Photos by Santiago Ochoa
Playing on His Stage
March 2, 2019
The musicians gather together in the basement of the Berston Field House. A coordinator walks them through their stage directions. Among the crowd stands UM-Flint’s Jazz Combo, instruments in hand, as they listen intently. The air hangs heavy and hot as the organizer continues talking.
The excitement and anxiousness in the air matches that of a middle school cast moments before their play. Nervous foot tapping, the fidgeting of valves and keys along with the hum of the furnace gives a rhythm to the words being said.
Soon, Yo-Yo Ma, the greatest classical musician alive, will be walking into the building and gracing them all with his talent and presence. Ma, however, is not here for the adulation. He’s in Flint as part of his Bach Project tour.
Consisting of two-day stops, the tour focuses on a traditional performance of Bach’s six suites for cello the first day and a Day of Action the second. Ma chose Berston Field House, a 100-year-old gym and community center on Flint’s north side as the cite of his Day of Action in order to pay homage to the community’s rich musical culture and persevering attitude.
It is rare that a performer deserving of such gravitas visits Flint. It is inconceivable that they’ll be the one in the audience. As student performers, many of the members are used to having their family in the audience to keep them focused on stage. Today it will be mom, dad and Yo-Yo Ma.
In the distance, a door leading to the parking lot opens, and the corridor it connects to is flooded with light. The silhouette of a man steps through the doorway and begins making its way down the hall toward the room the musicians are in.
The man walks into the room and turns toward the nearest volunteer to ask him a question. A small wave of turning heads and nudging arms moves across the musicians. The volunteer, distracted, points in the direction of the bathroom, with no idea he’s just talked to Yo-Yo Ma, the legendary cellist.
The organizer, visibly annoyed at the distraction and unphased by Ma’s sudden appearance, has moved on to express the importance of timing. “If everyone takes five minutes instead of three, the whole show will run late” he says. Half-hearted nods of understanding ripple across the small huddle around him. He had lost their attention long ago.
The crowd is dismissed as murmurs start rising from pockets of people asking the same thing; “Did you see him?”
Most will stay in the basement and pace back and forth anxiously awaiting their turn on stage. The Jazz Combo, however, is escorted upstairs. They will be this evening’s opening act.
They exchange glances of apprehension as they make their way to the Berston’s gymnatorium. Along the way, they receive words of encouragement from the many music department students volunteering at the event.
The stage is lined with steel drums and on both ends of it sit speakers fit for a concert hall. One by one the musicians walk on stage.
They adjust their microphones and stands, awaiting further instruction. Eager to warm up, sophomore trumpet player Brandon Sexton plays a jazz scale. It rolls out of his trumpet’s bell and onto the stage. The first note of the night has been played.
Quick to follow, the rest of his bandmates join in. Their individual and unique warm-up routines create a warm but cacophonous melody that fills the gym.
A few minutes later, the crowd starts walking in. An event organizer calls to them and informs the combo they’ll have to play for upwards of a half hour while the place fills up. Although prepared for more than just their three minutes, they find themselves two songs short of their newly set time expectations.
Undaunted by this request, junior saxophone player Austin Tripp walks his bandmates through the melodies of the songs they didn’t bring with them. He has them memorized in their entirety and is now working with Sexton and senior Trombone player Jordan Pavlica to put his memory to paper. Soon, the entire band is on the same proverbial page.
Tripp starts the band off with a nod of his head and a heavy first breath; out of his horn comes out a sonorous first note. Heads slowly start to turn as his first few notes bounce off the beams of the roof and sink into the ears of the audience. Dozens of conversations meet an abrupt end as the event turns from a social gathering to a concert.
The combo has reached its stride. Drummer Russ Sutter, along with bassist Warren Lissner and keyboard player Andrew Cramer, provide a sturdy rhythmic canvas onto which Tripp, Pavlica and Sexton can paint their notes.
The gym begins to fill up and soon what was a dozen people half-listening and a few cameras clicking becomes a packed room of hundreds, along with the entirety of Flint’s news sources struggling for space on the outer edges of the indoor basketball court.
Ma, for the first time since he was seen in the basement, walks into the gym and maneuvers his way through the crowd into a room on the side of the stage where only the musicians can see him. He leaves behind a path of turned heads noticing just a second too late it was him who had put a hand on their shoulder and said: “excuse me.”
Out of the hundreds in the gym, he is the only person able to unglue the musician’s eyes from their music. His presence alone seems to demand they do so.
Without falter, the combo moves on. The only difference on stage being the more than occasional glances of incredulity from the players to their right. Their shoulders, once slightly hunched together are now hanging loosely as the band members lean into each one of their notes. Like any musician worth their salt, their eyes begin to close as they play their solos. The notes they are looking for are no longer on a sheet of paper, rather they exist solely in their minds.
The song comes to an end on a somber chord and the crowd begins to cheer. The event’s host runs on stage and introduces the jazz combo as the UM-Flint Jazz Ensemble. It’s an innocent mistake and elicits a playful eye roll from the music students in the audience.
Like it was rehearsed in the basement more than a half hour ago, the host walks up to Tripp and asks him what his favorite Flint restaurant is. To the surprise of no one who knows him, he answers: “Jazz night at Soggy’s”. The crowd laughs and his bandmates give him nods of approval, they had already made plans to go to there later that night.
The crowd cheers again as the host announces the Jazz Combo will play one more song. As if on cue, music department student Precious Murray walks on to the center-front of the stage and grabs the microphone stand in front of her. She looks at Tripp and Tripp looks at his bandmates. Once again the nod and heavy breath mark the beginning of a song. Murray’s voice pierces through the conversations that had started up during the host’s introduction.
Just like her bandmates, she closes her eyes as she runs through a symphony of notes, pushing the limits of her vocal range. It seems everyone in the audience has their eyes on her.
As the song’s final harmony finishes reverberating across the field house, the combo walks off stage and begins their descent back to the basement. After a quick rendezvous, they make their way to the parking lot.
As he loads his saxophone into his car, Tripp mentions to me how the tonight is different from anything he has done in the past. He talks about how Ma’s event brings together all sorts of music lovers. Not just jazz lovers. “It’s having the entire Flint community and having people from all around to come and listen to us. It just carries a little bit more meaning to us and that meaning just kind of inspired us… to give back to the community the way the community gives to us [and] provides opportunities for us.”
He mentions how significant this concert is to him and to the UM-Flint music department. To him, an event that allows so many UM-Flint students and alumni to be showcased is important. “There will be lots of people that now know that UM-Flint has these musicians who are dedicated and who are willing to work to give what they can back to their community.”
As the musicians walk back into the building, I can’t help but think back to what Pavlica said as he walked off-stage. With an awestruck expression on his face as he passes by, to no one, in particular, he says, “Yo-Yo Ma just told me, ‘Bravo.’”
This piece has been edited from its original version titled “Flint Jazz Combo Opens for Yo-Yo Ma’s ‘Day of Action”, originally published to The Michigan Times website on March 2, 2019. It includes new and changed material. This version appeared in the winter 2019 print issue of The Michigan Times titled as “Playing on His Stage”, on March 18.