The Valley Jazz Jam in full swing at Sky Stage

·5 min read

Aug. 19—Ted Jenkins remembers how his love for blues and improvisation started.

Carrying his 1932 student guitar in a canvas sack, Jenkins boarded a civilian transport plane to Vietnam. It was 1969, and he was beginning his service in the Vietnam War. Knowing the troops were prohibited from bringing personal items on the plane, the stewardess took the instrument and hid it in the aircraft's closet. After landing, she handed the guitar back to Jenkins.

He hid the instrument under a blanket during the rest of his service, concealed from threats of the outside world. Jenkins only removed his prized possession from its shelter to play the sweet notes of soulful blues. Without any sheet music to serve as a guide, he strummed melodies, old and new. Nobody ever took the guitar away.

"That was the beginning for me, blues and improvisation," Jenkins said.

Following his passion for the blues, Jenkins started the Valley Jazz Jam, held on Sunday evenings from 4 to 7 p.m. at Sky Stage. The event offers a chance for soloists to sign up onsite and perform with the professional band.

Modeled after the original Valley Jazz Jam at the Main Cup in Middletown, the roots of the event trace back almost 30 years. The Frederick blues scene started to emerge in the '90s with music clubs hosting weekly jazz jams in downtown Frederick.

Jenkins became a regular performer at these music hubs following his military service. Former venues such as The Bentz Street Raw Bar, Cafe 611 and the Main Cup, provided a space for local blues players to follow their passion for music in a chill group setting. Through the years, Frederick music venues constantly changed names and faces, as the music scene developed. When the pandemic hit, these weekly jazz events came to a halt. Jenkins was left searching for another space to keep this tradition going.

"I wanted to have a way to keep it alive, and Sky Stage presented itself to me as being an outside venue," Jenkins said.

Partnering with the Frederick Arts Council, Jenkins and the owner of the Main Cup, Bob Brenengan, co-founded the Valley Jazz Collective scholarship program in order to provide a fusion of entertainment and educational opportunities for the community. The jazz jam serves as an informal audition for the $500 merit-based scholarships to help pay for high school or college students' music supplies, according to the Valley Jazz Collective website. The vision for the musical experience became a reality as the jams started up again in early August in their new venue.

Standing at the front entrance of Sky Stage, Jenkins watched as local musicians and community members filled the seats of the open-air theater. The reflections of the sky radiated onto the golden brass of the saxes as chords and melodies danced through the air. The soft hum of concert-goers came to a lull, and one of the guest soloists, Jim Crum, walked up to the concrete stage.

He held his tenor sax close and released a few practice notes. The faint crack of his snapping fingers gave a signal to the drummer, Howard Burns, on what direction to take in the song. In those defining seconds, the house band and Crum were on the same page. The music swelled and the classic sound filled the stone walls of the theater. The group knows there is always a set form to the classics, but the journey the song takes is up to the performers.

As Crum played the final notes of "On Green Dolphin Street," the soft decrescendo of the cymbal's sizzle indicated his final moments onstage. "It's always a fun experience, because I've never played with any of these three musicians," Crum said. "There's a certain level of trust that I know what I'm doing."

Watching other musicians take their turn in the spotlight, Capitol Focus Jazz Band member Meya Collings waited patiently in the audience for her chance to shine. Her father, Sam Collings, remembers the first time he heard her play the keyboard. At 5 years old one Thanksgiving night, Meya walked up to a stand-up piano, originally used for decoration in their living room. She played the "Peanuts" theme song perfectly after seeing the Thanksgiving special on TV. She did not use sheet music, only her memory. Meya, diagnosed as a prodigious savant, possesses the extraordinary ability to play a variety of instruments perfectly, all by simply listening to the song and utilizing her memory. She specializes in nearly all types of piano, guitar and flute instruments and knows the scores to the jazz classics by heart.

Meya immediately took control of her performance. Burns tested out a few notes and followed the beat of her snaps. Before long, the group delved into the song "Honeysuckle Rose," with Meya's voice filling the amphitheater with a velvety sound.

As the final performer completed their piece, the small rumble of applause brought the musical event to a close. These weekly outdoor sessions will continue through the season as time permits. An indoor winter destination is still in the works. Possibilities for this space may involve a return to the Main Cup in Middletown or a move to a space in downtown Frederick that is provided by the Frederick Arts Council, but it is still uncertain. The goal is to think of everyone's safety while continuing to provide this educational jazz event for the community.

"It's so important to have the arts," said Jenkins' wife, Connie Guy, a professional singer. "It's our culture."

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