Each time bassist Jeff Fuller listed a name of a New Haven jazz icon, the roughly 70 people gathered around him broke into applause.
The crowd gathered on the roof of the downtown Briq restaurant Thursday to celebrate Fuller, a star of New Haven’s jazz scene for decades, just as a revival of the scene appears to be in the works.
The names Fuller listed included pianist Eddie Cercone, saxophonist Tommy Brasile, The Buster Brothers and drummer Jesse Hameen, who had just honored Fuller as an “unsung hero.”
Reflecting on his role as a jazz instructor and mentor, Fuller also listed members of the younger jazz generation New Haven has produced, such as Wayne Escoffery, Ed Cherry, the Sands brothers and Julian Reid, who was standing off to the left of the crowd.
Elm City jazz enthusiasts gathered at Briq Thursday evening not just to honor Fuller, but to kick off New Haven Jazz Fest 2014, presented by Jazz Haven with support from the city. Jazz Fest officially starts on Saturday, with a free concert on the Green from the Hew Haven Symphony Orchestra Jazz Ensemble and the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. (Jazz has also assumed a regular place in the weekend schedules of downtown clubs like Cafe Nine and the new Lucky Chao’s on Temple and 9th Note on Orange.)
Jazz Haven honored Fuller, a prominent jazz musician and teacher within the New Haven music community, with the third annual Unsung Heroes Award.
Attendants of the rooftop reception mingled in the slanting evening light to the sounds of local fingerstyle guitarist Glenn Roth. The bar bustled as people ordered drinks and servers continually refreshed plates of tapas. Briq owner Leon DeMaille said he hosted the Jazz Haven reception last year as well; this year had a turnout about three times as great.
While specifically a celebration of Fuller and the start of the August Jazz Fest, the evening likened a celebration of not only jazz’s place in New Haven culture, but New Haven culture’s place in jazz.
“The history of jazz in New Haven,” Fuller said when accepting the award, “shows that jazz is at the very roots of the cultural life of New Haven through its many performing venues, individual artists and the great, warm human feelings the music inevitably brings with it.”
“Educator, Arranger, Raconteur”
Fuller ultimately thanked the City of New Haven for providing “such a fertile breeding ground for the development, growth and survival of jazz.”
His own life as a jazz musician began in New Haven. As a Yale undergrad, he was faced with the choice of playing basketball or pursuing music, he told the Independent.
At 5’8”, he realized the decision had all but been made for him. He started taking every music class Yale had to offer. He continued at the university to receive a master of music degree in composition.
Fuller said he found tremendous opportunities to play music when he moved to New York City in 1977, but when he moved back to New Haven in 1986, he began to teach more and make the city his home.
Since then, he has taught at the Educational Center for the Arts magnet high school as well as given private lessons. His role as a mentor of New Haven’s youth contributed largely to his receiving the award. He also gigs continually.
“Jeff has been, and still is, touching the hearts and minds of young people; helping facilitate their career and give them life lessons,” Hameen (left in photo) said. “Not just music lessons, but life lessons.”
Hameen, a prominent jazz musician, said that many people can perform gigs or record their own music.
“But to make sure you leave a legacy in the hearts and lives of many people who will carry it on, that’s beautiful,” Hameen added.
But Fuller has also had an active recording and performance career, including a worldwide tour and albums with saxophonists Lou Donaldson and Paquito D’Rivera. He said his current favorite project is his Brazilian jazz trio Sambeleza, with Isabella Medes and Joe Carter.
Musician Giaocomo Gates said he hopes Fuller continues to produce and teach music in New Haven for a long time, calling him an “educator, arranger, raconteur.”
Today, even the oldest parts of the city’s cultural history can have a hashtag — as evidenced by the #NHJF14 on top of the schedules Jazz Haven President Craig O’Connell handed out at the event.
The festival is 32 years old this summer, and rapidly growing. This year, the lineup includes 26 concerts in local businesses throughout the month, as well as three major concerts on the Green. (Click here for the full schedule.) All but two of the smaller events are free.
This is the third time Jazz Haven has coordinated the events; the first year, in 2009, saw a total of only eight events over a week or so.
When O’Connell approached Mayor Toni Harp after she took office in January, he asked whether Jazz Haven could continue operating the festival with the same support from city officials that it saw under Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. Harp told him she wants to see Jazz Haven expand the festival to a full month’s length.
While the volunteer organization Jazz Haven coordinated the musical performances and venues, New Haven officials and alders coordinated support from city services, such as the police department, fire department and department of public works.
O’Connell said the festival integrates local businesses, such as Briq, The Owl Shop and ROÌA, and artists with roots in New Haven, such as Mike DiRubbo, to make the music accessible and highlight how much the city has to offer in terms of jazz.
Fuller pointed to jazz as a unifier in New Haven, and described how this wasn’t always the case; the black and white music communities were separated, and there even used to be two distinct musical unions.
By the time Fuller arrived in New Haven, the union was already combined, thanks largely to the preponderance of jazz. But he said that did not fully take place until around the 1960s and ‘70s.
“Jazz is now of the community, and we benefit from that interaction. Music has never been about color,” Fuller said. “It’s a language we all speak. It may sound like a platitude, but it’s true. “