“Great venue—one of the best I’ve played” commented world renowned trumpeter Wallace Roney during a recent concert at Westville’s Lyric Hall. That was saying a lot for someone who has played major jazz festivals and venues around the world and has earned a place in the Pantheon of great Jazz trumpeters - past or present. Roney’s date at Lyric Hall also represents a milestone in the busy life of one of New Haven’s most intimate venues for arts and entertainment bookings.
The concert was presented through the initiative of William and Lisa Fluker of North Haven. William Fluker, himself a trumpet player and New Haven Public Schools band teacher, studied with Roney, and wife Lisa, who is an accomplished singer, performer and business woman, count the jazz master as a close friend of the family. The couple is on a musical mission to bring quality jazz performances to the general public—folks who don’t generally get to see live jazz and especially young people.
“William has a desire to share this incredible level of artistry with the youth of the city by engaging them in these performances” said Lisa.
The Roney concert was the first of many events planned for the coming months and throughout the summer according to Lisa. Lyric Hall impresario and owner John Cavaliere, was excited by the jazz performance and overall presentation: “I think we really tapped into something here - I hope we can do this at least once a month - it’s all about William and Lisa and their team who made it all happen.”
The intimate concert hall, which was filled to capacity and simulcast on a live video feed in an ante room, had been set up like an elegant dinner club with round, cloth-covered tables, and white rose centerpieces—the handiwork of Laudecia Vincent of Simply Chic, LLC in Hamden. Amid the soft glow of candles and dimmed chandelier, an elbow-to-elbow audience eagerly awaited the concerts start. In the reception area, William talked about the concert venue and about the music: “There are lots of places that feature smooth jazz - this is different” he said, gesturing around the historic space at Lyric Hall. “This antiquity reflects the spirit of the classic jazz music we want to bring. It’s America’s own original art form.”
Wallace Roney, who was a protégé of the late jazz giant and innovator, Miles Davis, is a musician’s musician. In an interview with the late pianist, educator and composer, Billy Taylor, on a vintage segment of the CBS News “Sunday Morning” program (click to watch), Taylor defends Roney against criticism by some, that he is too much the clone of his famed mentor, Miles Davis. That sentiment stood in stark contrast to glowing comments by other jazz notables who were interviewed and admired Roney’s exceptional musical acumen and work ethic. Saxophonist Wayne Shorter is heard to describe Roney as a “musical astronaut,” while celebrated keyboardist and composer, Herbie Hancock, had this to say: “the combinations of his sound and the types of creative things he reaches for is what separates Roney from the rest of the pack.”
For his part, Roney makes no apologies, and is indeed, proud of the strong musical thread bequeathed to him by his mentor and friend, though it is clear that he has honed his own unique musical oeuvre from the sum of his enviable musical influences. It is no small matter that at a critical juncture in Roney’s musical development, Miles Davis gave Roney his own trumpet—a gesture that was both pragmatic and symbolic considering the growing role Roney was to assume.
Perhaps an equally important narrative governing the life of this special musician today, is his role and commitment as a musical mentor - one who believes strongly in the tradition of apprenticeship - and who was himself, the beneficiary of direct alliances with several jazz leaders including Clark Terry, the late Dizzie Gillespie and others. “Art Blakey (Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers) Miles, Herbie and Wayne were my mentors—you keep the music, you rejuvenate them, and they rejuvenate you,” said Roney as he reflected after the show.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that Roney’s band is comprised of young artists ranging in age from 20 to 26 years. Band Bass player Rashaan Carter, seemed to sum up the consensus of respect and appreciation the musicians hold for Roney: “To be around a musician that consistently plays at such a high level is a rare opportunity.” Carter emphasized that there are very few musicians of Roney’s caliber and fame that do what Roney does in bringing along young talent. The affinity and respect that Roney holds for his young players was also palpable: “You see these musicians? They are some of the greatest musicians in the world; keep your eye on them - you’re going to be hearing about them,” he confidently told the audience.
Cecelia Calloway, daughter of the late jazz icon Cab Calloway (a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner, jazz singer, bandleader, Cotton Club regular, and actor) attended the Roney concert and said she appreciated his youth-oriented approach in working with up-and-coming artists: “It was very inspiring because it’s about the youth—it’s about caring” she noted. Calloway, who lives in the Greater New Haven area, is deeply involved in the lives of young people through her work with The Cab Calloway Foundation, Inc.
The goal of building an audience and ensuring the legacy of jazz music going forward, is one that William Fluker shares with his mentor, Wallace Roney. His invitation of Chris Dorsey, a student and lead trumpet player at North Haven High School whom William taught at the Neighborhood Music School, seemed to underscore the concert’s mission. Asked for reaction to the concert, young Dorsey said, “Hearing Roney play was, the biggest learning experience of my life.” Music to the Fluker’s ears indeed.