A life in jazz
From the September, 2018 issue
When he was fourteen, an unhappy kid suffering under bad teachers and getting into fights, a family friend gave Vincent York a two-record set by the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. "All that nonsense I was going through school--it came to a halt," he remembers. "Because every day, I was trying to learn: what was Charlie Parker doing?"
Growing up in Vero Beach, Florida, York already knew about the struggles--and occasional brushes with glory--of a working musician. His father led a popular band and told his kids that Ray Charles had played for him as a young man. But he had to work a day job at a plant nursery, and "we didn't believe him," York recalls. (Years later, they found it was true--Charles mentioned it in his autobiography.) Their mother worked as a beautician to help support the four children.
The family was better off than many in their neighborhood, but in his segregated middle school, he fought with bigger boys--"I wasn't a person who would accept bullies," he says--and was beaten with a fraternity paddle. In seventh grade, his civics teacher made a sexual advance. Though he never touched him, York could no longer concentrate in the class, and his grades dropped further.
"I tell everybody that Charlie Parker saved my life," he says. Instead of worrying about school, he'd stay up till midnight, listening to the records and trying to play like the master improviser.
He counts it as the first of three "rescues" that turned his life around. The second was desegregation: in tenth grade, he moved to newly integrated Vero Beach High School.
"It was there that things started changing," he says. "I was around my new buddies--really nice guys. Today they would have been considered geeks." He learned how poorly prepared he was when he failed his first test, but success in music helped as he caught up. A new band director heard him play and put together the school's first
jazz band. He sent them out to festivals, where they--and York--began to win awards.
That led to a scholarship to the prestigious, traditionally black Southern University in Baton Rouge, and his third "rescue:" meeting his wife, Kathleen. They moved to Ann Arbor together in 1974, where Kathleen got a job teaching in the public schools and he started grad school in the U-M's brand-new jazz program.
While still in school, he got a call from Mercer Ellington--Duke Ellington's son and successor. York spent his last semester at Michigan practicing for his master's recital during the week, then flying out on weekends to play with Ellington's band and stars like Ella Fitzgerald. ("She bought us all [LaCoste] crocodile shirts," he remembers.) But Kathleen's job and a growing family--daughter Natasha and son Cedric--anchored them in the Midwest.
York fell in with the immensely talented Detroit jazz set, playing many shows and festivals there. He taught, both individually and for universities, was artist-in-residence at Community High, and performed shows in Detroit schools--a sidelight that became a new focus in the early 1990s, when he realized that his young listeners weren't listening.
With the arrival of the rap era, young Detroiters "didn't want to hear these old musicians play these old songs," he recalls. "But they needed to know! Detroit was one of the cities where a lot of the great jazz came from." Remembering his own troubled school years, he wanted to use music to reach them.
Working with fellow musicians, he developed a program that combined live performances with a retelling of American history through the voice of jazz. He called it Jazzistry.
"To me, Jazzistry is the soundtrack to America," says Lori Saginaw, who helped York set it up as a nonprofit. "It takes audiences to the deep roots of it, in the polyrhythmic elements of African drumming, through slavery and field calls to spirituals ... the evolution into gospel, and how that as a continuum led to blues ... and how blues led into boogie woogie."
Over the years, Jazzistry has visited more than 300 schools. Afterward, students are encouraged to follow up in some way, often with a performance that may include singing spirituals or dancing the jitterbug.
Grownups can get a taste of Jazzistry at the group's rollicking annual "Rent Party" fundraiser. A high point is when York--in tails and a stylish hat--leads the musicians and audience in a parade around the auditorium playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." Kathleen is usually in attendance along with Cedric (who teaches at Mack School) and Natasha (who's principal at Thurston). This year, Natasha's two-year-old son, Cameron, attended wearing a tiny tuxedo.
York comes across as relaxed and friendly, the kind of neighbor who would be delighted to buy your kid's Girl Scout cookies. But underneath, says Saginaw, "he is one of the most focused and disciplined people I have ever met."
The discipline helped him through medical crises in 2009, when he was rushed into emergency surgery for a brain tumor. "I was in ICU for over three weeks," he recalls. "And when they asked me if I could get out of the bed, I didn't know how to." He managed to perform at the Rent Party two months later, but full recovery took four years. Then, a year ago, he suffered a stroke--paralyzing his left side. He recovered again, but still is careful in his movements.
It was a wake-up call. "Kathleen came to me and said, 'Vincent, look,'" he remembers. "'Our mothers died in their eighties. We would be blessed and lucky to make it to that. We've got about fifteen years.'"
He realized that he wanted to spend whatever time he had left "doing what I feel like I'm in the world for"--performing. He'd spent so much time on Jazzistry's educational shows and working on administrative tasks that he'd lost his edge as a performer, and he wanted it back.
He asked his board members for help. They agreed to reorganize Jazzistry, taking over many of the management tasks that had absorbed his time.
York still leads Jazzistry, and looks forward to a show at the Ark in December. But he's using his new free time to prepare for a return to serious performance. He's spending four or five hours a day rehearsing on the saxophone--Charlie Parker's instrument, and the one he still loves best.
"That's always been my ambition," he says. "To be a jazz master."
[Originally published in September, 2018.]
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