Tag Archives: Chris Coogan

Chris Coogan’s “B Minor Blessing”

Chris Coogan is getting married.

Fairfield County’s favorite jazz and gospel composer/pianist/singer/ teacher/choir director/producer ties the knot in June with Marion Howard. She’s got her own artistic background.

Marion Howard and Chris Coogan.

But that’s not what this story is about.

As Chris was thinking about his impending step-fatherhood, Marion was reading to him from a recently discovered memoir. “U Bernátū” describes the lives of her Jewish ancestors from Osek, a tiny village in Bohemia (today it’s the Czech Republic).

Marion had discovered a link to that heritage through an English-language Radio Prague story. Her uncommon family name Wedeles was noted in the story as “Wels.” She realized the piece was about her own ancestors.

In a beautiful passage mixing heartbreak and joy, the narrator describes how his mother prepared luggage for her 2 children, before they emigrated to America in the late 1850s. She knew she would likely never see them again. Her 14-year-old son was leaving to be spared from enforced conscription, as happened to many Jewish peasants.

The mother stuffs baked goods into the luggage, then fills even tinier spaces with dried fruit. Her children’s journey will be long; she does what she can to help them make it, with food and love.

The Wedeles family: Marion Howard’s ancestors.

At the same time, Chris was writing a new composition. He chose B minor, because of the key’s mystical and meditative qualities. It ends in D major, signalizing the realization of hope for the next generation. Marion’s relatives’ losses — not everyone made it out of Bohemia alive — and triumphs live forever now, in Chris’ “B Minor Blessing.”

One stunning moment — the children are loaded onto an oxcart to carry them to the train bound for Bremen; the mother runs after them shouting prayers and blessings, following behind until it disappears from view — is reflected in the music.

Marion and Chris learned from the “U Bernátū” memoir that the ship was lost at sea for months. The passengers’ food was cut to 1/4 rations. Many became weak, and illness spread. But because of the mother’s loving foresight, the dried food kept her children fed and well.

The “B Minor Blessing” starts with one female solo voice — the mother — singing an Aaronic blessing in Hebrew. The choir then follows. The music swells to a piano solo by Chris; it represents the overseas journey.

The final verse is in English. It’s quiet and reflective — much like a prayer for the now-distant family, sung in the language of their new lives.

The Fairfield County Chorale presents the world premiere of “B Minor Blessing” this Saturday (March 9, 7:30 p.m., Norwalk Concert Hall). It’s part of the evening’s “journey through time and across the globe.” Chris will accompany the chorale on piano.

The other day, he shared his new piece’s back story with the Chorale. They connected on a personal level. Nearly everyone, Marion says, has a similar tale of brave immigrant ancestors who boarded boats, mules or planes — or arrived somewhere on foot.

Everyone does have a family story. As Chris Coogan and Marion Howard prepare to merge theirs, they’ve collaborated on a new story — told in music — for all of us to hear, think about, and appreciate.

(The Norwalk Concert Hall is at 125 East Avenue. Tickets to the March 9 Fairfield County Chorale performance are $30 in advance, $5 for students, and $35 at the venue. Click here to purchase, and for more information.)

By The Time We Get To Westonstock

“By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong …” Joni Mitchell sang.

Not quite. But a ton of people were at Yasgur’s farm, 49 years ago this month.

There won’t be quite as many at Weston’s Coley Homestead (104 Weston Road) on Saturday, September 15 (2 to 8 p.m.). They won’t get naked, sleep in the mud, and hear Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Country Joe rock America.

Hey, this is 2018, not 1969. But it will still be very, very cool.

The festival is the finale of the Weston Historical Society’s summer-long retrospective of ’60s music. Exhibits, concerts and forums have explored the impact of rock, psychedelia, folk, Motown, soul and more on our country — and our little slice of Fairfield County.

Like Woodstock though, Westonstock is about more than just music. There’s a ’60s car show, and kids’ activities too. (Those kids are of course the grandchildren of people who were stardust, golden children of God, back in the day.)

But music is key. Westonstock features Old School Revue — the popular local band fronted by 1966 Staples High School graduate Roger Kaufman. The Saugatuck Horns — a 6-piece R&B band — will be decked out in vintage ’60s attire.

Other performers include local favorites (and talented neighbors) Chance Browne, Rob Carlson, Crispin Cioe, Chris Coogan, Tim DeHuff, Charlie Karp, Jeff Southworth and David Weber.

All have long and storied musical pedigrees. They’ve played with the Rolling Stones, Buddy Miles, Jimi Hendrix (though not at Woodstock) and many more.

Roger Kaufman (center, with hat) and his Old School Revue.

The cars, meanwhile, will take you back to the days of listening to great music while cruising (or “watching the submarine races”). Many are on loan from Dragone Classic Motors.

There are also ’60s music trivia contests, and ’60s dance demonstrations.

Jr’s Hot Doggin’ Food Truck and Olive & Julep Craft Cocktails head the list of food and beverage suppliers.

Whether you recall the ’60s, can’t remember them (“if you do, you weren’t there,” Grace Slick or Timothy Leary or Robin Williams supposedly said), or were not yet born, Westonstock is for you.

All you need is a blanket, a lawn chair and some patchouli.

(Click here for tickets and more information. They’re also available the day of the event. Proceeds help renovation projects at Coley Barn and Coley Farmhouse.) 

First Night: Fun Family Tradition Endures

For the past 4 years, Jim Marpe has been a familiar presence at First Night. Westport’s 1st selectman sits happily at Saugatuck Elementary School, welcoming families to the fun, festive New Year’s Eve event.

As he begins his 2nd term, Marpe is not the only selectman volunteering at the turn-the-calendar celebration. Running mate Jen Tooker will belt out karaoke at Seabury Center on Church Lane.

Jim Marpe takes service to a new level. Every December 31, he volunteers at First Night.

Those are just 2 highlights of our 24th annual First Night. The family-friendly, alcohol-free festival has become an integral part of local life. This year it’s stronger than ever — even as other First Nights around the country have faded away.

Westport’s First Night survives because leaders like Marpe and Tooker — and plenty of area residents — value its small-town ambience, relaxed fun and wide range of activities.

Everyone loves the train guy.

No one knows what 2018 holds. But everyone can count on these December 31 activities:

  • Musical performances from Broadway, movies, jazz and the blues — including Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mark Naftalin, award-winning pianist Chris Coogan, musical theater great Michele Grace and the School of Rock
  • A hypnotist
  • Train displays
  • Saugatuck School’s Kids Park, with indoor bounce houses, dancing, sing-alongs, balloon twisters, caricatures, a Magic Genie and ventriloquist
  • Horse-drawn carriage rides
  • Theater acts
  • Puppet shows
  • Vaudeville
  • A warming fire
  • Stargazing with the Westport Astronomical Society
  • Family Zumba classes
  • Psychic readings
  • Comedy
  • Magic
  • Fireworks by the river

John Videler’s drone captured 2016’s First Night fireworks over Westport.

Sites include Saugatuck Elementary School, Toquet Hall, the Westport Historical Society, Christ & Holy Trinity Church, Seabury Center, Jesup Green and more.

All performances are within walking distance. Free shuttles run from Jesup Green to Saugatuck Elementary.

First Night kicks off at 3:30 p.m., and runs through 10. Fireworks shoot off at 8 p.m.

All you need is a button. They’re $15 each (kids under 2 are free), available online or at Trader Joe’s, Westport Library, Westport Historical Society, and Westport and Weston Town Halls. They’re also for sale on First Night itself at Town Hall and all venues.

Get yours now. They’re going fast.

Just say Jim Marpe and Jen Tooker sent you.

(For more information, click here.)

Play It Again, 323!

Last month, “06880” reported on a piano plea from 323.

Music lovers at the North Main Street restaurant hoped to raise $11,000 to buy a piano. The one used for 323’s popular Thursday night jazz series — lent by Beit  Chaverim Synagogue (through their leader, Greg “The Jazz Rabbi” Wall) — was not up to the job.

This was not just any piano, mind you. It was a fine 1937 Steinway “M” — from New York’s legendary Village Gate. For decades beginning in 1958, it was played by greats like Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, Ahmad McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner, Nina Simone and Sun Ra.

Would jazz lovers an hour from the city pony up the cash to give it a second life in Westport?

Yes! The deal has been closed. The new piano is already safely in its new home, right near the bar.

Steinway's classic piano, in its new 323 home.

Steinway’s classic piano, in its new 323 home.

The official welcome show is this Thursday (May 19, 7:30 p.m.). It’s billed as “Chris Coogan Meets the Jazz Rabbi.” All are welcome.

The fine print: The newly formed Jazz Society of Fairfield County has not yet raised the full amount. An interest-free loan from an anonymous jazz lover will tide them over for a few days. They  hope to reach their goal this week, and start a fund for periodic maintenance, regulation and tuning. Contributions can be made via PayPal (click here). For other arrangements, email JazzRabbi@gmail.com. For 323’s Jazz Series Facebook page, click here.

All That Jazz!

Greg Wall — the “jazz rabbi” — just celebrated his 1st year at 323. Most Thursdays, he and an ever-changing virtuoso cast entertains diners, drinkers and music fans at the North Main Street restaurant.

There’s only one problem: Their piano is not up to the job.

It’s a fine instrument for a casual home player. But it can’t sustain the constant playing of 323’s featured artists.

Fortunately, a fine 1937 Steinway “M” piano — from New York’s legendary Village Gate — is available. For several decades beginning in 1958, it was played by many jazz greats: Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Erroll Garner, Sun Ra and more.

A plaque on the Village Gate piano describes its vaunted history.

A plaque on the Village Gate piano describes its vaunted history.

The piano was featured on recordings by Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Nina Simone, and used for the original perfomances of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris.”

The 323 crew hopes to raise $10,000 to buy the instrument. They’re starting a non-profit — The Jazz Society of Fairfield County — to ensure the piano will support jazz performances throughout the area.

They’ve got a week to pull off the deal. So they offer these premiums:

  • Donate $3,000 or more, and the Greg Wall Quartet will perform in your home, or for a private function.
  • Donate $1,000, and you’ll be treated to a night of solo piano by one of 323’s featured artists.
  • For $500 or more, you can dedicate an upcoming 323 performance in honor of a friend or loved one, or for a special occasion.

If the Jazz Society can’t purchase the piano, all donations will be returned. If they surpass their goal, excess funds will be used for regular maintenance, tuning and regulation, and the purchase of a humidity control device.

Let the music play!

(To contribute via PayPal, click here. To make other arrangements, email JazzRabbi@gmail.com)

Among the 323 regulars are saxophonist Greg Wall and pianist Chris Coogan.

Among the 323 regulars are saxophonist Greg Wall and pianist Chris Coogan.

 

How Great They Art! Gospel Music Is Here

Westport might seem an unlikely place for a gospel choir concert, but there’s good news.

As in, the  Good News Gospel Choir.

Based in Weston — a place even less gospelly than Westport — the group has performed often here, since their founding in 1982. They’ll do so again tomorrow (Sunday, January 12, 4 p.m.) at Green’s Farms Congregational Church.

Good News will also appear (ecumenically) on Martin Luther King weekend. They’ll be at Temple Israel on Friday evening (January 17), and St. Luke’s on Sunday the 19th.

That’s good news for the choir’s many local fans, who don’t have much to shout about on most Sundays.

Chris Coogan

Chris Coogan

GNGC was founded by Chris Coogan, a Weston native and jazz pianist. He went to Amherst College to study jazz, but fell in love with gospel. The group performs his arrangements of traditional gospel standards, as well as Coogan’s original, jazz-influenced compositions.

Good News is “a family,” says longtime choir member Marcy Juran of Westport.

“Music touches us all in a way that is profound, that transcends but also connects us as a community. As a group we support each other, through our music and through life events.”

After each rehearsal, members share significant events in their lives.

Choir members bring their children to rehearsals. The youngsters often sing with the group too, sometimes moving into solo roles.

Good News Gospel Choir tenors.

Good News Gospel Choir tenors.

Notable Good News alum include Justin Paul — recently nominated for a Tony Award, at age 28 — plus his brother Tyler and mother Rhonda. Sally Eidman and Mia Gentile — both making their way on Broadway — are former choir members too.

Tomorrow’s concert is a benefit for a former member of both Good News and BASIC, a Norwalk gospel group that will also perform. The singer suffers from a catastrophic illness, and health insurance does not cover enormous hospital bills.

Out of that bad news, comes Good News indeed.

Ringing In The Season, Westport-Style

It’s Westport’s newest holiday tradition: the  Downtown Merchants Association nameless post-Christmas tree-lighting celebration.

Hordes of Westporters with young kids strolled the short distance from Town Hall to Christ & Holy Trinity Church’s handsome Branson Hall this evening.

There was plenty of free food (courtesy of Bobby Q’s, Oscar’s and Westport Pizzeria), free drinks (thanks, Blue Lemon and Purple Feet), ice sculptors, a fire pit, and great music (Chris Coogan, Staples Orphenians).

Fifteen local non-profits sold gifts, to support their very worthy causes.

And — how could I forget?! — Santa came too.

Photo ops don’t get more classic than this.

Staples Orphenians’ new choral director Luke Rosenberg leads his a cappella group through some holiday songs.

At nighttime in the church courtyard, Orphenians Will Smith (left) and Will Haskell use a modern method to read their music: cell phones.

Danny, Dave And Diana

Danny Pravder’s parents bought a baby grand piano as “a piece of furniture.”  But when the 9-year-old plunked the keys, he loved the sound.

Danny Pravder, enjoying his passion. (Photo/Leah Grushkin)

Danny badgered his parents for lessons.  Teacher Margie Katz gave him a couple of pieces to work on.  He practiced — and did even more than she assigned.  He was hooked.

As a Staples freshman, Danny discovered jazz.  He loved the music’s complexity, and its spur-of-the-moment mindset.

“You’re not just reading notes.  You’re really involved,” Danny explains.  “Especially when you’re playing and improvising with other people.”

Last year he began studying with Chris Coogan.  Danny is a member of Staples’ jazz band, and and plays in a trio with Austin Alianiello and Mike Ljungberg.  (On April 13 they’ll be at Town Hall, raising funds for Japan relief.)

When Staples jazz teacher Nick Mariconda told Danny about a Stamford  Center for the Arts Emerging Artists competition, he applied.  The arduous process included CD demos.  Danny chose 3 different styles:  samba, swing and ballad.

Judges sifted through over 100 entries — and chose Danny.  He’ll use the $2,000 scholarship for piano and voice lessons,  in preparation for college auditions next fall.

Even better than the money (and a handsome glass trophy), though, was the chance to be honored by one of his jazz heroes, Dave Brubeck, at SCA’s gala last month.  He also earned a shout-out from the event’s star, Diana Ross, during her performance there.

In handing Danny his award — before a sellout crowd of 1,700 — SCA executive director Elissa Getto quoted Brubeck himself:

At an early age Danny has “done it all” — studied classical piano and jazz, composed and recorded original music, played various styles from jazz to show tunes to alternative rock.

What I admire most of all, he has shared that talent with others by performing for the elderly, teaching younger children, and participating in all kinds of musical activities in his school.  I can’t imagine a more deserving recipient of the Brubeck scholarship.

Danny called the event “overwhelming.  It’s like having Fitzgerald or Salinger read your writing, and compliment you on it. ”

The media descends on Danny Pravder at the Stamford Arts Center. (Photo/Tim Coffey)

There was a lot for Brubeck to compliment.  Danny has attended Berklee College of Music’s summer program.  He composed a score for Staples’ radio production of “Dracula,” as well as solo piano compositions and music for his alternative rock band, Daywalker.  He recorded, mixed and released an album of original compositions in 2009, and is working on another.

Danny — who in a non-music endeavor took part in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth as an engineering student — understands the power of education.  And of music, to change lives.

At Staples he’s taken 2 music theory courses, and audio production.  He sings in the choir and Orphenians.  This summer he’ll play in Chris Coogan’s pit for the Staples Players Summer Theater production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“The music program is incredible,” he says.  “There are so many talented kids.  I always learn something new.”

He also praises Coogan, Margie Katz and another instructor, Dr. Joe Utterback, for teaching and inspiring him.

After college he may try for a career in film scoring or music education.  He is also interested in cognitive psychology.  And environmental science is not out of the question.

For now though, he’s still on a high after receiving the Dave Brubeck award.

The only downside:  He didn’t get to play with the 90-year-old legend.

“I’m writing him a thank-you note,” Danny says.  “My dad asked, ‘What will you do if he invites you over?’

“I just thought, that would be so cool!”

(Click here for Danny Pravder’s website, including videos.  A sample video is below.  His email is:  dannypravder@gmail.com)