a small college in northeast Georgia. At about the same time I was hired at Truett-McConnell College, another young professor joined the faculty. Michael Brown, a Berry College graduate, taught trumpet and directed the jazz band. He became a lifelong friend who has since enjoyed a distinguished career.

Mike and I were eating lunch one day and he mentioned that he needed a guitarist for his college jazz band.

 “I play the guitar,” I offered.

Mike eyed me like Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider” when Jack Nicholson told him, “I got a helmet.”

You see, I was a voice/opera teacher, and that species is not supposed to even know how to hold a guitar. He was shocked when I arrived at the next rehearsal with an artist level Gibson guitar and a killer rolled and pleated Kustom amplifier.

He was even more shocked when I took my first solo. A personal and musical friendship was born.

The late William “Bill” Robison was one of my first faculty friends upon my entering the world of Berry College music. It just so happens that Bill was Mike’s trumpet professor in undergraduate school. Bill did the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning. His trumpet tone was silvery and sensuous.

Professor Robison brought years of world-class jazz to audiences in Rome. His Berry College jazz band was cool and way smooth. Bill also played in a smaller ensemble around town with friends Stan Pethel and Sam Baltzer. The group was the very familiar “Applescraps.”

Full disclosure: I was the third, okay, maybe fourth call drummer for Applescraps, and usually only for very small and intimate community luncheons and such. Stan Pethel so trusted my drumming he only allowed me to use brushes, never sticks. Even relegated to a minor role, I always enjoyed playing classic jazz with good friends. Early on I wanted to be a symphonic timpanist, but enthusiastic singing teachers lured me to the vocal side.

Stan Pethel and Mike Brown tell a famous story of a Berry jazz performance at North Georgia College over in Dahlonega. It seems that the drummer at that time wanted to add, let us say, a pyrotechnical aspect to the ensemble’s performance. He doused his ride cymbal with lighter fluid to be set aflame at an appropriate musical point.

You know what’s coming. The young drummer put way too much fluid on the cymbal and the drum set was set afire. According to one story, the flaming drums were last seen rolling down a hill outside a solemn college building. This anecdote or versions of it remain in Berry College music lore.

I doubt that current Berry College jazz director John David has ever set his drum set on fire. He values his drums so much that he would never intentionally harm them.

John David is a world-class musician, and he has taken William Robison’s legacy and has continued to nurture a great program. Professor David uses terms from the stage like “cats” and “cool,” but it never seems artificial, for he is the real deal. John David has performed with the top jazz musicians in the region. He is well regarded, and rightly so.

Somewhere along the way, one of my Berry College vocalists, Greg Robbins, auditioned for John David for one of his coveted jazz vocal guest appearances. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Greg has developed into a stupendous jazz vocalist. This is interesting, for Greg has a basso voice, not a vocal category that usually indicates success in that particular musical genre.

Professor David, an expert in identifying young jazz talent, heard something in Mr. Robbin’s musical approach and gently encouraged and instructed him. Greg is now the go to vocalist in many of Atlanta’s jazz haunts, and has performed in New York City jazz clubs as well.

At the end of most weeks, Greg Robbins’ face appears on my computer and through the miracle of Skype, we have a 21st Century voice lesson. We work on the usual things that occupy a voice lesson, that is, scales, tone, placement, and things technical. We also speak of career choices, artistic growth, and opportunities on the horizon. I have spoken to several New York City agents/managers on his behalf, and I think this young man’s future is very bright indeed.

Greg is putting the finishing touches on his new album, and he will be presenting an album release party in Rome soon. Stay tuned.

It has been said, “Jazz is an open ended music designed for open minds.” Rome is a place to find great jazz, and as Count Basie said, “Keep on listening and tapping your feet.”

Former Roman Harry Musselwhite is the author of “Martin the Guitar” and is an award-winning filmmaker.