Blake’s music will be performed by his colleagues and students
STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For 21st Century Media
John Blake, Jr. was supposed to perform at Jazz Bridge’s community concert in Philadelphia on Feb. 11. After his untimely passing last August, Jazz Bridge’s executive director Suzanne Cloud and board member/Philadelphia community concert cohost Rhenda Fearrington decided that a tribute concert in Blake’s honor should take the place of the scheduled event.
“We wanted to hire people who were a part of his band, who played with him closely, regularly (and) knew his book [musical repertoire] intimately, because that’s the only way we can honestly do a tribute to him,” said Fearrington in a phone interview from her home.
Blake was known as one of the world’s leading jazz violinists. He first gained recognition in the early ‘70s for his recordings with Archie Shepp. He then toured and recorded with both Grover Washington, Jr. and McCoy Tyner, among others, before he began to perform and record under his own name.
In addition, Blake was a master educator and taught at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Manhattan School of Music in New York City, and has been a guest lecturer at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He also performed concerts and conducted workshops at many schools through Musicopia, an organization whose mission is to bring music performance and education into under-funded schools in the Delaware Valley, something which Blake believed in passionately.
It was not difficult for Fearrington to assemble artists who wanted to pay tribute to Blake, who was so well respected in the jazz community. Fearrington assembled Blake’s former bandmates Gerald Veasley (bass), Luke Carlos O’Reilly (piano) and Leon Jordan, Sr. (drums). In addition, Blake’s former collaborator Miriam Suzzette Ortiz will bring a vocal ensemble to the event. And honoring Blake by playing violin will be Blake’s former students Ben Sutin and Nathan Kamal.
Veasley, O’Reilly and Jordan all performed in Blake’s bands at different times over the years. Jordan had the opportunity to perform and record with Blake, as well as take part in more than 200 educational concerts and workshops with Blake through Musicopia.
“It was fantastic working (with John),” said Jordan, in a phone interview from his home in Philadelphia. “I’ve done several recording studio sessions with John with his original music. He’s a passionate and thoughtful composer. He draws from many different influences — Indian music, traditional jazz, spirituals, African music … And for me as a drummer, he actually pulled me in and made me have a better understanding of various styles of music throughout the world.
“Everybody who worked with him, including Gerald (Veasley) — we were all ‘students’ of his. He was a wealth of information. We were all students of his particular view of music and view of the world as a composer. He was an extremely thoughtful person, and well versed in many different areas of music. You had to apply them all to play with him.”
Ortiz, a vocalist and composer, teaches at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, a public high school in Camden, N.J. She first met Blake through the Christmas Tree Orchestra. That led to further collaborations and a great friendship.
Ortiz’ choir performed Blake’s original music in a concert to promote his final album, “Motherless Child (Arc).”
The choir will perform two of their favorite pieces from the album, the title track “Motherless Child” and “Nobody Knows.”
“The music is very difficult,” said Ortiz. “He was so gifted. And you could tell that when he wrote and arranged, he wasn’t really thinking. He just poured his heart (out). All this beautiful music was inside of him. And he was so humble.”
In addition, the choir will perform a piece composed by Ortiz. It is about the life of Nelson Mandela.
“(It is) comparing Mandela with the message of John as a musician. His music provoked peace and a passion for the culture of Africa. We’re going to have a part with spoken word. It’s going to be comparing both lives as though they are one. It’s something I’m very proud of.”
Blake was held in high regard by his students as well as his colleagues.
Sutin, a senior jazz violin major at Manhattan School of Music, studied with Blake for “6 or 7 years,” beginning at age 12.
“He was the sweetest person ever,” said Sutin in a phone interview from his home. “We got very close over that time. I consider him way more than just a teacher. He used to come over to my parents’ house in New Jersey for lunch, not even for a lesson, and talk with us about life. It was a very personal connection. (He was) way more than just a teacher.”
Kamal is a junior at the New School in New York City. He is also a jazz violin major. He studied with Blake for 4 years during high school, from ages 14 through 18.
“John was an excellent teacher. He would give you one piece of advice and instantly change the way that you played, and you would end up sounding twice as good as you had 5 minutes (earlier),” said Kamal in a phone interview.
Kamal, like Sutin, also treasured the personal relationship that developed with Blake. He described it as “being a student of his and also having him be a mentor in music and in life.”
IF YOU GO
What: A Tribute to John Blake
When: Concert is at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 11.
Where: Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, 2110 Chestnut St., Philadelphia.
Tickets: Admission is $10/$5 for students. Available at the door only.
Info.: For more information, check www.jazzbridge.org.