When residents and politicians sing the praises of life in Ann Arbor they usually leave out one important factor: the marvelous jazz educators in our public schools. I think of Mike Grace at Community High, Louis Smith at Pioneer, the late Morris Lawrence at Washtenaw Community College, and others who have taught improvisation and jazz history to generations of students here. Multi-instrumentalist Vincent York came to education after decades of working as a performing musician, but he now belongs among the best jazz teachers in the city. After spending four years instructing students at Community High and then working at Washtenaw, he developed Jazzistry, a workshop program that mixes history, musicology, and performance, reaching out to many schools and communities in the area. As a result, many of us know York as a charismatic and hardworking teacher of jazz history, but those who have listened to him longer still think of him mainly as a forceful and original alto saxophonist.
Vincent York grew up in Florida, where he first studied clarinet and oboe before he managed to follow in his father’s footsteps and acquire a saxophone. He spent hours listening to and memorizing solos by alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, and this early infatuation has stayed with him to this day. Although he performs on all the saxophones, as wells as oboe, clarinets, and flutes, his true voice has always been on the alto. York studied music in college and eventually came to U-M, where he obtained a master’s in classical saxophone performance. The technical proficiency that he perfected there served him well on his first major job: touring with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of the master’s son Mercer. His next permanent gig was a two-year stretch with Dick Stabile’s band at a hotel in New Orleans. He eventually moved back to Ann Arbor, where he taught privately and pursued the life of a performing musician.
York’s versatility and schooling allowed him to survive in a difficult profession. He worked in the studios and in orchestras that accompanied popular singers. He backed visitors such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Rosemary Clooney but also worked with Motown groups, eventually becoming the music director for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. And throughout this time he also led various jazz groups, often referred to as his New York Force. Perhaps the best document of his powerful modern jazz conception is his album Blending Forces, recorded with some of Detroit’s finest musicians. The record demonstrated the power of his alto saxophone playing, characterized by a marvelously rich sound that references Charlie Parker without attempting imitation. The record also revealed York’s talent as a composer. For many of us, the greatest moments on the record come during the highly emotional, gospel inspired, bluesy “Hymn 427.” Ask him to play it when he performs at the Gandy Dancer Courtyard Series on August 1.