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Led by Mark Filsinger, Buffalo Jazz Collective enters fourth year with all-star talent

Nick Lippa

Entering their fourth year, the Buffalo Jazz Collective kicks off their upcoming season with concerts this Friday and Saturday night. The non-profit group has grown partly in thanks to a community of jazz players, both experienced and young, working together to not only put on performances, but work with local students. As WBFO’s Nick Lippa reports, Collective Artistic Director Mark Filsinger has been instrumental in organizing, preserving, and advancing jazz in Buffalo.

The Buffalo Jazz Collective is organizing all-star talent on the same stage multiple times a year. It includes legends like pianist George Caldwell (Count Basie Orchestra) and saxophonist Bobby Militello, who played with Dave Brubeck and Maynard Ferguson.

These musicians play internationally year round, but home in Buffalo they come together to rehearse and perform under the guidance of educator/trumpet player/arranger Mark Filsinger.

“There’s a rich history to draw upon I think,” Filsinger said. “So I decided to put this together to sort of celebrate that and preserve that. Keep it going. Advance that mission.”

The Jazz Collective has had shows at several venues including the Buffalo History Museum, Temple Beth Zion, the Kenan Center in Lockport to name a few. Entering their fourth year, their upcoming programs will continue to honor Buffalo’s jazz legacy—both past and present.

Brad Leali with the Buffalo Jazz Collective Tentet

  • October 18th, 2019 at Ciminelli Recital Hall at SUNY Buffalo State
  • October 19th, 2019 at the West Falls Center for Arts

Music in Film with the Buffalo Jazz Collective Septet

  • November 15th, 2019 at Ciminelli Recital Hall at SUNY Buffalo State
  • November 23rd, 2019 at the West Falls Center for Arts

Bobby Militello 70th Birthday Celebration

  • March 20th, 2020 at Ciminelli Recital Hall at SUNY Buffalo State
  • March 21st, 2020 at the West Falls Center for Arts

Noto at Ninety with the Buffalo Jazz Orchestra

  • April 17th, 2020 at Ciminelli Recital Hall at SUNY Buffalo State
  • April 18th, 2020 at the West Falls Center for Arts

One of the challenges to having a large jazz group in 2019 is paying your musicians fair wages, which Filsinger said is a possibility for them because of the Jazz Collective’s nonprofit status. There are big bands who play in Buffalo, but a lot of the time they play with little to no pay.
“Not only in Buffalo, but other cities, often times it’s play for the door. Sometimes it’s just a rehearsal band where you are playing at a place with no expectation of making any money. Sometimes you make fifteen bucks, twenty dollars at the door. But, to pay the musicians a respectable amount for the time and effort that they’ve put in to learning their instrument, rehearsing, going out and performing, unfortunately performances like that usually need to be subsidized.,” Filsinger said.

“It’s a two-way street. People are willing to put in as much time as it takes, but Mark is willing to get the funds happening to make these concerts happening,” said drummer John Bacon.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Drummer John Bacon

Bacon said the Jazz Collective then can play a part in helping keep skilled musicians in town.

“And that creates both musicians who are skilled and prepared to make this their home and be available for gigs and creative projects. And listeners. People who are younger people who have some money and are looking for things to do and they are willing to go out and check out jazz. It’s a good vibe right now and the Buffalo Jazz Collective is a very important part of that,” Bacon said. “Some of the most skilled musicians in the area are participating. It just elevates the experience and it makes it so everyone is serious about it. I’ve been involved in the scene for many years now. This is a time period where I see a lot more people being serious about their commitment to the music. It’s often difficult because the financial reward isn’t always there.”

There’s also several aspects professional musicians in this field may not be compensated for, such as a composer/arranger fee.

“There’s lots of costs involved that we just sort of do for free because we love the music,” Filsinger said. “We love to play. That’s our profession and also our passion, which sometimes maybe comes back to hurt us cause we are willing to do things just so that we can play and share our music.”

But the Collective is doing more than just paying musicians for gigs. In their first year they put an all-city youth jazz band together. That’s now a year round ensemble. Since then, they’ve added a South Towns Youth Jazz Orchestra and this year will be adding a North Towns Youth Jazz Orchestra led by Elliot Scozzaro, a young saxophonist who just arrived back in Western New York after graduating from North Texas.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Saxophonist Elliot Scozzaro

Scozzaro talks about how Filsinger is hands on with students.

“He sat down right in the section, right next to two of the trumpet players, and they sounded good but they were a little bit timid at first to play. And he got right in there and he really helped boost their confidence and it was amazing just within a second how much he really inspired them and really pushed them to do more than they thought they could,” Scozzaro said.

Pianist George Caldwell has been impressed with Filsinger’s commitment you Buffalo students year round.

“Mark started that summer jazz thing for the kids. And this is the first time I was involved in it this summer. I wanted to hug him. It’s great, it’s really great.” Caldwell said.   

“He works so hard to bring educational opportunities and performance opportunities to kids,” Scozzaro said. Caldwell immediately built off that idea, “That’s the future of the music. He’s driven to do that. And I’m grateful to him for it.”

For Filsinger, it’s essential to make the connection to Buffalo’s legacy and jazz history itself.

“Some of the younger guys on the scene, which maybe I’ll include myself in that category, we just had this concert last weekend that had Brendon Lanahan, who is a graduate of Williamsville East High School and he’s at Juliard getting his Masters right now in Trombone. He just came back for a concert. Elliot Scozzaro is definitively one of the younger guys. I think he’s about 27 years old. So he’s getting to play next to Bobby Militello. And that in itself is kind of a connecting thing,” Filsinger said. “For some of us that missed the 1950’s and the 1960’s where guys were playing all over the town in every city and touring and making a living just playing jazz. Touring in groups like Maynard Ferguson’s band, Buddy Rich’s band, I think Dave Schiavone was in Woody Herman’s band. It’s sort of a direct connection for some of us younger guys to that music and to that style of music.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Pianist George Caldwell

For somebody like Bacon who has been playing professionally for over 30 years, it’s beneficial for him as well.

“Working first hand with young musicians I think is really enriching for me,” Bacon said. “It constantly makes me reevaluate the things that I know and the things that I’m doing. And it also brings me very close to what is happening on a modern level with younger people. And some of those people, quite a few of them actually, have ended up to be people that I’ve then gone on and collaborated with creatively.”

Filsinger believes having young professionals in the group can bring authenticity to their learning and eventually help them pass on knowledge to future generations.

“Sam Noto is 90 years old. Harold Mabern just passed away a couple of weeks ago. The guys that were around hanging with Charlie Parker, playing with Charlie Parker, sort of around during that time, that era, they’re in their late eighties. Ninety years old. If they are lucky enough to still be alive. Consequentially there’s very few of them left. Anytime you can have that sort of connection to them, I think that’s the best way that we can sort of know what we are doing… it’s sort of like a check on yourself to know what you are doing is connected and in the tradition of the music,” Filsinger said.

The Collective also prides itself on advancing jazz. Trombonist John Hasselback Jr. said Filsinger does that through his ability to arrange for specific players and varying instrumentation.

“As a band leader he’s really great at putting together the right people to make great music. As an arranger, I think the thing that’s most unique about his band is it has the energy and excitement of a big band but it also has the improvisation and the interplay of a small group,” he said. “It’s kind of hybrid between the two and that’s unique for here. It’s kind of the best of both worlds.”

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
Filsinger (left), Scozzaro (Middle), John Hasselback Jr. (Right)

Flisinger doesn’t consider himself an arranger or composer. He started arranging more frequently when he started the Mark Filsinger Eleventet around six years ago.

“I was scared to death when we had the first rehearsal because I put the band together and had guys like Bobby Militello, my former teacher Dave Schiavone, John Hasselback Jr., you know all these guys were in the band playing and I had no idea what the charts were going to sound like or if anybody was going to like them. I was really self-conscious about it,” Filsinger said. “But we had that first rehearsal and sort of the thing for me was when Bobby liked the charts. He came up to me afterwards and was talking about what we could do next and what we should do with the band. That was like a really important moment for me, even though that was about six years ago and I still don’t consider myself an arranger.”

He’s enough of an arranger to help Caldwell out from time to time.

Filsinger has helped Caldwell work on music arrangements in the past. First for Buffalo Opera Unlimited doing a tribute to Duke Ellington, who needed the music on a short deadline.

“And I called Mark and I was like, ‘Mark can you help me out.’ And he was like, ‘Yeah I can do that.’ And he wrote some great charts and we played it and it was good. A few years later, they called me to do Sophisticated Ladies, but they didn’t want to do the full orchestration for it. I think it was just four horns. I was like, ‘Hey Mark, you think can reduce this score to four horns?’ He was like, ‘Yeah I can do it.’ And he did it and did a great job. He’s a very thorough musician,” Caldwell said.

Filsinger attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester for all of his collegiate studies. He graduated in 2002 with a classical trumpet and musical education degree for undergrad. He went back for a masters in jazz studies which he finished in 2006 and later completed his PHD in Music Education in 2012. It was after his graduate degree he started to arrange/compose more often.

“With everything else going on, playing and teaching at Buffalo State and some of the educational things we have going on at the Jazz Collective I try to sneak in some writing whenever possible,” Filsinger said.

The Collective wants to keep the roots of jazz alive for the next generation. They’ve assembled a team in place to help make that a reality.

NEXT PERFORMANCE: October 18 at Louis Ciminelli Recital Hall at Buffalo State: Brad Leali plays with Buffalo Jazz Collective Tentet

Grammy-award winning saxophonist Brad Leali is a familiar face for a few of the Collective’s active members.

“For our first concert for the Buffalo Jazz Collective of the season, we’re bringing in someone who is important to both me and George Caldwell in many ways. My professor from the University of North Texas,” Scozzaro said. “Brad spent a number of years in Harry Connick’s band and on the Count Basie Orchestra with George.”

Caldwell met Leali and a trumpet player named Derrick Gardner after he started playing with the Basie Orchestra regularly in the late 1980’s.

“We all hung at all the jam sessions,” Caldwell said. “First thing we would do whenever we were on the road, whatever town we were in, find out if there was a jam session somewhere. And we would hit it. We were like the stalwarts.”

Caldwell said it was during these years a lot of people started writing new stuff for the band.

“What started it was meeting James Moody in Nice, France one of those years. We played in Nice just about every year I was in the band. James Moody was talking with me and Derrick after we played and he said, ‘Did you ever hear this lick?’ And he sang this lick. And we were just like looking at each other like, ‘James Moody just sang this lick in like four keys.’ And it was in our brain from then on. So we were finding different things to do with that. And Derrick would be like, ‘Have you heard this? Have you heard it this way?’ He would go, ‘Be-bo-do-de-deedle-do-dee-deedle-do-dee-do,’” Caldwell sung. “So Brad got in on that thing because he and Derrick were real close. It was real cool man.”

Caldwell ended up leaving the band after a few years and didn’t see Leali again until Scozzaro brought him to Buffalo for a gig at Pausa Art House in 2017.

“And we hung out after then, that night. But he was leaving the next day. So this is really good. It’s like back together. It’s cool,” Caldwell said.

Scozzaro met Leali in 2014 when auditioning for the University of Texas. He said they hit it off right away. It was when he started lessons, he realized the energy Leali brought.

“In our first lesson, when I got to grad school, he spent the entire hour long lesson just playing long tones and overtones. And afterward I felt like I ran a marathon. And he was like, ‘Alight let’s do this again next week.’ He was totally fine. He didn’t skip a beat,” Scozzaro said.

Scozzaro and Caldwell both praised Leali’s desire and discipline to continue to improve.

“So many guys stop practicing regularly after they get to a certain point and he’s not one of those people,” said Scozzaro. “So we were playing bop tunes in all 12 keys. I remember after winter break, I think after my first semester, we get in and he’s like you know ‘Hot House’ which is this bebop tune over the chord changes to ‘What is This Thing Called Love?’ He’s like, ‘Let’s do it in five and we’ll do it in B.’ And I was like, ‘What?!’ So we got through it and it was an interesting experience. But it was great because he kept pushing me no matter what.”

“The discipline that you have to have if you are going to be a truly good musician… his practice (habits) was always real strong,” Caldwell said.

These musicians will be reunited again this Friday. Show starts at 7 PM at Louis Ciminelli Recital Hall at Buffalo State. The group plays again October 19 at the West Fall Center for Arts.

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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