A profound sense of abiding friendship and a passionate desire to express support and love for the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown is the moving force behind an all-star jazz benefit concert that will be held April 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Newark Academy, a prestigious preparatory school in Livingston, NJ.
New Jersey might seem a bit remote geographically from Newtown, although in our tightly-knit, tightly-wired electronic global village we are all, to a degree, Newtownians.
But even geographically, the benefit concert, which features such jazz heavyweights as saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, trumpeter Marcus Printup and trombonist Steve Turre, has deep Connecticut roots. And it is, in part, a celebration of loving ties and family-like loyalties formed in the 1990s in Hartford, bonds that never die, particularly in times of overwhelming tragedy.
Newark Academy's Jazz Director Julius Tolentino, and Escoffery, one of the headliners for "Evening of Jazz for Newtown," are longtime friends and even onetime roommates at The Hartt School with the celebrated tenor saxophonist Jimmy Greene, the father of one of the 26 shooting victims, first-grader Ana Grace Márquez-Greene. A bright-eyed, angelic, 6-year-old, Ana Grace loved to sing and dance and exuded spontaneity, irrepressible vitality and exuberant joy in life, Tolentino recalls.
Jazz was the catalyst for these lifetime friendships that were formed nearly two decades ago when Tolentino (Class of '98), Escoffery (Class of '97) and Greene (Class of '97), were young, gifted, jazz saxophone students at The Hartt School at the University of Hartford. In a shared life-shaping experience, the three friends were mentored and inspired by the great alto saxophonist, innovative educator and jazz guru, Jackie McLean. A longtime Hartford resident, McLean, who died in 2006, was the founder of the renowned Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz at The Hartt School.
Tolentino, who is himself now a noted educator and much respected alto saxophonist, and Escoffery, a top-ranked tenor saxophonist who grew up in New Haven, have been best friends with Greene and his wife, Nelba Márquez-Greene, since they were all undergraduates together at Hartt School. Nelba, who's now a licensed therapist, studied flute at Hartt, while the three saxophonist friends were growing and flourishing as McLean's proteges.
Not only did they all go to school together in those exciting formative years of youth, but they also forged permanent connections with each other, continuing to share their life's unfolding milestones in their adult years. They attended and participated in one another's weddings, bonded together ever more tightly, as only new parents can, as they shared the experience of having children and raising families, all the while carving out successful careers for themselves in their own fields.
"It all still seems surreal," Tolentino says reflecting on the unimaginably horrific Dec. 14 mass shooting that took the lives of 20 school children and six female educators.
"Having kids the same age, we feel for Jimmy, Nelba and the whole family. We think about Jimmy, Nelba, their 9-year-old son Isaiah every day, and Ana, who was musically gifted and had such a spirit and so much energy," says Tolentino who is dedicating the concert to Ana's memory.
Escoffery's friendship with Greene goes back even further than their Hartt School days, beginning with a jam session they played at together as they turned 16 in a jazz venue in New Haven. They first met that night around midnight, or, as Escoffery explains, the dividing time-line between their birthdates.
"Jimmy was born Feb. 24, and I was born Feb. 23 the same year," Escoffery recalls, "but he had started playing before I did. Although technically, Jimmy is one day younger than me, I've always looked at him as kind of an older brother in many ways, and as someone to look up to."
While at Hartt, Escoffery and Greene famously teamed-up in a hard-swinging combo called Twin Towers, which featured the two very tall, extremely talented tenors in still-talked about state-wide appearances in which tenor madness reigned.
The easy-going Greene, who is at least six-foot-six, is nicknamed "The Gentle Giant." He's universally regarded by his peers as one of the most decent, compassionate, fair and friendly musicians on the scene, which, Tolentino says, explains why he has so many deeply devoted friends.
"On first meeting Jimmy, something just draws you in. He just has that kind of personality," Tolentino says of his close friend.
"He's pretty much the nicest person I ever met," is the succinct way Escoffery sums up his longtime friend, Jimmy Greene.
"Jimmy is also very strong as we are all seeing, and has always held strong convictions." he adds.
"There's no way anybody could deal with this tragedy," Escoffery says, "but I talk to Jimmy pretty regularly, and one thing he keeps saying is that, 'It's day by day, just day by day.' Again, I think he and Nelba and the whole family are very strong," Escoffery adds.
"They're lucky in that they have such strong faith. I think their faith in God is really what's getting them through this."
Both Tolentino and Escoffery agree that music, surpassing the expressive limits of mere words, has spirituality and healing power. Those transcendental energies, they say, will prevail at the benefit concert as the three headliners perform with the school's nationally acclaimed youth ensembles under Tolentino's direction.
"Music," Escoffery explains, "has always been a part of worship, a part of celebration and a part of mourning. Music has always been a part of all things from Day One. Hopefully, we can bring some healing, but also maybe we can bring some remembrance so that people can really think about what's happened and about what we need to do now."
"It's a shame that everything has to be two-sided and everything has to be politicized today, even this. We all want the same thing. We all don't want our kids being shot up, and we all only want to be safe."
EVENING OF JAZZ FOR NEWTOWN, a benefit with all proceeds going directly to the families of Sandy Hook and to the Ana Grace Fund, will be held April 12 at 7:30 p.m. at the Newark Academy's Rose Auditorium, 91 South Orange St., Livingston, New Jersey. Tickets: $10. For information and tickets contact Julius Tolentino at firstname.lastname@example.org.Copyright © 2015, CT Now