STORY WRITTEN BY DAVID W. WANNOP
For Digital First Media
Suzzette Ortiz will play a fundraiser for Jazz Bridge, a non-profit that helps jazz artists with their various needs from dental work, to home restoration, to medical treatment. Many significant jazz performers still live in the area but they didn’t all make the money for an easy retirement, and some have had misfortunes along the way. Suzzette often goes to bat for those forgotten or in need. Ortiz has always shown her gratitude for the jazz community and the region at large winning music awards and educational awards as well. Her students from the Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy in Camden travel the world singing choral music, and she was nominated for four Latin Grammy Awards as part of Orquesta La Paz on their album “Déjà vu” whereupon she was the pianist.
Speaking via phone, she said, “I’m not really leaving teaching, but I am leaving the work situation that I have. I will still work in the community, but not every day 24/7. In the public schools, if you don’t make a change you get burnt. It’s all the things you get asked to do with no time.”
Ortiz has won Teacher of the Year four times. Her choral students have won first or second place in Italy, Prague, Puerto Rico, Ghana, Poland, Virginia, Nashville, Tennessee, New York and Orlando, Florida.
Rhenda Fearrington has a lot of good news about Ortiz explaining via e-mail, “Suzzette Ortiz, directed a combination of two choral ensembles to sing a stirring arrangement of Violinist, John Blake’s music, during a Tribute to the great artist back in January. She is so dedicated and passionate, that her Camden group has traveled to various countries, where they’ve competed and have won, many awards (and) accolades! … They were chosen to work a Master Class with Al Jarreau! She’s good!” Fearrington serves on the Jazz Bridge board and has a front seat view of Ortiz’s commitment.
Tendinitis almost ruined her career as her injured right hand made regular piano playing impossible. Ortiz turned to teaching while her hand became stronger. After two years she was able to play with both hands again. She notes that performing brought her to teaching and teaching brought her back to performing.
Ortiz will bring 13 students to Poland for a choral competition in the coming weeks. “I generally don’t like competitions, but I like what competitions do to them (students). It allows them to experience things they never thought they could do,” she said.
A memoir from Ortiz is expected in the fall 2015. She reports, “I want to write to inspire people who want to work in urban schools. You need to develop rapport with students and parents. There are things that helped me survive, but also things I received. I want people to know how to develop a department.”
Ortiz has quite the education herself starting with the Puerto Rico Conservatory, then to Temple University and the University of the Arts, plus intense conducting training at Julliard.
Ortiz blends her experience seamlessly. She says, “When I perform I am conscious of what people are feeling and thinking. Am I conveying my musical message to them? If I had never been a teacher, I probably would’ve never considered that. You want people to leave the place thinking that they feel good about what they heard. My biggest happiness is when I am making a difference for society.
Ortiz explained her creative process. “Things that happen in the classroom inspire me to write; also, situations in life. I could be in my car or in my living room, but I will be thinking of life changing situations.” If performing a jazz classic she works to keep it fresh. “Because I am a composer, I have respect for what the composer wrote, but I add something that is me, be it a chord progression or may incorporate some movement.”
Ever busy, Ortiz is promoting a new album called, “Renacer, which means renaissance or rebirth. I needed to regroup and get out this music.” Later, in the fall, she will record her choral music. The love show will include a bassist, percussion, and saxophone. I asked Ortiz about writing, teaching, conducting and performing and which she prefers. She responds, “I do not know what I’d do without one of them. I love them all.”
The Jazz Bridge “Jazz on the Main Line” Third Thursday Neighborhood Concert Series presents singer/pianist Suzzette Ortiz at The New Leaf Club —1225 Montrose Avenue in Rosemont—on Thursday, May 21. Tickets are $10, $5 for students, and are available only at the door. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Information: 215-517-8337 or visit jazzbridge.org/events/neighborhood-concerts.