SEMJA’s Ron Brooks Award to Vincent York

Almost a year ago SEMJA started talking about how to present the 2020 annual Ron Brooks Award, in this time of Covid and live streams, to our chosen nominee Vincent York. Linda Yohn suggested using Kerrytown Concert House on International Jazz Day (April 30) for the award presentation by SEMJA president Lars Bjorn along with a concert by York’s current group. The presentation of the plaque was video-recorded a couple weeks earlier, and the concert was a gala affair with two local young lions and former ninth-grade Community High School students of York’s: Zach Saginaw (drums) and Josef Deas (bass). They were joined by John Douglas on trumpet and man-of-the-year York, decked out in a handsome suit and pork pie hat on sax, flute and piccolo. One very sad note was the absence of Gary Schunk on piano, who died suddenly four weeks earlier at age 67. His voice was greatly missed, but this group’s joy in the music went a long way to heal this hurt.

York noted that his shows always showcased original compositions of his bandmates, but for this special occasion he chose to present his take on some great jazz standards. This would align him with the great improvisers who have been honored others before him with SEMJA’s Ron Brooks Award, such as Bess Bonnier and Louis Smith. In a tribute to his father, who used to play recordings by the great saxophonist John Coltrane on Sundays, York began the show with one of Trane’s favorites, “Like Someone in Love.” This was followed by the up-tempo “Wabash” by Cannonball Adderley. The Kerrytown Concert House crew created a great production with several good camera angles and excellent sound separation and fidelity. The paintings on the gallery walls serve as windows into far-off places triggered by the inspired jazz we were privileged to hear. After the first two pieces the show took on a warm feeling of a celebration of the jazz standard tradition and unique arrangements by York.

Before launching into Joe Henderson’s “Recorda-Me,” York wryly remarked, “I used to have it all inside of me. At this age, I need to be pushed, but not too hard. Come on, come on, let’s go!” For me, this challenge reflected York’s great humane and artistic qualities, his openness to the spirit of the music and the energy of his younger bandmates. While Schunk’s piano was sorely missed, the solos among these four excellent musicians really made this tune shine. York and Douglas on trumpet really played well against Saginaw and Deas’s rhythms. The show continued with York’s jocular introductions and a variety of tunes like Victor Young’s “Stella by Starlight,” with a haunting bowed bass and a mellow sax solo with soft brushes along with a very spatial and soft trumpet bringing it all together. Then on “This I Dig of You,” a Hank Mobley composition, York tried using flute for the first time, and the result was joyous and funky, with York moving to the groovy beat. He exclaimed, “It will be fresh for me,” and it certainly felt that way.

York said that early on Charlie Parker gave him life, and he feels even more passionate about him now. Then he hit another very cool groove with “Perdido” by Juan Tizol, with Saginaw doing exciting work on toms and snare. Deas also stood out making sounds like a guica, a Brazilian rhythm instrument, creating a high squeeky sound by bowing below the bridge of his bass. “I wish I could dance,” York shouted, while moving his shoulders up and down, and nearly floating in a circle to the funky arrangement. This indicated the fun York was having at this show honoring his career as a first-class jazz performer, leader and educator. The last tune was “All the Things You Are,” showcasing the talented young musicians in this group. York smiled as he explained “I’m inspired to change ‘em up (the tunes); I hope you can hear it.” It was a joy to take in so many new ideas as York risked playing a set of standards in new ways at a very special performance in his honor. What a gift! 

Two weeks before this concert, the president of SEMJA, Lars Bjorn, gave an overview of York’s performance career and his educational work with Jazzistry before presenting him with the 2020 Ron Brooks Award. SEMJA could not have made a better choice than York, a man who has made jazz a force for good in this community and the world for people of all ages, backgrounds and levels of jazz knowledge. With his legacy, this highest form of American music will live on well into the future.

We want to thank Kerrytown Concert House for streaming this concert and presentation.