FONDA – Fonda-Fultonville Middle School Band Director Gregory Kowalczyk is in need of trombonists.
The Gloversville resident is directing the Summer Jazz Band for the 19th annual Friends of the Visual & Performing Arts’ summer festival, which will take place Aug. 3 from noon to 5 p.m. at the Fonda Fairgrounds. This is Kowalczyk’s fourth time directing the jazz band for FOVAPA, so he’s used to the unusual instrumentation that often arises due to the ensemble’s all-volunteer nature.
“We have a full line of saxophones, so we’re not hurting for saxophones,” Kowalczyk said with a laugh before the group’s second-ever practice, in the FFCS music room Thursday night. “And we’ve got a good line of trumpets. What we’re lacking right now is trombones, but we’re hoping to recruit some people in there, so it would be one or two.”
As it turned out, one of the band’s saxophonists brought in a trombonist Thursday. The band also lacks a pianist to complete the rhythm section, which at the moment consists of bass, drums and guitar.
“So that is one of the things that is hard to get together,” Kowalczyk said. “They end up sounding pretty good with the instrumentation; it’s workable around it. I have pieces that can go for smaller groups, or for larger groups. There’s stuff out there that really lends itself to this kind of summer jazz program.”
The jazz band has been a part of the FOVAPA summer arts program since about 2000, according to Samantha Richardson, the festival’s chairwoman. Originally an offshoot of the program’s concert band, the jazz ensemble has grown to become the program’s main band.
This year, the jazz ensemble is the only musical program being offered in FOVAPA’s summer lineup, which also includes two art classes, “Comic Creations” and “Painting Nature,” both taught by Fulton-Montgomery Community College Adjunct Professor Bethany Gessinger. The program has had a choir in past years as well as the concert band.
“It ebbs and flows, just like anything else,” Kowalczyk said. “This summer, a lot of people are busy, but those who are able to do it, it’s great.”
Richardson has been involved with FOVAPA since its first year in 1995, when she performed with the concert band as a student. Her parents were among the group that started FOVAPA.
“My parents and the other parents – we actually have some of the founding members that still participate, even though their kids are long grown and moved away,” Richardson said. “So [the parents] just wanted to give their kids an opportunity to do something like that.”
This year the jazz ensemble will have about 18 to 20 members, ranging in age from kids in sixth grade to people in their 50s and 60s.
“And that’s what we like to have it as,” Kowalczyk said. “When I did concert band once, we had families; we had five from one family, and three from another from Johnstown. It was pretty cool having the parents come, and they knew how to play instruments.”
Although pre-registration, costing $20, was encouraged, Richardson said some members walked in at the first practice, and a few volunteers once again came on board at the second practice. But with a 45-minute set the band has to learn in just six practices, membership usually firms up by the third practice, Richardson said.
The jazz ensemble will close out this year’s festival, performing at 4:15 p.m. Aug. 3. Kowalczyk said the group will play about 10 to 12 songs. The band has been working on such cuts as saxophonist Don Menza’s composition “Groovin’ Hard,” popularized by the Buddy Rich Big Band; and the folk song “Little Brown Jug,” which became a standard in the big-band era.
“So obviously, I choose pieces that will be easily put together, but still have some really cool sounds to them,” Kowalczyk said. “I ask them a lot during the rehearsal, ‘Do you like this piece?’ So they’re a part of it; it’s not just me cramming it down their throats.”
Many of the members this year are students who have played in ensembles with Kowalczyk before. Russel Bellinger, 24, who recently graduated from the College of St. Rose in Albany with a bachelor degree in music education, first played in the ensemble in the mid-2000s on an invitation from Kowalczyk. He was going into seventh grade at the time. Although primarily a trumpet player, Bellinger filled in on trombone Thursday.
“I just keep coming back because it’s good to keep playing,” Bellinger said. “I just got done with my bachelor’s in music ed, so I keep coming back just so I can keep playing with the younger crowd, keep them interested.”
Flutist Kelsi Hidde, 18, of Amsterdam, is another longtime member, having played with the ensemble for the past eight years. Through the group, she became interested in oboe as well, and currently plays with the orchestra and pep band at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, Onondaga County.
“Every year it’s a different group,” Hidde said. “It’s amazing how much it evolves. I mean, we’ve changed up the age groups. Every time we have a different conductor, it brings a different part, a different music element to the group, and it’s fantastic.”