MVP Jazz Quartet pays homage to legendary musicians, friends at UD

By Tim Walker

Photo: MVP Jazz Quartet celebrates the life of pianist/composer James Williams at UD Feb. 16

When people in Dayton hear the word “jazz,” they may imagine a couple of scenes: a small, smoky nightclub somewhere in the city with a three- or four-piece ensemble, playing their hearts out, crowded onto a small stage. A complex, rhythmic cacophony of notes, drawn from instruments by virtuosos who appear almost entranced as they play compositions that seem to arise from some alien place or the hot streets of New Orleans and Dixieland, filled with laughter and the sound of horns being raised in celebration of art and dance and life.

Jazz is one of the few truly American art forms, and one that has been embraced by music lovers all over the world. It is a genre with a rich, colorful history, filled with memorable characters and personalities, and it deserves to be appreciated by all of us. The men and women who keep it alive are a community, one which holds dear and honors those who, having lived their lives and made their contributions to the history of jazz, have moved on to other realms beyond this earthly existence.

With that in mind, four of the field’s most renowned and respected musicians, pianist Donald Brown, bass player Ray Drummond, drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and saxophonist Bobby Watson, have combined forces to form the MVP Jazz Quartet, and are currently on tour celebrating the life and music of two of their own: pianists and composers James Williams and Mulgrew Miller. The MVP Jazz Quartet’s Tribute to James Williams and Mulgrew Miller tour will stop in Dayton on Thursday, Feb. 16, with a performance at the University of Dayton’s Sears Recital Hall as part of its ArtsLIVE series. The performance is made possible with support from the Cityfolk Jazznet Legacy Endowment. In addition to the performance, the musicians will also meet and work with students from the University of Dayton and Stivers School for the Arts.

Jon Poses, writer and lifelong lover of jazz, columnist for the Columbia Daily Tribune, and executive director of the “We Always Swing” jazz series, was instrumental in putting the tour and tribute together.

“The thing you have to remember,” he says, “is that all of these great musicians knew each other and played each other’s compositions. They were more than just contemporaries. And even though James Williams and Mulgrew Miller were both taken away from us too young, tragically, the four musicians who are on this tour knew them well and they all played each other’s music. These really are the ideal four guys to play in tribute to these two composers.”

Esteemed and respected, Williams played and toured with jazz legends such as Art Blakey, Wynton Marsalis, and Dizzy Gillespie. In addition to composing, Williams was a dedicated and longtime educator. In 1999, he became director of jazz studies at William Paterson University. His unexpected death of liver cancer in 2004 was a tragic loss to the world of jazz. The James Williams Archive is now part of the Living Jazz Archives on the Paterson, New Jersey, campus, and holds his LP collection, awards, original manuscripts, and hundreds of performance tapes and photos. Like Williams, Miller was also a pianist, a composer, and an educator. Miller played piano with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for three years and with well-known jazz artists such as Blakey, Woody Shaw, and Tony Williams. Following the tragic death of Williams, Miller was named director of jazz studies at William Paterson University in 2005, continuing to play and tour internationally until his death from a stroke at the age of 57 in 2013.

“I think the whole meaning of this,” bassist  Drummond says, “for seriously real, is that we’re all trying to bow to two of our greatest buddies, who left us way prematurely, ’Grew and J.W.  Every time I think about it, I’m just reduced to tears.”

“The thing is,” Drummond continues, “J.W. and ’Grew, they were not only forces; they were creative spirits, you know? And they gave us so much inspiration. The fact that they’re not here… Well, you just can’t play their music without thinking of them. And remembering when you played these tunes with either one of them.”

The four virtuoso performers are dedicated to keeping those memories and the history of jazz music alive. The MVP Jazz Quartet will carry their rich history with them onstage at the University of Dayton Feb. 16, and it promises to be an evening of music and memory that should not be missed.

The MVP Jazz Quartet performs Thursday, Feb. 16 at the Sears Recital Hall, Jesse Philips Humanities Center, 300 College Park on the University of Dayton campus. Prior to the performance, at 6:45,  Dave Barber of WYSO will interview some of the musicians. This pre-show event is free. Show starts at 7:30 p.m. and tickets are $16. Admission is free for UD students. For tickets and more information, please call 937.229.2545 or visit udayton.edu/artssciences/initiatives/artslive/.

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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